Ray Peterson: Now The Legislature Will Be Forced to Act

in Column/Ray Peterson

By R. Ray Peterson, Cowley

As we still seem to be in the grips of this pandemic, folks are starting to wonder when they can go back to work or if they still have a job at all. 

I’m sure our Governor is considering options of setting a date when our workers can return to their jobs. 

And I know that our Legislature is considering a special session to adjust the budget they set just a little over a month ago.  It’s a tricky thing, setting 2-year budget six months in advance but that is exactly what we do in Wyoming. Over the years, we’ve gotten pretty good at estimating revenues and expenditures but lately it has become more of a challenge as past revenue estimates and histories have faded with new events that we face. 

Who could have guessed an entire economy would be brought to almost a standstill, effecting our businesses and industries?  Who could have guessed that oil would be valued at negative amounts?

Add to this our value of coal  and natural gas, and the cost increase to our state in building schools, providing services and you begin to see a pretty gloomy picture of what is facing our lawmakers as they revise our state budget.

Over the last 6 years, the state legislature has been trying to make reductions to the budget.  Many will question why then the expensive remodel of our State Capitol Building and Herschler Building?  

As I was serving at the time we pulled the trigger on these projects, we had saved up a majority of the revenue it would take to complete the task from our boom years of saving and planning for the much-needed renovations.  It was a plan put into place ten years previously.  Construction began about the same time our recent downturn began. 

Folks were not too happy about the timing of it all, but it was planned and the money was set aside years before.  It was a necessity and I for one was proud to be a part of finally biting the bullet to ensure we had a functioning capitol for years to come.  I’ve never been one to pass on problems to the next legislature or next generation to deal with.

Which leads me into the topic of this column.  I’ve often said that our legislature will one day be forced to act on major reductions or major tax increases only after our surplus revenue is gone and we are forced into such decisions. 

With this latest crisis and the downturn in our economy, perhaps that day is coming even quicker than I had imagined. 

Everyone was hopeful that history would repeat itself and something would come along to save the day such as ninety five dollar per barrel oil,  larger volumes of coal being extracted, or the demand of natural gas increasing but today it seems to be the perfect storm and it seems to be beating against our best effort of a budget. 

Now what do we do? 

Well, the legislature will have to consider a special session to address the changes necessary to produce a balanced budget.  They will decide on how to distribute any possible stimulus money from Washington as well as consider further reductions to expenditures or increases to revenue. 

In the recent past, our cash reserves have been used to balance our budget and still could be again but with the concern of depleting this reserve over the next few years rather than the estimated 10-20 years. 

So, what is a legislator to do? Cuts to any budget are not an easy thing to experience.  The phone starts ringing, and they want to know why services have been reduced or eliminated altogether. Tough decisions for closing services or buildings. Eliminating jobs or closing schools but we possible could be looking into the barrel of such decisions. 

The first to go will be the non-essential positions and programs.  Tricky thing is defining what non-essential means. 

Then the services and departments that are not required by our state constitution.  Then finally reducing the services and budgets to the required departments and programs.  In short, I’m glad I got out when I did.  If things turn out to be as bad as today has looked, our legislators will not have an easy road ahead of them.

But if you know Wyoming like I know Wyoming, we will be fine.  This round might be a little rougher than most, but we still live in a state where our government finances are in pretty good shape.

We take care of each other and watch out for each other.  We know the folks next door and we help even when our help might not be needed. We have good leaders that love this state as we all do, and will do their best to ensure that Wyoming will still be the best place to live and raise a family, regardless of what the future might throw at us.

These might be challenging times, perhaps unlike any other, but I’m grateful to be living in a state where I feel safe, represented by good folks, and trusting those around me to be caring and trustworthy. 

My prayers will be with our leaders who might have to make tough decisions soon. They will need to know of our support and concern for the issues they face and the decisions they make on our behalf.

Stay strong Wyoming. You haven’t let me down yet.     

Ray Peterson is a former state legislator in Wyoming.

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