Brace For Impact

in Column/Mandy Fabel

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By Mandy Fabel, Guest Column

All the movies I’ve seen with a plane crash scene share a storyline: The plane starts moving in an unpredictable pattern, the faces of passengers go from calm to terrified and eventually the pilot comes over the intercom and says, in a confident (yet terrified) voice, “Brace for impact.”

Using the metaphor of a plane for Wyoming state government, our governor has called out the essence of that phrase weekly. Soon it will be a common phrase of Wyoming legislators as well.

Now, imagine the plane careening toward the ground suddenly deploys a parachute or grows webbed feet for a water landing. These solutions won’t look pretty, but they will certainly help soften the landing.

At this point, the best we can hope for is the pilot to come on the intercom and say in a confident (yet less terrified) voice, “Brace for change.”

I can hear the push back from Wyoming citizens already:

• “We’re not a parachute kind of plane,”

Translation: We don’t want that industry (or tax) here.

• “Webbed feet? Are you kidding me? Planes can’t swim.”

Translation: We tried that and it didn’t work.

• And of course, there is that one person in first class still trying to order drinks while pummeling toward the earth. “At least I’ll die happy.”

Translation: Let the next generation figure it out.

If “brace for change” is the best option we have available, how can we pull it off?

First, we have to pay attention to who we elect. The next round of pilots we put in the “cockpit” of the Wyoming Legislature and local government will make some of the most difficult and important decisions in the history of our state.

In his book “The Culture Code,” author Daniel Coyle describes when United Airlines Flight 232 lost its rear engine. The pilot’s reaction upon realizing the engine had failed spoke to his thoughtful leadership style. He asked his well-trained team, “Does anyone have any ideas?” Using this open and creative approach, the crew managed to save the lives of over half the passengers during an emergency landing that should have killed everyone.

Do you want a pilot (i.e. legislator, city councilor, mayor, etc.) who is going to defend his or her opinions and make ultimatums about the other 1,259,600 successful flights they have managed without engine failure? Or, do you want a pilot who is willing to admit the engine is failing and is open to the innovative suggestions and expertise of everyone on the crew?

Sidebar: if you’re shaking your head yes, but believe those ideas need to fall squarely in the camp of “raise revenue” OR “cut spending,” keep reading. The engine failure this time is worse than you think.

Second, we need to understand that the changes made will affect us. Not the royal “us,” but each community, household and every single Wyoming citizen. Yes, even you.

We may have to choose between technology, music, and athletics in education; between quality, cost, and access within the healthcare system; between paying additional property tax, sales tax, or introducing an income tax.

If you’re offended by something in the last paragraph, know that you are in the company of every single person reading this article. That’s the point. There is nothing left to cut or introduce that doesn’t impact each of us.

Before you throw your hands in the air and exclaim, “It’s politics, we’ll never agree on a solution!” let me remind you of two impressive examples of Wyoming leaders making the right decision at the right time.

For decades legislators and governors patiently grew the “rainy day funds” by saving billions of dollars. This meant lean government and resisting the urge to grow when there was in fact extra money available. Their diligence has granted us an estimated 397 days of reserve funds to find the next engine for Wyoming (according to the Pew Research Center at the end of fiscal year 2019).

This is pretty fantastic given the average time horizon of all other states is 27 days, and some states are in the single digits. If a 90-member family with different ideas and values could squirrel away billions, at a minimum we owe it to them to be thoughtful about our strategy moving forward.

In a slightly less optimistic counterpoint, Wyoming also has one of the greatest declines in state revenues unrelated to COVID-19. That means even an improvement to public health and full opening of the economy will not dig us out of the budget deficit trends we are facing (see news on “US Coal Demand” and “Russia-Saudi Arabia Oil Price War” for more on this unfortunate reality).

But let’s return to another encouraging example. Perhaps you recall the passing of an increase to the Wyoming Gas Tax in 2013, which was supported by the Wyoming Trucking Association. The truckers supported a near doubling of a tax they paid because the outcomes of safe and well-maintained roads were of greater benefit than the cost of the tax. Let me say that again. People in Wyoming advocated for a tax they would have to pay because it was worth it.

We’ve all enjoyed the amazing views and beverage/snack service on our Wyoming plane for quite some time. Before you vote in the Aug. 18 primary, consider who you want in the cockpit at this time of crisis. And after you vote, start thinking about what you are willing to sacrifice and/or contribute to help keep our plane in the air.

A given is that our future will not look like our past. Whether we end up with a parachute, webbed feet, or a rocket launcher that takes us to the moon, it will take all of us to get there.

Brace for change Wyoming, it’s far better than the alternative.

This column originally appeared in the Sheridan Press.

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