By Leo Wolfson, State Politics Reporter
There are few noticeable differences between state Rep. Chad Banks, D-Rock Springs, and Republican challenger J.T. Larson, but much ambiguity remains about Larson’s platforms.
Larson, who is running for the House District 17 seat in the Nov. 8 General Election, declined to answer any of Cowboy State Daily’s emailed questions about his platform stances. He was given two weeks to answer the questions, to which he didn’t offer a response. When called for these answers, Larson initially said he would provide them, but then walked back on answering them, saying he was too busy.
Banks, a first-term representative, said he is proud of the work he has done in the Wyoming Legislature over the past two years. In 2022, he successfully co-sponsored legislation that makes it easier for disabled people to ride motorcycles in Wyoming. He also successfully co-sponsored bills in 2021 that made it unlawful to disseminate intimate photos without permission and removed unenforceable, discriminatory covenants in the state.
“I’m really proud of just being able to represent Sweetwater County in a manner that’s respectful, with civility,” Banks told Cowboy State Daily in a phone interview.
For the upcoming legislative session, Banks supports a bill that would incentivize film companies to shoot in Wyoming. He also supports the legalization of medical marijuana, co-sponsoring a bill this past year for that effort.
Banks serves on the House Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee, Select Committee on School Facilities and Select Water Committee. He previously served three terms on the Rock Springs City Council and has a bachelor’s degree in marketing from the University of Wyoming.
Banks changed his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat about four or five years ago because of the parties’ different stance on same-sex marriage. He is married to a man, one of a handful of state legislators who identify as gay.
Banks said the state-level connections he has made in Cheyenne have made him an effective representative for his constituents.
Larson is the event chairman for Rock Springs International Day and served as a board member of the Rock Springs Chamber of Commerce in 2020. He is now a business agent for that organization.
Larsen has an associate degree in Business Administration from Western Wyoming Community College. He also volunteers with Boy Scouts of America and his local Episcopalian church.
On his campaign website, Larson says he wants to protect Sweetwater County’s industry and water resources at the Capitol. With experience as a project manager for the Sweetwater County Water Users Coalition, Larson said he can be an effective advocate for his area’s water interests in Cheyenne, an increasingly important topic for Southwest Wyoming.
During an Oct. 11 forum hosted by the Rock Springs Chamber of Commerce, Larson said the state’s tax structure needs to be studied to ensure that tax revenue is spent effectively, particularly on education.
“My voters need to know that I will have their backs when their values are challenged,” he said.
Banks said he would support a real estate transfer tax that particularly impacts wealthy residents and supports removing the sales tax exemption for data centers. Microsoft runs a data center in Cheyenne and is building two more.
“Bill Gates is getting that (tax exemption) when mom and pop shops are paying that,” Banks said.
Although acknowledging rampant increases across the state this past year, he does not support changing the property tax structure.
Banks finds it unrealistic to hope that offering tax breaks will attract major businesses to the state, and he’d prefer to try and solve the problem through “innovative thinking.”
Larson said he would work to not increase any taxes.
“During these difficult times, additional taxes should not be seen as an answer for fiscal responsibility,” he said. “When it comes to economic development, I believe in being able to provide businesses a gateway to grow with the least amount of government involved.”
Larson said if elected, he will work to represent Western Wyoming College’s needs. He said the Legislature needs to collaborate with educators across the state to create opportunities for students and develop a strong workforce.
“I will write and sponsor bills that will provide funding to K-12 and community colleges,” he said.
Banks said during the forum, the state needs to be creative with how it funds education by possibly consolidate school districts and create better economies of scale to ensure students receive the best education possible. He posited Sweetwater County has two school districts as an example of inefficiency.
“How can we combine those resources and gather some economies of scale?” he questioned. “If Campbell County can do it with one school district, there’s no reason Sweetwater County cannot.”
Banks said the state also needs to study why younger students are leaving the state once they graduate from college. He blamed social regulations.
“We need to find a way to keep those young folks here, because they’re the spirit of our education, innovation,” he said. “They’re going to start new businesses and they’re going to want to raise their children here.”
Banks also said teacher salaries need to be increased, and these professionals need to be treated with more respect.
“We as legislators have thrown all kinds of barriers at education,” he said. “We’ve called them names, thrown up all kinds of regulation about what they can teach, who they can teach, how they can teach. Let’s get back to letting teachers teach our students, and that will also attract teachers into our school districts as well.”
He wants what is taught in the classroom to be a matter of local control.
Larson said it’s important “to hold together community values” by making sure teachers don’t teach students topics “that might potentially hurt them in the future.”
He wants parents to have a say as far as what their children are taught in the classroom.
Banks said too much time is spent on hot button national issues in the state Legislature, “with very little relevance or no relevance in Wyoming.”
He said that debate “eats up a lot of time.”
Banks supports Medicaid expansion. He mentioned a recent poll showing that 66% of Wyoming voters support it. His 20-year old daughter is the mother of a newborn and unable to afford the $600 monthly payments to insure the child.
“I cover my daughter, I can’t cover the baby,” he said. “She doesn’t have that and doesn’t work in a job that provides insurance.”
There are about 24,000-25,000 people in Wyoming who would benefit from Medicare expansion.
He’s also pro-choice on abortion.
Larson said he’s also invested in keeping young people in Wyoming and wants to harness more development for technology-related industries by diversifying the economy, expressing a desire to remove statutory barriers that prevent businesses from succeeding.
“As we grow our economy and more people come here, that means other businesses will be coming here,” he said. “Just pushing forward and working as hard as we can at the state level to provide opportunities for businesses is great.”
Banks said he fully supports fossil fuel production, a significant lifeblood of Sweetwater County’s economy.
“That continues to be a huge part of our economy in Sweetwater and industry for the state,” Banks said. “The state overlooks the value of that.”
He also said the state needs to be realistic about the future of fossil fuels and provide more diverse job opportunities for the future. Banks said he would favor a grant program to retrain employees who lost their jobs in the mineral trades for new jobs and facilitate possible collaborations with companies in alternative energy and non-energy fields.
“How can those folks get equally good-paying jobs?” he questioned. “Making $25 an hour is good, but it’s obviously not as good as those mining jobs.”
Banks ran unopposed in 2020.
Through redistricting, he picked up portions of Republican representative Clark Stith’s district in South Rock Springs while losing a predominantly rural area stretching east of Rock Springs and south to the Colorado border. A Republican has not represented HD 17 since 2012.