By Leo Wolfson, State Politics Reporter
In his annual State of the State address to the Wyoming Legislature on Wednesday morning, Gov. Mark Gordon said that with $2 billion in unexpected revenue at their disposal, lawmakers need to continue to be fiscally conservative, prioritizing needs over wants.
He also said they can make decisions over the coming weeks that embrace the Cowboy State’s past while promoting its future potential.
“Wyoming is poised to be a leader on so many fronts,” he said.
Gordon also gave a sneak preview of bills he will be getting behind in this legislative session, which began Tuesday.
The governor highlighted Wyoming’s people, natural resources, budget, economy and children the focus of his 45-minute speech.
Gordon criticized President Joe Biden’s administration on its energy policies, highlighting ballooning gas prices seen throughout most of 2022 and record high inflation.
“It’s no exaggeration that it seems the Biden administration is more interested in partnering with Saudi Arabia and Venezuela than they are with Wyoming,” he said. “The Biden administration’s misguided policies have cost our nation dearly these past two years.”
Gordon drew applause when he said the solution to America’s oil and gas problems is being stood upon, referencing the minerals under the ground.
But Gordon also took a forward-looking view toward America’s energy future, saying change is inevitable and that the state must embrace new forms of energy and technologies, like carbon capture, a source of energy he has been a long proponent of.
“It’s undeniable that coal remains a vital fuel source for our country, but in the minds of Washington, D.C., bureaucrats, all fossil fuels should go extinct,” he said.
Later this year, construction will begin on two major carbon capture projects in Wyoming, he said.
The state also has also entered an agreement with Colorado, Utah and New Mexico to establish an interstate hydrogen hub, he said. The group will compete for a portion of $8 billion allocated in the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to build at least four regional hydrogen hubs.
“We’re making a difference already here in Wyoming,” Gordon said.
Gordon said Wyoming already has a reputation as a leader in addressing climate issues. A recent report from the American Council for an Energy-Efficiency Economy found that Wyoming state policies show the least commitment to saving energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the country.
He also expressed support for legislation that will allow the state to better mine for rare earth minerals.
Within his supplemental budget request, Gordon requested an additional $50 million to support energy projects in the state.
Gordon said Wyoming’s economy is the most diverse it has been for 50 years with many businesses planning expansions, which is why he wants more money for the Wyoming Business Council.
“The time is now to ensure that we can seize upon strong interest in Wyoming and value to our core industries and continue to activate new economic sectors,” he told the Legislature.
When it comes to water, Gordon said Wyoming must be able to protect its interests, and he urged the Legislature to support his proposed budget for the State Engineer’s office, which also drew applause.
Drawing less support from lawmakers was his request to restore $10 million in funding to the Wyoming Mineral Royalty Grants program. The fund has been used to support communities throughout the state that face infrastructure emergencies.
“The SLIB (State Land and Investments Board) has helped towns make good use of these funds and I ask you to restore funding to the MRG program,” he said.
He requested legislators extend the property tax refund program for another year and also encouraged the body to facilitate the second phase of salary adjustments for state employees that includes snowplow drivers, state troopers, nurses and social workers. All those professions are facing labor shortfalls in Wyoming.
Gordon’s staff also has engaged in conversations with the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes about settling longstanding disagreements over off-reservation treaty guidelines. Gordon said these conversations centered on respecting tribal sovereignty while respecting the state’s authority over conservation and hunting outside the Wind River Reservation.
He is supporting a bill allowing his office authority to enter into agreements with tribes to resolve hunting rights claims on Wyoming lands.
In 2022, the Select Committee on Tribal Relations pushed forward related legislation related to this topic, which Gordon signed.
A Favorable Reception
State Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper, and Rep. Bob Nicolas, R-Cheyenne, escorted Gordon into the House chamber for the joint session. The standing ovation Gordon received momentarily became a unified clap before loud cheers erupted from the House floor.
“The state of Wyoming is strong and her future is bright,” Gordon said, followed by an applause from the audience.
Although the Legislature is overwhelmingly Republican and Gordon a Republican himself, support for the governor has been inconsistent at times from his own party, as many have criticized him as being too moderate with his policies.
None of that opposition was on display for the pomp and circumstance of the State of the State.
During his speech, Gordon recognized a few people who have died in recent weeks.
First was former state Rep. Bill Budd, who also served as executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association and ran for governor in 1986.
Gordon also recognized fallen EMT Tyeler Harris, who was killed while responding to an accident on Interstate 80 near Rawlins in December.
He honored Bruce Lang, a training officer with the Pine Haven Volunteer Fire Department, who died in December when his utility vehicle broke through the ice on the Keyhole Reservoir in Crook County.
Jason Perry was one of the three emergency responders who went through the ice at the reservoir. He was at the Capitol in Cheyenne and given a standing ovation.
Also attending was Cam Sholly, superintendent of Yellowstone National Park.
Gordon mentioned the historic floods that devastated Yellowstone and a number of gateway communities on the northern border of the park last summer. The storms and related flooding caused mass evacuations and closed sections of the park.
Yellowstone was able to reopen in full within a manner of weeks.
“His swift actions saved many Wyoming businesses and jobs that depend on visitation to America’s first and most iconic national park,” Gordon said of Sholly.
Also at the Capitol were University of Wyoming President Ed Seidel and Central Wyoming College President Brad Tyndall.
A Call For Unity
Gordon closed out his speech referencing words former President George Washington wrote to the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
“In it, he appealed to the peoples of the several states to set aside deep ideological divisions and urged the adoption of the founding document of our remarkable republic,” Gordon said.
Later in his letter, Gordon said Washington implored the need for political cooperation.
“He further encouraged the spirit of amity,” Gordon said. “And that there’s mutual deference and concession, which the peculiarity of our political situation rendered indispensable. More than two centuries later, our first president’s words, they still resonate.”
State of the Judiciary
Along with the State of the State, Wyoming Supreme Court Chief Justice Kate Fox delivered a State of the Judiciary speech after Gordon’s remarks.
“Courtrooms have become the emergency room for all of society’s worst glitches,” she said. “We need to find better solutions.”
Fox said she would like the judicial branch to do more with treatment courts. The Supreme Court supports proposed legislation transfering treatment courts from the purview of the Wyoming Department of Health to the judicial branch.
“They save lives, they save the cost of incarceration and they help people become contributing citizens of Wyoming,” she said of the programs.
Fox said the high court wants to provide better support for judicial employees throughout the state by providing more time off by using retired judges and other available court staff. She also seconded Gordon’s request for higher pay for state employees, which includes court staff.
“I think it’s critically important that we continue to pay a fair wage so that we can keep them,” she said.
Fox spoke to the need of providing better safety for judges, a growing national issue in recent years. She requested support through legislation that will provide increased security measures in courtrooms across the state.