CHEYENNE — During his State of the Speech delivered to the Wyoming Legislature on Monday morning to open the 2024 session, Gov. Mark Gordon emphasized that he won’t refrain from using his office as a bully pulpit to fight for Wyoming.
He also won’t shy away from using it to promote his budget.
Gordon calls his $10.8 billion biennial budget “conservative and balanced.” On Thursday, the Legislature will start deciding how many of Gordon’s proposals it wants to keep in the budget.
Gordon mentioned how 2024 is an election year, warning legislators against proverbially trying to tackle a calf by promoting themselves with a particular effort to curry favor for the upcoming election. There have been 138 individual bills introduced so far for the 2024 legislative session.
To that end, the governor said the focus needs to be on the budget, not those individual bills.
“I am confident the task at hand, setting the budget for the next two years, is serious enough that folks will keep their attention on meeting the needs of the people of Wyoming,” Gordon said. “This is not Washington; Wyoming folks are focused on solutions not politics.”
He also spoke to the property tax increases that have hit the state over the past few years. The Legislature added $8 million to the state’s property tax relief program in the 2024 supplemental budget. The program provided more than 9,000 homeowners an average refund of around $900.
Gordon is requesting $20 million more for this program in the upcoming budget.
“When you vote yes on the budget, you will be voting for tax relief for vulnerable Wyoming citizens, many of them seniors,” Gordon said.
Certain communities in Wyoming like Wheatland and Lusk have struggled to provide basic services for their residents. Gordon said money from his budget would also provide support for mineral royalty grants (MRG) for services like new ambulances and water towers.
“MRG funds are important to our communities, and they help defray extraordinary expenses that local taxpayers would otherwise have to shoulder alone,” Gordon said.
Biden’s ‘Warped’ Policies
He drew a contrast to the energy approach of President Joe Biden’s administration, which Gordon described as “warped,” “unwise” and — borrowing from Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf — “unadulterated bovine scatology.”
He said Biden’s policies put “our economy, our very way of life, at risk” and that as governor, he could not “be as blunt as my rancher core wants me to be” about the current administration.
In Wyoming, mineral revenues pay the majority of taxes and fund a significant part of the state’s schools.
He mentioned an October 2023 trip he took to Harvard University, where he touted his “all-of-the-above” energy policy to “the very belly of the beast.”
“I have, and will continue to use, the bully pulpit of my office to engage friends and skeptics around the country about the necessity of investing in fossil energy and mining natural resources,” he said.
Gordon also called the Biden administration’s efforts to manage immigration at the Texas border “asinine.”
“Our federal government has been shameful in neglecting its profound responsibility to secure our southern border,” Gordon said. “As the federal government has lost control, or should I say given up control of the southern border, we have seen here in Wyoming drastic increases in drug and fentanyl traffic, as well as overdose deaths.”
Gordon said he finds it “ironic” that although he doesn’t believe the administration chooses to secure the border, it doesn't shy away from regulating other sectors of government. He brought up the controversial BLM Resource Management Plan for Rock Springs, a plan members of his staff have already said the state of Wyoming will eventually fight in court.
Gordon also assembled a task force in 2023 to bring concerns about this plan to the attention of federal agencies.
Wyoming as a whole has 39 active cases in court against the federal government. Gordon touted some of his administration’s recent legal victories, including defending the Wyodak and Jim Bridger power plants.
Gordon mentioned that Wyoming’s GDP is the highest in its history and unemployment at its lowest since 2008.
“I can proudly say Wyoming is on a roll,” Gordon said. “That is despite a ‘we know best’ federal government that openly obstructs the very industries that have anchored our economy for over a century.”
On Monday, Gordon also made a pitch for state employee raises, mentioning how some state employees still qualified for welfare benefits when he first took office.
“That’s not conservative, that’s just cheap,” he said.
In the upcoming budget, Gordon is proposing $1.4 billion for personnel costs. Before he took office, that number was $1.29 billion, representing an increase of about 12%.
Some conservatives like state Rep. John Bear, R-Gillette, have opposed this. Although Wyoming wages have increased in the last few years, income, which includes retirees who aren’t employed, has decreased, according to the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services.
Bear argues that state employees shouldn’t receive raises if other Wyoming residents aren’t seeing their incomes increase.
Within his proposed budget, Gordon is recommending $3.8 billion for the general fund, which remains flat from the spending levels of the 2021 budget, but higher than the $2.7 billion he oversaw once taking office in 2019.
“I am confident the task at hand, setting the budget for the next two years, is serious enough that folks will keep their attention on meeting the needs of the people of Wyoming,” Gordon said. “This is not Washington — Wyoming folks are focused on solutions not politics.”
Gordon started out his speech recognizing Bobbi Barrasso, wife of Wyoming U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, and former Wyoming Senate President John Hines.
Also receiving shoutouts from Gordon for specific acts of bravery were North Antelope Rochelle Mine worker Kylie Van Camp, Julie Mackey of the Jae Foundation, University of Wyoming football player Frank Crum and school president Ed Seidel, Park County Treasurer Barb Poley, Wyoming Innovation Partnership graduate Owen Madisen, Wyoming Department of Transportation plow driver Rick Ackerman and Natrona County Sheriff John Harlin.
Van Camp was stuck in a crow’s nest tower above the tornado when it struck the mine.
“Kylie, you lived that day and very other day with faith and courage,” Gordon said. “You are representative of all those workers in our coal industry who are fearless and resilient.”
Despite the tornado, the mine still produced more coal in 2023 than the year previous.
Gordon said Wyoming is bullish on all forms of energy and the state effectively manages a balance between protecting its environment and energy industries. The University of Wyoming is exploring new ways to use coal in its School of Energy Resources and other efforts are being engaged to pursue rare earth minerals in the state.
Gordon’s final message to legislators is to focus on the task at hand, drawing a comparison to UW’s recent comeback football victory in the 2023 Arizona Bowl.
“I ask you ladies and gentlemen of the 67th Legislature to stay resolute and focused on the task at hand, just like Frank and his teammates did,” Gordon said. “Let us put our heads down and do what needs to be done during this legislative session.”
Supreme Court Justice
Wyoming Supreme Court Chief Justice Kate Fox also spoke.
Fox has requested $5.4 million to increase wages for court employees throughout the state. Another piece of legislation gives judges a housing allowance similar to other state employees, while Senate File 30 creates a new criminal statute for people who try to use influence or forms of intimidation against jurors and judges.
Fox supports all of these measures.
She also mentioned cuts that have been made to the state’s court staff in recent years and said $5.4 million in pay increases should be granted to the state’s judicial branch to match the level of pay for other state employees.
“We’re good at making things happen on a shoestring, but a shoestring is not sustainable,” she said.
Senate File 33, which she also supports, would incentivize attorneys to serve in rural counties.
Fox finished off her speech, recognizing outgoing state Supreme Court Justice Keith Kautz, who is retiring in March. Kautz received a standing ovation from the Legislature.
“He has embodied what a Wyoming judge should be,” Fox said. “He approaches each case with intelligence and compassion. He studies the law and is an excellent teacher. He has been a valued friend and colleague.”
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.