Guest Column: The Good Ship Wyoming Deserves Better Captains

Guest columnist Rep. Ben Hornok writes, "Any spending strategy for Wyoming should not be based on how big a tantrum 'capable Republican' politicians can throw in the checkout lane of the supermarket when they are trying to get what they want."

CSD Staff

April 30, 20245 min read

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

If you read most media articles describing what happened during the recent budget session, you could be left thinking that Freedom Caucus-type legislators are akin to drunken boat captains steering the good ship Wyoming.

Terms like “capable” and “responsible” are used to describe Republicans with the institutional knowledge to navigate the tricky seas. Whereas terms like “extreme right-wing” or political “firebreathers” are used to describe my ilk who are expected to just sit in a corner with our life jackets on.

However, from my first-hand experience on the floor of the House, it was these “capable Republicans” that voted for nearly every spending increase and against every proposed budget offset measured to keep the budget from ballooning. But shouldn’t we be cautious about spending increases? Who are the real responsible and reasonable Republicans? More importantly, how will we maintain this spending level in the future?

The media seems to praise the spendthrifts and chastise the prudent. Votes on most budget amendments were penciled in based more on political divisions or personal grudges rather than reason or a responsible plan towards the future. As a result, we have a new baseline budget.

The current spending plan of well over $11 billion is now the new baseline for Wyoming. This is thanks to new inflationary adjustments that automatically raise budgets to allow departments to maintain any past frivolous spending; massive pay increases across the board rather than targeted, needs-based increases to meet necessary demands; and an ever-increasing scope of departmental services provided they can meld together fancy words like innovation and partnership.

Any media commentary you might read around the budget never seems to give actual examples of what happened during session and the one-sided votes that propelled a nearly $2 billion budget growth this session. Let me give you some real examples and you can decide for yourself who ought to be steering the ship.

I worked hard throughout the last year and during the budget session to study and home in on some of the spending Wyoming citizens were interested in or concerned about. I proposed many amendments I thought should make up a more responsible budget. However, every proposed change I suggested was met with resistance and disdain by “capable Republicans.”

Our state constitution requires that a certain amount of money always go into permanent savings. Revenue from this savings helps fund Wyoming government services and ensures you never have to pay an income tax. This is fantastic!

However, as our investment grows, do we have to continue spending the same percentage as always? I did not think so and tried to reduce this spending allowance by just one half of one percentage point (0.5%). This would have grown our savings account far into the future. Imagine not paying property taxes in the future because the earnings from our savings pay for all the necessary schools and local government services required. This amendment failed.

Another amendment I proposed would have put more money into this permanent savings account rather than spread it around into other accounts. I figured the piggy bank without the hole in the bottom is generally the right place to put taxpayer money. This amendment also failed.

Still another amendment blocked the requirement for YOU to pay a portion of state employees’ automatic contribution for THEIR future pension. This requirement would prevent them from having to endure a reduction in their take home pay this year and risk not noticing their massive new raise. You guessed it, this amendment did not pass.

I fought for an amendment to cut $100 million out of the hundreds of millions of dollars Wyoming is prodigally sending to out-of-state energy companies. If their marketing team can put together a posh proposal, they can get a huge check, compliments of your tax dollars. Some of these proposals resurrect failed ideas from the past or align with the modern ideas of capturing that super deadly gas that every plant just so happens to need to survive. The buzz term for this spending is “all-of-the-above energy strategy.” Once again, this amendment did not pass.

These amendments died on the House floor because of the penciled in vote count already determined before I even presented them. However, when the Senate President, House Speaker and the other hand-picked members of the final budget committee emerged from the smoke-filled back room, reminiscent of Hans Gruber and his thugs at a Christmas party, they had realized they had gone a bit too far and actually incorporated these last two amendments into the final version of the bloated state budget.

Any spending strategy for Wyoming should not be based on how big a tantrum “capable Republican” politicians can throw in the checkout lane of the supermarket when they are trying to get what they want. It should be based more on how wisely we can strategize and plan for retirement thirty years from now.

We came out of this budget session with the largest budget in Wyoming’s history. In other words, this is the new baseline we will have to figure out how to fund for the next 30 years.

What happens if the war on fossil fuels is won (actually lost) and this revenue for the State dries up? What happens if our permanent savings account does not grow in pace with the love for spending? The answer is those “Capable Republicans” may start looking to you and picking your pockets through income taxes or even higher property taxes.

Is this where we want to go? Or should “capable Republican” legislators who just vote against something because of grudges and personality conflicts start listening to those of us on the outside of political power that have valuable ideas? I hope so. The good ship Wyoming deserves better captains.

Ben Hornok represents House District 42 in Cheyenne. He has served in the Legislature since 2023.

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CSD Staff