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Economy

Education Most Pressing Issue Of Session, Gordon Says In State of the State

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Maintaining the state’s quality of education is the most important issue facing the Legislature during its general session, Gov. Mark Gordon said Tuesday.

Gordon, in delivering his “state of the state” address to a joint session of the Legislature, told lawmakers the state could no longer rely on traditional sources of revenue to support education.

“We have relied, for years, on a funding model that is no longer sustainable,” he said. “The handwriting is on the wall. The can we kick down the road every year is broken. We have to deal with this issue.”

With the slump in the state’s mineral industry, particularly in coal production, funding for the state and its schools has dropped sharply. The school funding bill making its way through the Legislature would cut millions of dollars in how much the state gives to its schools and proposes new taxes if necessary to maintain funding.

But Gordon urged lawmakers, as they look at resolving the funding problems facing schools, to look at the issue more broadly than just one of revenue shortfalls.

“This is far more than a budget issue and I want our stakeholders and our communities to be involved in establishing a plan and vision,” he said.

Among the ideas he endorsed was a consolidation of early childhood learning programs, now found in four separate state agencies, into two agencies, the departments of Education and Family Services.

He also discussed the value of the Wyoming Innovation Network, a program launched in January to improve collaboration between the University of Wyoming and the state’s seven community colleges to better prepare students for the workplace.

“Education is changing,” he said. “Work is changing. People want, and need, more opportunities and approaches. Wyoming needs to respond. We know our financial challenges will likely necessitate it.”

Education was one of a number of issues Gordon touched upon during his address, which was delivered on the second day of the Legislature’s one-month in-person session.

Gordon also discussed the state’s financial problems, which forced him to cut state spending by $250 million in 2020 and propose another $500 million in budget cuts in his supplemental budget.

“Undeniably, we are entering more frugal times and we will have to continue to temper wants and emphasize needs,” he told lawmakers. “It is now your turn to consider how best to meet the needs of our people without burdening the generations to come.”

Much of the state’s financial troubles can be traced to slumps in the state’s energy and mineral industries and Gordon said the policies of President Joe Biden could further threaten those industries.

“In just a few weeks, through a series of executive orders, cabinet appointments and policy announcements, we are facing a clear and present threat to our long-term core industries,” he said. “All decisions from D.C. must now pass a superficial, climate litmus test that ignores jobs, cost, reliability and in many cases, real climate solutions. In D.C., they claim to follow the science, but they adopt policies that resemble science fiction.”

Gordon said while he looks forward to the contributions the wind and solar power industries can make to the state, he continues to support a diversified approach to meeting power needs.

“To achieve meaningful climate goals, and provide a resilient affordable energy supply, fossil fuels, coupled with a commitment to improving the ways we utilize them, must remain a substantial supply option,” he said. “I will continue to fight for our state’s future and defend the right to responsibly develop all of our resources.”

Despite financial problems and the continuing coronavirus pandemic, the state is strong, Gordon said, adding that the Legislature will need to remain focused to help move Wyoming past the pandemic with legislation aimed at encouraging existing businesses, economic development and luring new business to the state.

“I am sure there will be temptations to get sidetracked with politically oriented legislation, but this year, we have to keep our eye on the ball,” he said. “Because we are only going to have one chance to turn this welcomed spring into a thriving summer and a bountiful future.”

Gordon thanked the state’s residents, particularly state employees, health care workers and teachers, for their hard to work to keep the state moving during the worst of the past year.

“Today I can say, with pride and confidence, that the state of our state is strong,” he said. “Not because our economy is as robust as it was a year ago, for that’s certainly not the case. Not because we are free of this dreadful virus, because it is still a pain. Not because we have solved all of our budget problems, for we have yet to face that piper.

“It is because we are the people we are: weathered, tested and resilient,” he continued. “We are a stubborn people, unwilling to concede during tough times. It is that resolute spirit that is our greatest asset. That, I believe, will see us through these times.”

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Wyoming 211 Saw 285% Increase In Rental Assistance Requests In 2020

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming saw a 285% increase in rental assistance requests and a 95% increase in utility assistance requests in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to a federal report.

The latest federal emergency rental assistance program report released by the office of Gov. Mark Gordon’s office said the state had 2,717 rental assistance requests and 2,913 utility assistance requests in 2020 as recorded in calls to Wyoming 211.

Wyoming 211 is a central number people can call to find out where they can go to obtain assistance through various state and federal programs.

The spike in demand for rent and utility assistance has continued this year, the report said, with requests received by 211 in the first six weeks of 2021 amounting to more than double the average of requests received during a six-week period in 2020.

So far this year, Wyoming 211 has seen 668 rental assistance requests and 678 utility assistance requests.

Around 40%, 899, of applicants to the state rental assistance program were denied, though, the report said.

“We believe that the federal program will apply to a wider net of families in need,” the report said.

A survey of landlords across the state showed they were owed an average of $6,800 in past due rent, totaling $458,000 owed to 72 respondents.

The respondents also reported an average of $583 owed in past due utility bills, totaling $34,000.

One utility company reported $1.6 million owed in past due utility bills from its customers since April.

Earlier this month, Gordon issued an executive order to allow the Wyoming Department of Family Services to distribute federal emergency rental assistance.

The federal government has provided the state with $200 million in funding to cover rent and utility costs for Wyomingites struggling financially due to the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

One county relief agency reported providing financial assistance to 349 area families unable to cover rent in the final quarter of 2020, even though 77% of such households were at least partially employed.

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Report: Wyoming Airports Contribute $2 Billion To Economy

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming’s 34 airports generate more than $2 billion in economic activity each year, according to a Wyoming Department of Transportation study.

The department’s 2020 review of the economic impact of Wyoming’s airports, the first conducted since 2013, also showed that the airports generate $87.7 million per year in state and local tax revenues.

The study bases its measurement of economic activity on the payroll paid employees of airports and related businesses and those arriving at or leaving from the airports and the annual spending by airports, related businesses and passengers.

It is based on figures from late 2019 and early 2020, before the coronavirus led to travel restrictions. The study was released to the public this week.

The study found that since 2013, the amount of annual economic activity linked to airports around the state has grown by about $600 million.

Some airports around the state saw “notable growth” between 2013 and 2020, while others experienced “relative declines,” the study said.

“Airports that experienced notable changes in their economic impacts generally either gained or lost one or more aviation-related business tenant, had higher or lower average annual capital investment for improvements, or had increases or decreases in their number of annual visitors,” it said.

The largest share of the economic impact from Wyoming’s airports came from visitors to the state’s nine commercial airports, defined as publicly owned airports that receive scheduled passenger service and at least 2,500 passenger boardings per year.

The study said visitors to the airports in Casper, Cheyenne, Cody, Gillette, Jackson, Laramie, Riverton, Rock Springs and Sheridan spend almost $543.8 million per year and generate $1.2 billion in economic activity.

The airport seeing the most visitors by far was the Jackson Hole Airport with 397,468 visitors per year, followed by Natrona County International Airport with 42,162.

The Jackson Hole Airport was also the airport with the biggest share of economic activity by all sectors at $1.3 billion. The Cheyenne Regional Airport was second at total economic impact of $205 million.

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Report: Wyo Taxes Collected From Education, Health Sectors More Than Double In January

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Sales tax collections from almost every sector of Wyoming’s economy declined in January from figures one year ago, but taxes generated by one sector more than doubled in the year, according to state figures.

The state’s Economic Analysis Division, in its monthly report “Wyoming Insight,” said sales and use taxes generated by the state’s education, health and “other” economic segment increased by almost $3.2 million in January over January 2020, an increase of almost 115%.

The increase was one piece of good news in a largely negative report on sales tax collections.

The report said collections from the mining industry, which includes oil and gas drilling, fell by $5.6 million in January from 2020, a decline of 54%.

The state’s leisure and hospitality industry saw its tax collections drop by 10.8%, almost $600,000, from January 2020.

Also dropping were collections from the construction, manufacturing, transportation, information and financial activities sectors.

However, the state’s wholesale trade sector saw its tax collections grow by 72.8% over 2020, almost $3.9 million.

Total sales and use collections in the state increased by $400,000 in January over January 2020, the report said, but the amount generated by some counties dropped significantly during the one-year period.

Campbell County collections, as an example, dropped by almost $1.9 million, 18.3 percent, while collections in Sublette County fell by $805,000, a drop of 42.6% from 2020.

However, some counties saw increased tax collections, such as Carbon County, where tax collections grew by almost 168% — $3.1 million — during the year. Carbon County is home to a significant wind energy project now being built.

The report also looked at the state’s unemployment rate, which increased from 3.7% in December 2019 to 4.8% in December 2020.

The report said the state’s mining industry saw the largest decline in jobs, 5,900, about 28.4%, from December 2019 to 2020.

The state’s leisure and hospitality industry and state and local governments also saw cuts in employment, with each sector losing 2,800 jobs over the year.

However, the retail trade sector added 2,300 jobs during the year and the construction industry added 1,000.

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Gordon Announces Steps to Boost Wyoming Energy, Tourism, Ag

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A series of steps aimed at improving Wyoming’s primary economic drivers has been proposed or endorsed by Gov. Mark Gordon.

Gordon on Thursday announced the actions he will take or support to improve conditions in the state’s agriculture, tourism and energy sectors.

In the area of energy production, an industry shaken by recent executive orders halting the leasing of federal land for oil and gas production, Gordon said he will pursue an “all the above” energy industry that encourages the development of new industries such carbon capture technology and rare earth production in addition to oil, gas and coal.

Along those lines, Gordon is backing proposed legislation that would grant several tax reductions to the energy sector.

“Our traditional industries will adapt and continue to provide the reliable, affordable and dispatchable power they always have, only better,” he said in a statement. “Our economic recovery will hinge on the health of these industries and their ability to adapt to changing market demands. Wyoming can continue to grow even as our mix of energy supplies evolve.”

At the same time, Gordon welcomed steps to increase the ability of the new Wyoming Energy Authority to encourage the development of non-traditional resources.

“Carbon capture and the development of carbon byproducts will be part of Wyoming’s energy future,” he said. “So too should be efforts to research extracting the rare earth elements and critical minerals associated with coal that will be needed for the batteries powering the anticipated worldwide build-out of wind and solar power.”

Gordon is also backing measures that help the state’s tourism industry, its largest employer.

He singled out House Bill 85, which would let Wyoming State Parks use money raised through entrance fees to finance a large portion of their operations and outdoor recreation rather than construction projects. The measure is expected to allow for a $1.1 million reduction in money given to the parks from the state’s general fund, its main bank account, without affecting the visitor experience.

A number of bills aimed at bolstering the state’s agriculture committee are also part of Gordon’s initiative, including one that would give the state attorney general the authority to look into antitrust matters.

The measure is a response to consolidation of 80% of the meat packing industry within four major companies. Beef producers in Wyoming have long complained the four companies have kept prices for producers artificially low.

The state now lacks the authority to investigate such charges.

Gordon is also backing HB 52, which would increase Wyoming meat products used by school districts to feed students.

The governor said he is also working with legislators to expand the state’s meat processing capacity.

“This is only a part of an ambitious initiative focused on adding value to products across the entire spectrum of agricultural enterprise,” he said. “This effort is essential to grow this key part of our economy.”

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UW, Colleges Launch Collaborative Effort To Improve Wyoming’s Economy

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

The University of Wyoming and the state’s seven community colleges are launching a collaborative effort to better prepare Wyoming students for the state’s evolving economy and encourage entrepreneurship, officials announced Monday.

Gov. Mark Gordon, in a news conference with UW President Ed Seidel and presidents from the state’s community colleges, announced the launch of the Wyoming Innovation Network, a joint effort by all the schools to focus more on Wyoming’s economic needs.

“The economic challenges Wyoming is facing are going to require us to develop and deploy innovative solutions,” Gordon said. “It is critical to have this coordinated effort from our state’s institutions of higher education.”

Under the WIN program, community colleges and UW will work to align courses to prepare students for industries that will need skilled workers in the future, such as tourism, advanced manufacturing and digital technology, Gordon said.

He added by working together, the schools will also help students become entrepreneurs and help make Wyoming more attractive to new businesses by making sure they have access to a skilled workforce.

“Our goal is a unified effort that will help launch this economic development as well as strengthen our economy and help our workers succeed here in Wyoming,” Gordon said.

The initiative will also look at ways to increase the availability of higher education to students who might not be otherwise able to access it, perhaps through digital means, he said.

The effort will require the UW and community colleges to develop closer relationships with private industry, Seidel said, both to determine what skills employers need and to seek financial support for the effort.

Seidel and the presidents of the community college have already formed a working group which will meet regularly to determine how to move forward with items such as making educational programs align and making sure community college students have access to the university.

Darren Divine, president of Casper College, pointed out the university and community colleges are already working along those lines, such as with the development of a bachelor’s degree in applied science and the bachelor’s of science in nursing.

In addition, a program announced Monday will allow community college students to know exactly how their college credits will apply should they attend the UW, Divine said.

“The community colleges and the university are very cohesive and aligned more now than ever before,” he said. “This new effort will enhance Wyoming’s ability to meet the challenges created by our current economic environment.”

There will be a cost connected to the effort, Gordon said, but he said his direction to the presidents was to look at what could be done and then perhaps look to sources other than the state for at least part of the funding.

“Then comes the part of how do we raise the funds,” he said. “We’ve got to reach out to the private sector. That’s something that Wyoming is going to have to do more of. We can’t depend entirely on the (legislative” block grant, on what the Legislature does.

“What is important here is a new direction in a way to collaborate among our institutions, to work from the ground up,” he said. “As money comes its direction, as it proves its worth, then more investment will result in more success.”

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Gordon Launching Oil, Gas Economic Recovery Program This Week

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Gov. Mark Gordon is launching a program this week that is designed to help with Wyoming’s economic recovery and to boost employment in the oil and gas industry.

The Energy Rebound Program will utilize up to $15 million in CARES Act funding to provide business relief targeted towards drilled, but uncompleted oil and gas wells, wells that were unable to be recompleted and plugging and abandonment projects which could not be finished due to the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

“When global demand for oil plummeted due to COVID, work stopped almost immediately in the oil and gas industry in Wyoming,” Gordon said. “This program is tailored to provide opportunities for employees who lost jobs when drilling ceased.”

The program will reimburse operators for work done on completions, recompletions, workovers or plugging and abandonments before Dec. 30, up to $500,000 per project.

Operators who were unable to perform or finish projects in these categories for wells they operate due to the effects of the virus, and who can spend funds before Dec. 30, are encouraged to apply.

The Wyoming Business Council will start accepting applications at 10 a.m. on Wednesday. Applications will be accepted through 10 a.m. on Nov. 23rd.

Operators are encouraged to start preparing information for the application, including basic well data, type of project (completion, recompletion/workover or P&A), estimated start and end dates of projects, estimated production, costs of projects and other information.

Priority will be given to projects that provide the greatest immediate economic and employment benefit to Wyoming.

Other factors include, but are not limited to: estimated time of start and completion of the project; completeness of the application; estimated amount of increased production of oil and gas; and ability to commence P&A projects in a timely manner.

“We recognize this is a short window for applications, however, these funds are for projects that were planned, but could not be completed due to the effects of COVID-19. Companies who were ready to roll last March should have the information in hand. We will maximize the impact these dollars have on restoring economic and employment opportunities in Wyoming” said Randall Luthi, Chief Energy Advisor to Governor Gordon.

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Despite Improvement, Gordon Says Wyoming’s Fiscal Picture Still Concerning

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Despite recent improvements in the Wyoming’s financial outlook, the state still faces some major challenges, Gov. Mark Gordon said Monday.

Gordon’s comments came in response to a report by state fiscal analysts that showed the state’s main bank account, the General Fund, will fall about $451 million short of what is needed to pay for government operations in the current biennium.

The estimate provided by the state’s Consensus Revenue Estimating Group showed a deficit that was $426 million less than what had been estimated in a report issued in May.

However, Gordon said the state still must deal with significant drops in funding.

“I have a fundamental belief that we must live within our means,” he said. “Wyoming suffered its greatest budget shortfall in history this year … By any stretch of the imagination this crisis is unique, but it is real and we must be prepared.”

The report also showed that the state will end its current biennium about $300 million short of what is needed to continue current funding levels for schools.

Gordon earlier this year asked state agencies to cut their budgets by 10% and he said he is still asking agencies to consider further cuts of 10% to make sure state spending stays within its revenues. He noted that the state’s savings will not be sufficient to offset budget shortfalls in the long-term.

“I am not interested in building a budget that just tries to get us to next year,” he said. “Wyoming, if she wants to remain competitive and productive, must live within her means and structure herself for economic opportunity.”

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Gordon Making More CARES Funds Available For Wyoming Businesses, Nonprofits Next Week

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Gov. Mark Gordon is allocating remaining CARES Act funds to help Wyoming businesses and nonprofits with ongoing coronavirus-related losses and expenses.

The Wyoming Business Council is finalizing two new funds for the COVID-19 Business Relief Program: the Agriculture Fund and the Endurance Fund. Applications for both funds will be accepted from Nov. 2 through Nov. 18.

“The effects of COVID-19 haven’t disappeared from our communities and businesses,” Gordon said. “There are impacts still being felt by business owners, nonprofit organizations, and agriculture producers.

“Right from the start we worked with the Legislature to pace our programs so that they would reach each sector as the needs became clear,” he continued. “The Business Council will distribute these federal funds where they’re needed to help continue our economic recovery.”

The Agriculture Fund has $90 million reserved to support Wyoming farmers and ranchers who have experienced business interruptions due to the coronavirus pandemic. Awards up to $250,000 are available for Wyoming agricultural producers who were established on or before March 13.

The Endurance Fund will have at least $24 million set aside for businesses and nonprofits to cover COVID-19 related losses and expenses. Money available in this fund may increase as unused CARES Act dollars from other programs may be diverted into it.

Awards up to $250,000 will be available for all affected Wyoming businesses. Eligible nonprofits in Wyoming include 501(c)(3), 501(c)(6), 501(c)(12) and 501(c)(19) with no more than 50% of time spent on lobbying.

“These two funds serve important purposes as we near the deadline of the current CARES Act funding,” Business Council CEO Josh Dorrell said. “First, because of the seasonality of agriculture production, this $90 million relief fund allows farmers and ranchers to better capture 2020 losses and expenses related to the pandemic.”

“Second, many Wyoming businesses and nonprofits are not out of the woods yet, and this opportunity for another round of funding will help with the losses businesses have continued to endure.”

Eligible entities may apply once for money from the funds. Recipients of previous Business Relief Program awards (Interruption, Relief and Mitigation funds) may apply if they have had eligible losses or expenses since their previous application dates.

In May, the Wyoming Legislature created three programs to distribute $325 million in federal CARES Act funding to Wyoming businesses and nonprofits that have experienced hardship related to the coronavirus crisis.

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Legislature Will Have To Examine What Services Not To Offer, Gordon Says

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

The state’s next round of budget cuts will require the Legislature to carefully examine what services the state should stop providing, Gov. Mark Gordon said Wednesday.

Gordon, during a news briefing, said the next cuts will start legislators on the difficult job of deciding which state tasks are required by state law and the Constitution.

“The implications of the next set of budget cuts are going to require that the Legislature not pass new laws about new things we’re going to do, but start considering the things they no longer want government to do,” he said. “Those are going to be hard discussions.”

Gordon already cut about $250 million from the state’s two-year budget in August to offset a projected $1.5 billion shortfall in state revenues. However, the cuts were only the first in a series needed to bring state spending in line with revenue projections.

Gordon said revenue projections prepared by state fiscal experts in July showed some unexpected improvement in the revenue picture,  and when combined with the cuts he made in August — which amounted to a reduction in state spending of about 10% — things looked a little more promising.

However, he said more cuts will be needed, even as the impacts of the August reductions are being felt.

“There are services that are being decreased,” he said. “There are people who have lost their jobs. There is consolidation that is happening.”

A new report on state revenues is expected next week and Gordon said it will help state officials get a decent idea of what must be done going forward.

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