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Wyoming Officials Don’t Agree With Report Pushing For Minimum Wage Increase

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Two Wyoming officials do not believe there is a need for a state minimum wage increase despite the fact Wyoming’s minimum wage is below that set by the federal government.

Wyoming Lodging and Restaurant Association executive director Chris Brown and economist and state Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, both had objections about the report.

“I thought the report was a bit simplistic,” Case told Cowboy State Daily on Thursday. “There are a lot of efforts to try and make compensation certainly more livable, but the report also suggests there aren’t negative effects from raising the wage.”

The Wyoming Community Foundation released a report this week that recommended the state increase its hourly minimum wage from its current level of $5.15 per hour to $12. The federal minimum wage is $7.25.

The foundation report also recommended that the state increase its hourly tipped minimum wage from $2.13 an hour to $6.85.

The report stated that Wyoming’s low-wage workers were a majority female, 53%, and parents 63%. More than half of those low-wage workers are over the age of 35.

The report also noted that nearly 30,000 Wyomingites would benefit from an increased minimum wage to $12 an hour.

By raising the minimum wage, the report said that Wyomingites would be closer to earning a living wage and the state would see reduced taxpayer spending on public assistance programs, higher worker morale and productivity and reduced economic inequality for people of color, especially women.

However, Case said that one of the problems with raising the minimum wage is that companies will begin to find ways to cut labor costs and automate jobs, pointing as examples to the use of self-serve kiosks at fast food restaurants or self-check registers at grocery stores.

Brown said that it was a “misspeak” to say that tipped employees are only making $2.13 an hour, as employers are required to ensure any employee earning less than the minimum wage make up that difference through their tips and hourly wages.

“In my experience as a former restaurant owner, tipped employees were making anywhere from $10 to $20 an hour when considering the tips they received,” he said.

Brown and Case also noted that the market sets the minimum wage and that in the current market, not only is no one is paying minimum wage, tipped or hourly, but most employers are paying significantly more.

Brown added that while the Wyoming Food and Lodging Association was not opposed to an incremental increase of the hourly, not tipped, minimum wage over time, a drastic increase could be devastating to some businesses.

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Wyoming’s Cost of Living Soars; Prices Won’t Stabilize For At Least a Year

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Prices for food and other consumer items probably will remain higher than average for at least a year, according to an economist with the University of Wyoming.

However, Anne Alexander told Cowboy State Daily that people should avoid “panic buying” because it will have a negative impact on the supply chain.

“Right now, we’re in this perfect storm of inflationary pressures,” The economist said Friday. “On the supply side, the supply chains are screwed up, partially because of labor shortages, but also because we’ve stopped producing as much of everything. On the demand side, we’re seeing almost panic buying.”

While Alexander does not believe the United States or Wyoming will see the level of inflation that affected the country from 1973 to 1982, she does not believe there will be any relief from current high prices until some time next year.

Wyoming’s cost of living has increased at a rate not seen in more than a decade, according to a recently released report from the state’s Economic Analysis Division.

The annual inflation rate of 7.7% recorded during the second quarter of the year — which ended June 30 — is the highest annual inflation rate seen since the second quarter of 2008, when the state’s inflation rate was 7.9%, according to the division’s inflation report.

Alexander explained that since Wyoming is a “microcosm of other places,” the state is seeing higher prices for basically every type of good and service now. She pointed to the state’s hospitality and tourism industry as being particular victims of the current inflation.

“We have a huge influx of people wanting to go outdoors to see Yellowstone or some of our other great treasures, but there aren’t enough workers in the hospitality sector,” she said. “So in addition to limiting hours of operations, some people are also having to jack up their prices to pay people to come work in their hotel, gift shop or restaurant.”

Prices as high as today’s have not been an issue since the early 1990s, so Alexander said that basically an entire generation has managed to grow up without seeing much inflation.

She noted that the pandemic was essentially the first domino to fall in the supply chain situation, as it interrupted a supply chain that was fragile to begin with.

While prices will stay high for likely another year, Alexander reminded Wyoming residents to never buy high, never sell low and do not panic buy.

“Your inclination might be to go buy a lot of stuff now before the prices go up, but that actually puts pressure on prices and makes things go up further,” she said.

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Wyoming’s Cost Of Living Increases At Highest Rate In Years

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming’s cost of living has increased at a rate not seen in more than a decade, according to a recently released report from the state’s Economic Analysis Division.

The annual inflation rate of 7.7% recorded during the second quarter of the year — which ended June 30 — is the highest annual inflation rate seen since the second quarter of 2008, when the state’s inflation rate was 7.9%, according to the division’s inflation report.

To determine how much the cost of living has increased from year-to-year, the division studies the costs of six consumer categories: transportation, medical, food, housing, apparel, and recreation and personal care.

The largest increase in costs in the second quarter of the year was in transportation, which grew by 23.3% from the second quarter of 2020, and recreation and personal care, which saw an 8% increase.

In 2008, the driving factors in the cost of living increase appeared to be transportation, with a 15% increase, food, with growth f 7.4%, and housing, where costs increased by 7.2%.

In the second quarter of 2021, the southwestern region of the state saw the highest inflation rate, 8.9%.

For total cost of living, Teton County saw the highest rate, with a cost of living 65% higher than the statewide average.

Lincoln, Laramie and Sublette counties all had costs of living slightly higher — 3% to 5% — than the statewide average. Washakie County had the lowest cost of living, according to the report, at 87% of the statewide average.

According to NPR, the Labor Department reported Wednesday that consumer prices nationally were 6.2% higher in October than a year ago, the sharpest increase since November 1990.

The outlet also noted that much of the upward pressure on prices is the result of a mismatch between booming demand and limited supply, as businesses struggle to find both parts and workers.

“Inflation hurts Americans pocketbooks, and reversing this trend is a top priority for me,” President Joe Biden said in a statement Wednesday. “I want to reemphasize my commitment to the independence of the federal reserve to monitor inflation, and take steps necessary to combat it.”

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Wyoming’s Mining Employment Drops By More Than 25% In One Year

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming’s mining industry lost more than one-quarter of its jobs in the first quarter of this year compared to 2020, according to a state report.

Although the report from the state Economic Analysis Division showed the state overall posted modest gains in the numbers that point to its economic condition, some significant losses were seen in some areas, including mining employment and taxable sales.

The division’s quarterly report said Wyoming’s unemployment rate continued to decline slightly in the first quarter of the year from 2020, falling to 5.2% after peaking at a little more than 7% in the second quarter of 2020.

However, the state lost 15,730 jobs during the year, the report said, with the largest losses, 5,070, occurring in the state’s mining industry — a decline in employment of almost 26% in the industry.

“Payroll job declines occurred in nearly all industrial sectors, led by the mining (industry),” the report said. “This pivotal industry lost about 5,070 jobs, or 25.7% of its employees in a year-over-year comparison, and it showed little improvement in the quarter due to the continuation of depressed oil and natural gas activities.”

The construction industry lost 2,770 jobs during the year, while government jobs were reduced by about 2,600, the report said.

The only two sectors of the economy posting gains in employment were the retail trade and professional and business service sectors, posting job gains of 500 and 70, respectively.

However, personal income during the year grew by the highest level seen in almost 13 years, the report said, increasing by 11.4% from the first quarter of 2020.

Much of the growth, the report said, could be traced to government stimulus payments.

“Total earnings in the state shrank 2% annually in the quarter, while transfer receipts (income from government programs) increased by 89.3%, attributed to the new rounds of government pandemic relief payments from the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act and the American Rescue Plan Act,” the report said.

Despite the growth in personal income, taxable sales around the state declined by 4.9% in the first quarter of 2021 compared to 2020, led by a drop of more than 50% in purchases made by the mining industry, the report said.

“The mining industry contracted substantially, 56.2%, due to declining sales of equipment, supplies and services from energy exploration and production activity,” it said. “This was one of the largest year-over-year drops in Wyoming’s history.”

At the same time, sales in the retail trade sector grew by 10.7%.

“Consumer spending in retail stores such as furniture and home furnishings, liquor and sporting goods also demonstrated strong growth,” the report said.

Wyoming Tax Collections Up In April Despite Mining Slump

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Despite a decline of $6.7 million in sales and use tax collections from Wyoming’s mining sector, the state’s tax collections in April grew by $1.3 million over April 2020 figures, according to a state report.

The report “Wyoming Insight,” prepared by the state Department of Administration and Information’s Economic Analysis Division, said statewide sales tax collections increased by 2.3% over 2020 figures despite the $6.7 million decline in collections from the mining industry.

The report showed that gains in collections from the retail trade sector of almost $3.7 million and in the public administration sector of almost $2.2 million offset the decline seen in the mining industry, where collections fell by 73.3% from one year ago.

Collections from the state’s leisure and hospitality industry, hit hard by last year’s coronavirus-related shutdowns, increased by $2 million in April over April 2020, the report said, a gain of 47.4%.

Teton County saw the largest increase in sales and tax collections over last year, $2.1 million, a gain of more than 60%. It was one of 16 counties to see increases in tax collections in April over 2020. The second largest increase was seen in Laramie County, $1 million, 13.6%.

Seven counties saw their tax collections decline during the year, with Campbell County posting the biggest loss, $3.9 million, a fall of 40.5% from April 2020.

Converse County had the second largest decline at $1.4 million.

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White House Details How Biden’s Infrastructure Plan Will Benefit Wyoming

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Internet service, drinking water systems and renters in Wyoming would all benefit from President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan, according to details released Monday by the White House.

The White House laid out plans on Monday for how the American Jobs Plan would benefit each state, listing 12 areas that would be addressed in Wyoming.

The total $2 trillion package focuses on job creation, traditional infrastructure spending and investment in certain areas such as funding for care workers and for childcare to be offered at workplaces.

The American Jobs Plan action detail for Wyoming did not specify how much would come to the state for the 12 areas identified.

The White House report noted that Wyoming’s drinking water infrastructure will require $458 million in additional funding over the next 20 years and that 27,000 renters in Wyoming are “rent burdened,” meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on rent.

The Biden infrastructure plan will spend $111 billion and $200 billion on drinking water and affordable housing, respectively.

The plan would also dedicate $600 billion for highway improvements, including $115 billion for repairs to road and bridges. The report said 218 of Wyoming’s bridges and 318 miles of its highways are in “poor” condition.

The release also said 27% of Wyomingites live in areas where there is no broadband infrastructure, while 63.6% live in an area where there is only one broadband provider. Around 12% of Wyoming residents do not have any internet subscription plan.

Biden’s plan would set aside almost $100 billion to bring “universal, reliable, high-speed and affordable” internet service to “every family in America.”

Biden also intended to address manufacturing in the infrastructure plan, investing $300 billion to retool and revitalize American manufacturers and provide incentives for manufacturers to invest in innovative energy projects in coal communities.

Wyoming’s congressional delegates have all come out against the plan, calling it “out-of-control” and a “political football.”

“This proposal…will hike taxes and spend trillions of dollars on the left’s radical agenda,” U.S. Sen. John Barrasso said. “Democrats are offering to hamstring the economy with higher energy bills and higher taxes for families in Wyoming and across the country. Republicans want to protect our energy dominance, and let hardworking Americans keep the money they earned.”

Appearing on Face the Nation on Sunday, U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney said she couldn’t support Biden’s infrastructure plan because 94% of it has nothing to do with infrastructure.

“The National Association of Manufacturers has said that we will probably lose over a million jobs if this is enacted,” she said. “And you are certainly going to see in addition to the corporate tax increases in the bill, you’ll see middle class tax increases.”

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Wyoming Likely to Receive More Than $1B In COVID Relief

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming is likely to receive more than $1 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds later this year, Gov. Mark Gordon’s office announced Thursday.

Gordon has appointed a diverse group of stakeholders to develop a blueprint for using and distributing the funds provided to the state through the American Rescue Plan, President Joe Biden’s stimulus bill.

Current estimates show the state will receive $1.1 billion in addition to the millions of other dollars being distributed to citizens through tax rebates and to local governments and other entities from the federal government.

Gordon said he wants to identify needs and opportunities that could be addressed with the funds, as well as develop a budget to optimize the distribution.

“Wyoming will survive the impacts of COVID, drive through our period of recovery and set up the conditions for us to thrive in the long-term,” Gordon said. “It is imperative to emphasize long-term benefits because this funding has increased the debt for future generations.”

He stressed collaboration between the Legislature and the executive branch will be required to maximize the benefits of these resources for the people of Wyoming.

“I am committed to working with the Legislature to ensure that we use the funds effectively and responsibly, and that we seek to develop big ideas that will have significant and long-lasting impacts” Gordon said. “Wyoming won’t see these funds for some time, allowing us to develop a plan to ensure these dollars benefit citizens for years to come.”

The American Rescue Plan included $350 billion in aid to states and local governments. Guidance from the federal government on the use of the funds is expected to be issued in May, but unlike the federal CARES Act funding distributed last year, Wyoming will have nearly four years to spend the money.

The governor wants to focus on three areas in identifying the most significant problems Wyoming is facing due to this pandemic and then use the federal money to address the highest priorities within those areas. The areas are:

  • Health and Social Services
  • Education and Workforce
  • Economic Diversity and Economic Development

Reviews into each focus area will be led by a member of the executive branch in collaboration with the governor’s office.

Gordon stressed the importance of using these one-time funds for one-time expenses.

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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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