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Construction, Infrastructure Projects Could Boost Wyoming’s Faltering Economy

in Coronavirus/Economy/News
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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Facing the potential economic crisis of the century, Wyoming legislators could spend some federal relief funding on economic development projects to boost post-pandemic employment.  

During the Legislature’s special session on May 15 and 16, legislators laid out four priorities for spending $1.25 billion in federal aid provided by the CARES Act before its “use it or lose it” deadline on Dec. 30, Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, said.

While the legislators’ first two priorities — COVID-19 emergency response and relief aid — deal specifically with the pandemic’s impacts on Wyoming businesses, residents and governments, the third priority — economic development projects — was created as a catchall that could help the economy get back on its feet, Case explained.

The fourth priority — replacement of lost revenue for public entities — might not capitalize on CARES Act funding, which cannot be used as revenue for the state’s general fund. But by setting the task as a priority, the Legislature has laid the groundwork for using CARES funding “to the extent allowable” and future stimulus funds for the stated purpose.

Economic development might seem like an odd choice for spending the federal money, but University of Wyoming Economist Rob Godby said the category is a historical staple for rebooting struggling economies.

“Construction is a tried and true way of recovering an economy that’s been impacted by a deep recession,” Godby explained. “It’s a well recognized initiative all the way back the Great Depression and the New Deal.”

New businesses could open to accommodate the influx of temporary workers drawn to new construction projects, providing jobs across several sectors in a community.

While the construction jobs are typically temporary, they can be a Band-Aid for the growing unemployment rate while giving recovering businesses enough time to rebuild the demand for a permanent labor force.

“Putting people to work on construction or expanding infrastructure is good for the present, because it creates jobs,” Godby said. “And it’s good for the future, because once that infrastructure is in place, it creates additional benefits and increased productivity.”

Broadband infrastructure stood out as one of the legislators’ suggested economic development projects, and Case said good broadband is needed now more than ever.

“If anything has become common in the last few months, it’s the use of things like Zoom for meetings and telemedicine to bridge the social distancing gap,” he explained. “A lot of people are thinking broadband is going to get a lot of these funds.”

In 2018, former Gov. Matt Mead’s ENDOW initiative identified broadband infrastructure as a key component to improving Wyoming’s economy. In 2019, the Wyoming Broadband Advisory Council determined the state’s focus should be on broadband infrastructure expansion, rather than improving the infrastructure already in place.

In addition to creating jobs, Case said economic development projects could help the state spend the federal aid before the deadline.

“The legislator left a lot money on the table for the governor in case they don’t come back and give him more direction,” he said.

During the special session, legislators did not set a spending limit for economic development in Senate Enrolled Act No. 001, which designates the emergency funding priorities. However, the bill does leave room for Legislature to give Gov. Mark Gordon future guidance about how the money should be spent.

Given economic development’s low ranking on the priority list, Case said new projects are only an option at this point.  

“It’s possible that by the time we get through all the applications for the different types of relief,” Case said, “there’s no money left on the table for economic development projects.”

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Wyoming Revenue Decline To Hit Between $1.5 Billion to $1.8 Billion

in Coronavirus/Economy/News
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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Income to pay for the state’s next budget, including education, will probably fall almost $1.5 billion short of projections used to create that budget, but could dip as far as $1.8 billion below earlier estimates, according to a state report released Tuesday.

The Consensus Revenue Estimating Group, in a special report, said between the economic slump created by the coronavirus pandemic and an oil price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia, Wyoming’s revenues will be reduced significantly and will not bounce back quickly.

“Under all scenarios, state revenues … are materially lower,” said the report. “A forecast … eventually illustrates a modest rebound; however, none of the funds/accounts recover to pre-COVID-19 levels … by the end of the forecast period.”

The CREG is made up of economists from different state agencies who look at the impact of statewide, national and global developments on sources of revenue for the state.

The CREG’s reports provide the basis for legislators as they work to set up the state’s budgets, which run in two-year cycles. The next budget for the state begins on July 1 and ends on June 30 of 2022. It was approved by the Legislature in March using a projection issued by the CREG in January.

The report said money for the state’s general fund — its main bank account — and budget reserve account would probably drop by almost $1.1 billion during the biennium from January projections. The report said the decline could range from $783.6 million to almost $1.4 billion, depending on conditions.

Meanwhile, income for the state’s School Foundation Program and School Capital Construction Account, will fall by from $291 million to $472 million below estimates, the report said. CREG said the decline will most likely be around $394 million.

The report said the CREG was forced to make broader estimates than it usually does because of the uncertainties its members faced in making projections.

“Traditional models and methods employed by CREG in prior reports are unlikely to carry the previous levels of accuracy due to the unprecedented nature of current events,” the report said. “Perhaps this forecast is best described as a reasoned assessment.”

The report predicted a drop of more than $536 million in mineral severance taxes from January estimates, a decline of more than 44%.Sales and use tax revenues, meanwhile, were expected to fall by more than $310 million from earlier projections during the biennium, a decline of more than 27%.

The report was delivered Tuesday to members of the Legislature’s Revenue Committee.

Committee member Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, said in a Facebook posting the decline will force the Legislature to make difficult choices.

“Tough decisions ahead for the state,” he wrote.

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Covid-19 Poll: Wyomingites Very Concerned About Economy, Fewer Concerned About Spread Of Virus

in Coronavirus/Economy/News
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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Almost all of those questioned in a University of Wyoming survey are concerned about the impact of coronavirus on the national economy and a majority are concerned about its impact on their personal finances.

The UW Survey and Analysis Center’s latest coronavirus-related survey showed that 72.9% of those questioned are very concerned about the impact of the pandemic on the nation’s economy and 24.1% are somewhat concerned.

At the same time, 70.5% of the 473 Wyoming residents contacted in the random telephone survey on May 11 said they were either very concerned or somewhat concerned about the outbreak’s impact on their personal finances. Almost 22% said they were not too concerned.

The survey, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5%, is the fourth conducted since the end of March aimed specifically at collecting information on people’s attitudes toward the coronavirus.

The survey also found that the number of people worried about the spread of COVID-19 has dropped since March.

The number of people who said they were very, fairly or somewhat anxious about the spread dropped from 82.9% to 67.9%.

At the same time, the percentage of people who said they were “not at all” concerned about the spread of illness increased to 32.1% in May compared to 17.2% in March.

Also dropping was the number of people concerned that they or someone in their family might get coronavirus.

In March, more than 70% of those questioned were very or somewhat worried about the prospect, a number that dropped to 58.1% in May. Meanwhile, the number of people who said they are not worried at all increased from 6.4% in March to 12.9% on May 11.

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Wyo Local Officials Ask Congress to Fully Fund Land & Water Conservation Fund

in Coronavirus/Economy/News/Recreation
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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

On Wednesday, four Wyoming elected officials joined more than 100 of their counterparts across the West in sending a letter to Congress to urge full funding for public lands in an upcoming stimulus package.

Jackson Mayor Pete Muldoon and City Councilman Jim Standford, Albany County Commissioner Pete Gosar and Cheyenne City Councilman Pete Layborn signed the letter.

The letter asks for full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund in upcoming legislation designed to provide an economic stimulus to restart the economy in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

The letter explains that outdoor recreation is a critical driver of local economies in the West and says investing in the fund will help with long-term recovery for gateway communities and states that rely on visitors to public lands.

The letter was drafted by the Mountain Pact, an organization of mountain communities in the West.

 “Our national, state and local parks, trails and public lands are a critical economic driver for communities big and small, urban and rural, across the nation. Across the west, the travel and tourism industries have been taking a hit in the current crisis. Investing now in full funding for LWCF will help with a strong long-term recovery for gateway communities and states that rely on visitors to public lands,” Telluride, Colorado mayor DeLanie Young said in a news release.

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Wyoming Frontier Prison Creates “Rent a Cell” Fundraiser

in Coronavirus/Economy/News
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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Friday the 13th is always special at the Wyoming Frontier Prison in Rawlins, but for site director Tina Hill, this year’s March 13 tour was one of her last really fun days.

“We had a big tour of about 40 people that night and then that following Monday, things started to shut down and gatherings were being limited due to COVID-19,” she said.

About a week later, the “Old Pen” had to close to the public. For Hill and the other two employees at the historic site, this was gut-wrenching for a few reasons. They love hosting the daily tours of the prison, walking guests through history and detailing some of the best stories from the cell blocks. There was no doubt they didn’t want to put a guest’s health in danger, but they also missed seeing new and familiar faces coming on the grounds every week.

But also, no people into the prison meant no funds. Hill and her staff were worried about what the pandemic could mean for the future of the Wyoming Frontier Prison.

But they came up with an idea: renting a cell. This way, people could have their names displayed in the prison without any of the pesky legal consequences.

Contributors to the Rent-a-Cell fundraiser pay $10, which gets them a “cell” for a week. Really, they’ll get a sign bearing their name put up on a cell in the prison for one week — a few more for an extra donation. A person can donate under their own name or use a pseudonym, as seen in Hill’s daily Facebook posts on the WFP page.

Some names are real, like Jason or Joshua, while some signs carry names such as “Senor McAwesomesauce.” But even if some of the names are questionable, the support for the historic site is all too real.

Hill and the WFP staff have been surprised by the response to the fundraiser over the last couple weeks, and are trying to find ways to show their appreciation for their donors.

“I do little video tours every night so people can see their names on the cells,” Hill explained. “We also will send them pictures of their sign so they can share it. It’s been a really great response.”

Legislator on Wyoming’s Economy: “Even Optimistic Outlook Has Terrible Impacts”

in Coronavirus/Economy/News
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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming’s savings and federal relief funding combined might not be enough to save the state from economic damage left in the wake of COVID-19, state legislators said.

fiscal analysis sent to legislators on April 10 by the Legislative Service Office (LSO), the agency tasked with providing administrative services for the Legislature, predicted the novel coronavirus would take a heavy toll on state revenue.

“It is showing really huge impacts,” said Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander. “Even the optimistic outlook has terrible impacts.”

The analysis offered three scenarios — optimistic, intermediate and pessimistic — in which the state’s revenue could fall from current projections by $555.8 million to almost $2.8 billion by the end of fiscal 2022.

Case, an economist and Senate Revenue Committee chairman, said the decline is driven by the pandemic, but an “oil war” between Russia and Saudi Arabia also caused significant damage to revenue projections.

“When we had forecasts late last fall, the saving grace in those predictions was oil offsetting the loss of revenue,” Case said. “This new analysis is saying this could be worse than our worst year since 1980.”

In the case of the analysis’ pessimistic outlook, Wyoming’s rainy day fund, the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account, of $1.6 billion wouldn’t keep the state afloat for more than six months, Case said.

“At the very basic level, we don’t have enough revenues to run state government,” he added. “We don’t even have enough revenues to run state government even if we cut it by a lot, and I mean a lot.”

While the analysis admits the projections are “informed guesses,” Case and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, said they felt it was accurate.


“I’ve got a lot of confidence in our LSO staff,” Bebout said. “I think the three scenarios (the LSO) laid out are fairly realistic.”

The optimistic viewpoint indicates Wyoming might only lose about $555.8 million in revenue if businesses reopen immediately and sales return to normal, but Bebout said the intermediate outlook — a loss of about $1.76 billion over the next three years — was far more likely

“I don’t think we’ll ever have business as usual quite like it was before this happened,” he explained. “I think we’ll see some long-term effects, but we’re going to figure it out.”
Part of the solution could be $1.25 billion in federal aid as a result of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which Bebout said Wyoming started receiving Friday.

But, the relief cannot be spent as a direct replacement of state revenue.
“There’s all sorts of strings tied to that money,” Bebout said. “We don’t know what they are for sure yet.”

A special session could be needed to determine how the money could be used and would be the first step of Bebout’s three-pronged approach to the pandemic’s economic impacts. 

His second step would be to look at the budget Wyoming Legislature approved a few weeks ago to determine if the state’s proposed spending is still feasible in a post-pandemic economy.

“Lastly, we need to try get business back to normal as best we can, continuing our conservative fiscal responsibility and try not to get in debt,” Bebout said. “We can’t cut our way into this issue, but we sure as heck can’t spend our way into it, either.”

Following a Wyoming Management Council meeting Thursday, Case said legislative special sessions could be on the horizon in the next couple months.

“(The council) approved the interim topics that still need to be addressed and were important to Wyoming even before COVID-19 hit,” he said. “And they also agreed to work on some preliminary bills for introduction in a special session, regarding COVID-19.”

Bebout said the council meeting reinforced the need to not only address the pandemic challenges, but also the issues at hand prior to COVID-19.

“We’re going to continue with our normal work load — that’s really important.,” he explained. 

“Second of all is a willingness by the Management Council to work with the governor to deal with these issues that are top of the list and do it together.”

Coronavirus Impact: Wyoming Revenues to Drop Between $550 Million – $2.8 Billion

in Coronavirus/Economy/News
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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Revenues needed to run the state will decline dramatically in the next several years from projections made before the coronavirus was detected in Wyoming, according to an analysis by a state agency.

The analysis by the Legislative Service Office, the agency tasked with providing administrative services for the Legislature, found that the state’s revenue could fall from current projections by $555.8 million to almost $2.8 billion by the end of fiscal 2022.

The Legislature, during its recent budget session, based its budget for the fiscal 2021-22 biennium on projections made by the Consensus Revenue Estimating Group, a group of fiscal analysts from different state agencies who meet several times a year to provide their estimate on how much money the state will have to work with.

However, the last such projection was provided in January, before the coronavirus shut down much of the economy.

As a result, the LSO, in response to requests for information, prepared its own analysis showing three possible scenarios for the state’s revenues from April of this year through the end of the coming fiscal biennium in June of 2022.

“In light of the last month’s unprecedented economic developments, the January 2020 Consensus Revenue Estimating Group … forecast is no longer a reasonable projection of state revenues in the near-term,” the analysis said. “Wyoming’s economic outlook has changed significantly.”

The analysis provides three scenarios based on different assumptions: “optimistic,” projecting a shorter economic downturn and quicker recovery; “intermediate,” based on actual mineral futures prices, economic disruption through the summer and a modest recovery over the next year, and “pessimistic,” based on a drawn-out crisis with an extended recovery.

The LSO admitted the scenarios are “informed guesses.”

However, it also noted that in addition to the coronavirus, Wyoming has already been hit hard by an oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia that has left oil prices depressed.

Under the optimistic scenario, income through the end of fiscal 2022 will decline by $555.8 million from January projections. The intermediate scenario predicts a drop of $1.7 billion and the pessimistic predicts a decline of almost $2.8 billion.

The impact to the state’s main checking account, its “General Fund,” could range from $254.6 million to $1.4 billion, the analysis said.

Funding for the School Foundation Program Account and School Capital Construction Account might fall by $136 million to $526 million, the analysis said.

The state’s oil tax income will be the revenue source hardest hit compared to earlier projections, the analysis said, dropping by $494 million to just over $1 billion between now and the end of fiscal 2022.

Coal tax income will also decline by $203 million to $437 million, the analysis said.

Sales and use taxes will drop by $147 million to $869 million.

The analysis should be seen only as a starting point for discussions as officials try to determine how to react to the coronavirus pandemic, said Don Richards, the LSO’s budget and fiscal administrator.

“It really is just a platform for discussion,” he said.

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Cheyenne Frontier Days CEO: No Plans for Cancellation Yet

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

There will likely be no decision on canceling Cheyenne Frontier Days until at least late May or early June, CEO Tom Hirsig said Monday.

Hirsig, in a telephone interview with Cowboy State Daily, said rodeo officials are keeping track of conditions, but are still planning to proceed with the 10-day event.

“We’re still moving forward with all aspects of the show,” Hirsig said. “We’re like everyone else, sitting here waiting for clarification on the future. There’s just not enough information on how long this will last.”

“If the biggest outdoor rodeo in the world were to be canceled, it would be only in conjunction with city, county and state orders,” Hirsig said. “It’s going to take a lot to bring the ‘Daddy of ’em All’ down.”

In a fireside chat hosted by Cheyenne Mayor Marian Orr on Friday evening, she noted that the coronavirus pandemic has already impacted the rodeo, which is scheduled for July 17 through 26.

Orr said she hoped the event wouldn’t be canceled.

“It would be really difficult for our community,” she said. “Economically, yeah, but it’s our spirit that it would hurt. Cheyenne Frontier Days has continued on through wars and depressions. For (the virus) to be the reason we didn’t have it in 125 years would hurt our soul.”

Hirsig joked that he was one of the people waiting to see what would happen with the summer event, but clarified that no ticket sales have been suspended and there are no plans to do so.

The Frontier Days ticketing offices are closed to the public, but people can still purchase rodeo or night show passes over the phone or online, he said.

Hirsig added that ticket sales haven’t been affected much by the pandemic and very few people have called to inquire about rescheduling, much to his surprise and relief.

CFD officials are meeting weekly to discuss event plans, Hirsig said. The virus has impacted the volunteer meetings, but Hirsig said he has faith in the dedicated crew that keeps Frontier Days running every year.

Over the last few years, the CFD officials’ biggest concerns have been related to violence and trying to beef up security. This year, they may have to reorganize their priorities, Hirsig said.

“I’m not sure how things will look in a post-virus world,” Hirsig said. “At an event like ours, you’d probably have to have twice as many hand sanitizers as there are now. We’d maybe have to disinfect the bleachers and the grandstands once or twice a day. I don’t know how things will look.”

Ultimately, Hirsig said he and other CFD officials will continue to follow the rodeo’s mission of providing a positive economic impact on the community, which he said runs from Cheyenne through the state and even into the Front Range.

“We have an economic impact of $26 million in our community alone and $40 million for the state,” Hirsig said. “We want to do everything in our power to safely fulfill that mission. We’re dedicated to doing that until it’s decided that it’s not safe to do so.”

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Wyoming Unemployment Remains Steady At 3.7 Percent

in Economy/News
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Wyoming’s unemployment rate remained steady in January at 3.7 percent, the same rate seen in December, according to the state Department of Workforce Services.

The department’s Research and Planning Section, in its regular report on unemployment, reported that the rate was slightly higher than the January 2019 rate of 3.5 percent, but almost equal to the national average of 3.6 percent.

The state’s highest January unemployment rate of 5.9 percent was found in Sublette County, followed by Fremont County at 5.6 percent and Big Horn and Sweetwater counties at 5.4 percent. Teton County’s unemployment rate fell from 2.9 percent to 2.7 percent.

The biggest increases in unemployment from December to January were seen in Big Horn County, which grew from 3.7 percent to 5.4 percent, Washakie County, from 3.6 percent to 4.6 percent, and Sheridan County, which grew from 3.4 percent to 4.3 percent.

“Colder weather and the end of the holiday shopping season often bring seasonal job losses in January in many sectors, including construction, retail trade, government and professional and business services,” the report said.

In December, Wyoming’s unemployment rate was higher than in most of the surrounding states, said David Bullard, the section’s senior economist. He added Wyoming has had a higher unemployment rate than surrounding states since about 2018.

“Some neighboring states have been growing more quickly than we have,” he said.

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