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Peterson: A cautionary tale from 27 years of public service

in Column/Education/Government spending
Peterson public service
2000

Ray Peterson served as a state senator for 13 years, from 2005-2018.  In this column, he shares his thoughts on his 27 years of public service.

Public Service

I hesitated to write this article but decided to share my story of public service for only one reason, to better inform our citizens.  This certainly is not done with any self-promoting agenda, as I do not have any future plans to run for any public office.  My 27 years of public service has come to an end.  But I think my story could be used to improve our understanding of the challenges of public service.  Perhaps this article may even convince someone to run for office or volunteer their time or just get involved.

I was first elected to the Cowley town council in 1986.  I served six years and enjoyed the opportunity to learn about town government while offering my input into community projects and working with others.  It was exciting and fulfilling to see a project through, from concept to planning to completion.  

While working on community projects, I was introduced to county concerns.  I had ideas for the county and saw needs that I thought I could help with.  I was elected to the Big Horn County Commission in 1992, where I served eight years dealing with budgets, a new jail, a new dispatch system, improved roads and public land issues.  

State Involvement

I was appointed to the Senate in 2005, where I was appointed to the Appropriations Committee and served for six years.  

After my years on the Appropriations Committee, I was given the assignment to chair the Senate Revenue Committee.  As the Senate president put it, “You’ve seen how we spend the money, now you need to know where it comes from.”   This taught me another valuable lesson in that I realized our Legislature was an institution that trains its own leaders to promote continuity and knowledge to ensure that the best decisions are made on the state’s behalf by our elected representatives.  

I will also mention that the pressure is unreal.  There are no simple votes on the floor of the Senate.  My wife would always notice when I returned home after a session that I had lost both weight and a little more hair.  

My Last Year       

As I gained experience and seniority in the state Senate, more responsibilities were assigned to me.  I was serving on the Management Council, a number of select committees, the Labor and Health Committee and chaired the Senate Revenue Committee.  

Added to this mix was the fact that our revenue projections were down and we were contending with a $1 billion shortfall, which meant that we had lost 25 percent of our projected biennial revenue.  Assignments were made to look for ways we could increase our revenue in Wyoming, which fell squarely on the Revenue Committee.  We were told to bring every revenue generating idea to the Legislature for consideration during the upcoming session.  

We also knew that our expenditures would need to be reduced.  We could not tax our way out of this downturn without looking at reductions to our budget as well.  The assignments were made to form a recalibration committee to look into possible ways we could reduce the education funding model.  I was assigned to that committee.  My summer was spent on  taxation issues and budget cuts to education. 

I remember admonishing our committee to have the courage to bring these tax bills to the floor for consideration, even if it meant that some of us would pay the price politically. I would imagine that most on the committee voted against the proposed revenue bills during the session, but we had done our job in bringing options to the floor.  

Because we had cash reserves, we elected to use them to cover the shortages, which meant no taxing proposal passed that session, but the studies were completed and the information was current for the Legislature to consider, so the Revenue Committee had completed its assignments.

The Recalibration Committee had even a tougher time in meeting deadlines, hiring consultants, gathering information and then making recommendations to the full Legislature during the upcoming session.  

You can imagine the popularity of this committee.  As an example, the business I worked for was boycotted by some schools around the state because of my perceived stance against education. I really didn’t know I had an anti-education stance, but there were a lot of people who thought I and a few others were public enemies to education.  

Articles in the papers that portrayed the Senate wanting to gut education seemed to be the flavor of the day.  But we had a budget to balance and the year before, we had cut the Health Department by almost $100 million, 10 percent of its biennial budget.  Now our attentions were turned to the largest state budget, K-12 education.  

Like the Revenue Committee, the Recalibration Committee completed its job and made recommendations for reductions based on the findings of our contracted consultants.  The committee members were not in total agreement and disagreed on where cuts should be made.  But one thing everyone understood was that cuts to the K-12 funding model were going to be made, it was just a matter of how much.

My Last Session

I was asked to sponsor the bill proposing reductions to the K-12 funding formula. I agreed to sponsor the bill knowing the subject and having spent the summer listening to the consultants and the recommendations.  I also thought that I could use this bill to ensure that my concerns with funding for our smaller schools would be protected.  

I had shared with other senators, over the years, that I felt that the funding model was flawed in favor of the larger schools.  Although this bill would not be a popular bill to sponsor, it would put me in the chair to control the outcome.  My first amendment was to slash $100 million from the proposed funding reduction of $140 million.

The news media continued to refer to the bill as cutting $140 million from our schools up to the day it died in the house.  Although the reporting was not accurate, the bill was now in a form and an amount that I felt our schools could deal with.  The reductions were in areas that would not affect the classroom or salaries or even the quality of our schools in the least.  These reductions were recommended by consultants and would be phased in over three years, just as our school administrators had requested.  

Three small schools stood out as taking larger hits to their budgets than all the other school districts.  Where all other schools were presented with reductions of 2 percent to 2.5 percent over three years, these three smaller schools faced 10 percent to 12 percent reductions. I now had evidence that some of our smaller schools were taking a bigger hit than our larger schools.  

To correct this, my last amendment to the bill was to provide a ceiling that would protect these smaller schools from unfair reductions in comparison to the other schools. I remember sitting down at my computer to check my emails after the  amendment passed on the floor of the Senate. They were pouring in from all over the state telling me how bad a person I was to cut education, but one caught my eye as it was from a superintendent back home telling me that he had sent out a letter to all of his teachers informing them I had broken my promise to the smaller schools and was gutting their district’s money. I, of course, was not happy about the accusations and made every attempt to respond and explain what I was trying to do with this bill, but I’m sure my explanation fell on deaf ears.  

The bill passed the Senate with a proposed $40 million reduction plan over three years and with my amendment.  

The House, meanwhile, had its own reduction bill, which was set cuts at $15 million.  The Senate file was quickly killed in the House Education Committee.  The Senate took the House version and deleted most of the House wording and inserted the Senate file wording and the reduction amount of $40 million. This is what led to the Conference Committee where the House and Senate agreed on a $37 million reduction plan to the K-12 funding formula — $3 million short of my original Senate file but with my amendments intact.  The House was hailed by the media as the saviors of education that session.

I was unseated in the August primary.

My Take on Things  

After the session was over, the Senate president asked If I was going to be all right back home as I was up for re-election.  I told him that I should be okay as I would get back and explain my intentions and work on the bill to the educators back home.  What I was not counting on was that the educators did not want to listen to an explanation and did not attend any of my meetings where I offered a report of the session and the bill that I had worked on.  

Our favorite lobbying group, the Wyoming Education Association, had invested time and money to see that I was unseated.  I don’t really know what it was telling the voters in Senate District 19, but I know it wasn’t the fact that I voted for teacher salary increases each time they were introduced over the previous six years, or that I fought to reinvest general fund money into the teachers’ pension fund after we lost a good portion of it in 2008, or that I voted to increase spending on additional new school construction. 

What the WEA saw in me was a threat.  I had knowledge and education of the budget and the education funding formula as well as the seniority to present and push through legislation that would have threatened their plans for continued increases.  I was asked to be the next Majority Floor Leader in the next session which would have made me president of the Senate in 2021.  I would have also served as the chairman of the Appropriations Committee in 2019-20.  The WEA was going to have none of that.  

Conclusion

Now back to my reason for sharing my story.  I’ve asked myself many times what I might have done differently to ensure my own re-election.  I could have kept my distance from those issues by not accepting those difficult assignments.  But considering all the training and cost of my public service education over the years, I would think that running away from those issues would have been self-serving rather than doing what I was elected and trained to do.  

I remain concerned about what happened and could happen to another public servant.  To allow the media and a union to dictate what we think of a candidate is foolish and dangerous.  The overwhelming problem did not go away with my replacement.

The end result of the 2 percent or $37 million reduction over three years to our K-12 education funding?  Each of the four school districts in Senate District 19 gave raises shortly after the budget session was over.  New school construction and building maintenance continues.  The K-12 education budget continues to grow each year and the WEA continues to be one of, if not the, strongest employee unions in our state.  

We need to be better than this, Wyoming.  Media with an agenda other than fair reporting is dangerous.  Unions that control elections are dangerous.  We should protect openness, transparency, honesty and integrity to our political process.  And certainly, the more knowledge we have, the better we are all served.

Peterson: How to fix Wyoming’s revenue struggles

in Column/Government spending/Taxes
Wyoming Government spending
1902

By R. Ray Peterson, guest column for Cowboy State Daily

While serving in the Wyoming Senate, I had the privilege of serving on both the Appropriations Committee for six years and as chairman of the Senate Revenue Committee for six years.  These two committees deal with the state budget through expenditures and revenues.

As I served, I was able to attend many state and regional meetings as well as review reports, and studies, all while having direct involvement in directing expenditures and revenue streams of our state.  These experiences allowed me insights and knowledge concerning our states budget along with growing concerns of revenue streams and how we will meet the expectations of funding state and local governments into the future.

The most recent developments of our coal industry in Wyoming should be setting off alarms with every elected official and citizen in our state.  Over the years, our state’s natural resources have subsidized a major portion of our taxes or revenue streams that we use to fund our schools and governments.  Over half of all revenues used to meet these expenses come from our mineral extraction industry. 

Learning from our history of our boom and bust cycles, our legislature has wisely put aside additional revenues from the high years to assist us during the low years.  This philosophy has served us well for the past 50 years in providing a more consistent budget, but the times, “they are a changing.”  The question now is, how long before our reserves are depleted?  Will our natural resources come back as they have in the past to save us yet another time? 

Wyoming, by our state’s constitution, must have a balanced budget.  Some would argue that we do not deficit spend in Wyoming while others would argue that we use the reserves to balance the budget which is, in a sense, deficit spending.  From my own simple understanding, when we spend more in a period than we take in, it is deficit spending. 

Although our budget is balanced in the end, we are still spending more than we take in during our low years.  Thanks to our cash reserves or “rainy day” funds and our investments, we seem to be holding our own while hoping that the revenue streams will return to higher levels. 

Today’s challenges are different

But today’s challenges to the budget are different than our past experiences of our boom and bust cycles.  Today, we face the strong possibility that coal will never come back to contribute to our revenues as it once did for our state.  The market has changed.  The demand has changed.  Unlike natural gas and oil, coal was a more consistent contributor to our states revenues with even slight increases from year to year, as amounts extracted increased with what the market demanded. 

But the demand for coal is decreasing for different reasons.  Although Wyoming has stepped up to produce cleaner burning coal technology to protect our coal’s value, other factors have weighed in that have had a dramatic effect on the value of coal. 

The war on coal was real and certainly had its effect.  More power plants have converted from coal fired to natural gas fired power generation.  But more importantly, consumer states of energy, such as California and others, have required energy supply companies to provide evidence that a majority of their power generation portfolio is derived from renewable sources such as hydro, wind and solar, or they will go elsewhere for their energy purchases.  The market is changing and because of this, Wyoming should be prepared and adapt with those changes.

Action is required

There are two principles used when budgeting in a shortfall.  Increase revenues or reduce expenditures.  Wyoming has done both without raising taxes. And there are other good things the state has done and continues to do.  As I mentioned, it participates with private energy corporations in developing clean coal technology as well as other cleaner burning fossil fuel efforts.  It also participates in the effort to develop new markets for our coal.  It has worked to create more transmission lines to deliver our natural gas and oil to market areas. 

These are things our state has done to try and increase or stabilize our revenues by strengthening the current resources we have.  The state has also used excess revenue of the good years to save and invest.  These investments, at times, provide additional revenues that are used to fill the budget holes left from the decreasing value of our market driven resources.  This effort combined with savings, have provided a long-needed stabilizing influence on our past boom and bust budget cycles.

Our challenge today

Our subsidy by mineral taxation has lightened the tax burden on Wyoming citizens over the years, but it has taken a hit, creating a shortfall.  The savings and investment of those savings are currently filling the shortages, allowing our state and local leaders time to make adjustments to their budgets. 

But reserves shrink and investments don’t always perform consistently.  The investment portfolio that perhaps saved our budget the year before could generate nothing the following year.  Trusting our trust funds is not the long-term solution to our shortfall problems. 

Most will argue that we need to reduce our expenditures.  I certainly agree with this position.  As with our own home budgets, we make less, we should spend less.  It should be no different with our state budget and over the last few years the state budget has been reduced in most areas.  But these are all short-term solutions to our current situation. 

What needs to be brought to the table are long-term solutions.  The solutions need to address the real problem of an inconsistent revenue stream, where nearly 60 percent of current revenues collected are market driven or out of our own control.  Wyoming needs to meet the challenge of reducing that market driven 60 percent, to 50 percent or even 40 percent of total revenue collected by the state. 

Now the question should be; How do we do this?

It’s time

By applying the two principles of budgeting in a shortfall of raising revenue and reducing expenses, I’ll offer one revenue increasing idea and two reducing expenditures ideas. 

A good start to the effort of stabilizing our revenue stream would be to pass a bill increasing the statewide lodging tax.   This increase would have the lowest effect on our tax payers and would be consistent to what surrounding states charge.   

For my ideas of reducing expenditures, I would suggest eliminating the $15 million annual automatic escalator for funding K-12 education.  I would also zero base the Department of Education budget and the Department of Health budget every ten years in the appropriations committee.  Stagger them to spread out the work load, but the two largest budgets in our state need more legislative scrutiny. 

These actions would be a good start in stabilizing our budget in Wyoming.

Revenues ahead of estimates, though structural problems remain

in Government spending/News/Taxes
Wyoming taxes
1811

By Laura Hancock, Cowboy State Daily

Sales taxes, investment income, oil severance taxes and federal mineral royalties are proving to be the saving grace for state coffers, according to a recent report, but the overall revenue picture for Wyoming remains bleak.

In the first six months of the year, production of natural gas and coal – as well as prices for coal – came in below the state’s official forecast, according to the Census Revenue Estimating Group, made up of revenue experts from the legislative and executive branches of Wyoming government. 

CREG recently released a six-month revenue update for Wyoming, and compared those revenues against its previous official state forecast, released in January. 

At one time, coal and natural gas were counter-cyclical – when one was down, the other was up – which helped Wyoming absorb the booms and busts of a natural resource economy, and money continued to flow to keep state government running. 

But the July 31 CREG update underscored a new reality: Production of both commodities was down, and the income for two accounts that fund most day-to-day operations in state government would have also missed estimates had it not been for other forms of revenue. 

Revenue receipts to the General Fund, which is something of a state checking account, were $201 million or 16.9 percent ahead of earlier forecasts for the year due to higher-than-anticipated sales tax, investment and oil severance tax income.  

Receipts to the Budget Reserve Fund, which is akin to a state overdraft account, were 6.7 percent ahead of projections, thanks to severance taxes and federal mineral royalties. State Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, said that Wyoming can’t always count on high returns on investments. 

“Future projections for investment returns are nowhere near where they’ve been the last four years,” he said. “They’re looking at 5.5 percent, 5.25 percent (rate of return) for the retirement system. We have some serious problems ahead of us.”

Zwonitzer is a co-chair of the Legislature’s Joint Revenue Committee, which is studying whether to implement new taxes, such as a corporate income tax or a gross receipts tax. 

The difference between the two? A corporate income tax is assessed on business profits, or income. Gross receipts taxes are levied on sales. 

Companies don’t pay corporate income taxes if their profits are zero or negative. But that’s not true with gross receipts taxes, according to the conservative Tax Foundation.

Forty-four states have a corporate income tax and four have a gross receipts tax, Zwonitzer said. 

Other taxes under consideration: 

  • A higher assessment against wind power generation
  • An increase of the statewide mill levy for schools
  • Increases for some property taxes
  • Adding a fourth category of property taxes – currently there are residential, commercial and industrial – which would consider multi-million dollar residential homes. “That would require a constitutional amendment,” Zwonitzer said. 

However, tax talk is tough in the Cowboy State, where people are conservative and used to one of the nation’s lowest tax rates. Previous tax proposals – such as requiring taxes be assessed on services including haircuts, real estate transactions and legal services – went nowhere. 

“Some in the Republican caucus say we need to be cutting services more before raising taxes,” Zwonitzer said. “They can’t identify where those cuts are” outside of education. 

Revenue bills must first be introduced in the House, where Zwonitzer said many proposals will likely gain the two-thirds vote necessary to clear introduction and be referred to a committee on budget years, such as the 2020 session. 

“I think we’re going to have some good discussions,” he said. 

Transposition error makes it appear substitute teacher makes $216K

in Education/Government spending/News/Transparency
Transposition error makes it appear substitute teacher makes $216K
1776

By James Chilton, Cowboy State Daily

RIVERTON – In case you might’ve heard otherwise, please rest assured that a substitute teacher does not, in fact, hold the top-paying job in Fremont County School District 25 in Riverton. They’re not paying a custodian $120,000 a year, either.

But that certainly appeared to be the case if you were to visit the government spending accountability website OpenTheBooks.com Saturday morning. And it appears a transposing error is to blame.

Founded in 2011 and based out of a Chicago suburb, OpenTheBooks.com is a nonprofit dedicated to uncovering and disclosing the spending figures at every level of government, with an overall aim of providing the public accountability about where its money is spent. The nonprofit’s oversight reports on government spending have been featured by news outlets as diverse as C-SPAN, Good Morning AmericaFox News and The Wall Street Journal.

And according to FCSD 25 Personnel Manager Karen Wardner, the site does indeed show the correct figures for the employee wages paid in 2017, with Superintendent Terry L. Snyder topping the list at $212,685. But in the 2018 data, the top-earner listed is substitute teacher Terri L. Cole, with an annual wage of $216,894, with Snyder shown earning only $20,817 that same year.

“It’s definitely not accurate. I can assure you, we restrict the number of hours they (substitute teachers) work,” Wardner said in an interview Friday.

After viewing OpenTheBooks.com herself and observing the figures listed, Wardner said it appears the 2018 salary listing for Snyder was transposed with Cole’s name, possibly due to their similar first names and middle initial. 

“If you scroll down, it’s got her actual rate for 2017 at $6,665,” Wardner said.

The transposition appears to have thrown off much of the rest of OpenTheBooks’ 2018 salary list for the district. For example, Business Manager Lu Beecham – the district’s third-highest earner in 2017 at $120,000 – was switched out for a custodian in the 2018 list, so the custodian is shown making $120,450 while Beecham supposedly pulled down just $21,007.

Fortunately, Wardner said the error should be simple enough to fix once she’s able to determine whose names were transposed with whose. She said she planned to reach out to OpenTheBooks.com in the coming days to make sure the 2018 figures are updated to reflect reality. 

Thousands tour reopened Capitol

in Government spending/News
1608

Thousands of people got their first glimpse of the new interior of the state Capitol on Wednesday as the building was opened to the public for the first time since the extensive refurbishment of the Capitol Complex began more than four years ago.

Timed to coincide with the celebration of Wyoming’s Statehood Day, the unveiling revealed a Capitol building considered to be much more accessible to the public, with larger rooms, broader passageways and more open space.

“They’ve done a lot of stuff here that opened up the Capitol,” said Joe McCord, the former facilities manager for the Capitol. “The stairs going into the House and Senate are wide open right now. Downstairs, you’ve got the galley that’s wide open. The rooms are bigger. I just love it, what they’ve done. They’ve done a great job.”

The refurbishment of the 129-year-old Capitol was the centerpiece for a $300 million project that also involved updating the Herschler Building to the north and the space between them.

Cheyenne historian Bill Dubois, whose grandfather was the architect for the two wings on the Capitol, said he was very pleased with the outcome of the project.

“The restoration is wonderful, every room is just a masterpiece and it’s very beautiful,” he said.

Former House Speaker Kermit Brown said he expects the new quarters for the Legislature to help with the level of debate in the body.

“I think that surroundings can make a difference there,” he said. “I think the majesty of these surroundings, the high ceilings, all the things that are in this Capitol building, have an influence on people and the way they act.”

Former Rep. Pete Illoway, a longtime supporter of the project while a member of the Legislature, said he was pleased with the outcome.

“This building is incredible,” he said. “It is really great and it’s wonderful to see how carefully architects can go back through it and say ‘Let’s take it back to whatever’s built and then modernize that.’ It is beautiful.”

2020 Census prep begins in Wyoming – What it means to you

in Government spending/News
Wyoming Prepares for 2020 Census
1575

By Laura Hancock, Cowboy State Daily

Gov. Mark Gordon signed a proclamation June 25 that sets in motion the state’s preparations for the 2020 U.S. Census – including a soon-to-be-live website and committees strategizing participation in hard-to-reach communities. 

The 2020 Census may be especially important to Wyoming because of recent population declines. 

Driven by the downturn in coal, oil and natural gas, Wyoming’s population is estimated to have decreased in each of the past three years: from 585,668 in 2015 to 577,737 in 2018.

 “In neighboring states, their economies are strong, so many of our younger workers left,” said Wenlin Liu, interim administrator and chief economist at the Wyoming Division of Economic Analysis. 

Nevertheless, Wyoming’s 2020 population is expected to be higher than 2010’s 563,626.

The results of the census will affect Wyoming in several ways, including:

The census results represent money for the state. 

Billions of dollars flow into Wyoming based on data about population, income and other demographics. An accurate count may be especially important as state lawmakers discuss potential new taxes for additional revenue. An increase in federal money could offset the need for new taxes. 

College Pell Grants, U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperative extension service money, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Highway Planning and Construction program and the Child Health Insurance Program are among dozens of programs in which federal dollars follow Census results

In the years between each census, the Census Bureau makes annual demographic estimates, which agencies also use to distribute funds, said Liu, who is involved in 2020 Census planning with the governor’s office. 

“All of these programs are based on the benchmark of the decennial census,” he said.

The state will rely on the 2020 Census to apportion legislative districts. 

The Wyoming House has 60 seats. Higher population areas tend to have more districts. A county with four House districts, for instance, could gain or lose seats compared to growth in other counties, Liu said. 

School districts and local governments need census data to plan. 

The census, which in 2020 can be completed online, asks for the ages of everyone in the household. That can help a school district determine where it may need a new high school in five years, for instance. 

Census results determine the formula the Legislature uses to send money to local governments for the following decade, Liu said.

“For Wyoming, sales tax distribution between county governments and cities within the counties is based on the census,” he said. 

The census informs business decisions.

Chambers of commerce and business groups use census data to market an area to companies. 

“If the area’s population is increasing, businesses are always expanding,” Liu said.

Conversely, when an area’s population is in decline, businesses think hard about expansion, he said. 

The census will have big impact on a small state.  

Wyoming is the country’s lowest population state. Citizenship question aside, that likely will not change after the 2020 Census results come in. Under-counting the number of people who live in Wyoming proportionally hurts the state more than say, Texas, which can afford to undercount a few residents and not be slammed by a dramatic decrease in federal funds, for instance. 

“Wyoming has the smallest population in the country,’ Liu said. “We do want to count everyone.”

Wyoming’s minimal exposure in movies could soon dissipate

in Government spending/News/Tourism
1566

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

As the last of the funding is drained from the Wyoming Office of Tourism’s Film Incentives Program, the state could see even less time on the silver screen.

Filming in Wyoming can be a hard sell for out-of-state companies such as Netflix and Thunder Road Films, which produced Wind River in 2017.

Diane Shober, executive director of the Wyoming Office of Tourism, explained a lack of film production infrastructure played a significant role among the many difficulties in luring production companies to Wyoming.

In the past, the state’s Film Incentive Program helped offset the difficulties of drawing film studios, travel shows and multimedia production firms to the state by offering a 12 to 15 percent rebate to companies that spent more than $200,000 shooting in Wyoming.

“We used the program as a recruitment tool for out-of-state production companies to use in-state production companies,” Shober said. “Having a film incentive doesn’t guarantee a company will shoot in your state, but without one, big film companies won’t even look at you.”

In 2009, the program provided Brown 26 Productions, which worked on Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” with a $115,000 rebate for shooting parts of the movie in Wyoming. The movie’s total budget was estimated at about $100 million, according to Internet Movie Database (IMDb). In 2015, however, when Tarantino directed “Hateful Eight,” a movie about bounty hunters waiting out a Wyoming winter during the late 19th century, the film was primarily shot in Colorado, which Shober said has a robust incentive program.

Breaking down the numbers

Since its creation in 2007, the incentives program has returned about $2.1 million to production companies, Shober said.Wyoming’s checkbook, released in January by State Auditor Kristi Racines, includes checks issued by the Office of Tourism for the program from the last six years.

According to the checkbook, the office paid grants for about $322,000 in 2013, $167,000 in 2014, $366,000 in 2015, $402,000 in 2016, $248,000 in 2017 and $35,000 in 2018.

Shober said other than minimal funding for signage, the Film Incentives Program was the only grant program operated by the office.

The production companies listed on the checks range from big names like Red Bull Media House and Wells Fargo Bank to smaller multimedia companies like WZRD Media and Teton Gravity Research.

Every applicant was required to meet certain criteria to be eligible for the rebate. Requirements include $200,000 or more spent in the state, a storyline set in Wyoming, Wyoming footage in the production and listing Wyoming as a filming location in the credits.

Shober said the program funds were appropriated by Legislature, which also set the criteria for rebate eligibility.

“In this last legislative session, we had a bill requesting funding that made it out of the House,” she said. “But it died in the Senate on third reading.”

House Bill 164 would have transferred up to $16,000 from the Tourism Office’s main budget to the Film Production Incentive Program. Without the appropriations requested in House Bill 164, the incentives program is finished, Shober said.The program has not received an appropriation since 2009, she added. 

A tale of two hunting shows

Gunwerks and Best of the West both film hunting shows in Wyoming focused on long-range shooting for the Sportsman Channel and others.

Both Cody companies were recipients of film incentive rebates between 2013 and 2018.

“The two companies were once one,” said Mike LaBazzo, Gunwerks’ director of business development. “Aaron Davidson, the founder of Gunwerks, is also the inventor of the Huskemaw scope. When he was a young engineer, he met Jack Peterson, who at that point had a video production company called Best of the West.”

After a falling out between the founders, the companies split and both started ramping up film production as a marketing tool for the then-controversial topic of hunting game at ranges of more than 300 yards.

When the companies were one and in their infancy, shooting game at more than 300 yards was frowned upon because of “hold over,” the vertical distance a hunter holds his scope’s center mark above the target to compensate for the amount a bullet drops over long distances, LaBazzo explained.

With a Huskemaw scope mounted on a Gunwerks custom long-range rifle, however, he said hunters no longer needed to guess how high to hold their center marks over the target.  To get the word out, the company produced a hunting series for television. When the companies split, both shot their own series.

“‘Long Range Pursuit’ consists of two types of video,” LaBazzo explained. “One is hunting, and we do that anywhere in the world, but a lot of episodes are filmed here in Wyoming. In addition, we offer tech tips and shooting tips.”

With 21 episodes shot each year, he said it wasn’t feasible to film every one in the state, but they highlighted Wyoming as often as possible.

“We’ve always used our Wyoming roots as a marketing tool,” LaBazzo said. “We talk about Wyoming a lot in our show.”

From 2012 to 2018, Gunwerks received $202,000 in grants. It was the only company in 2018 to receive a rebate from the office of tourism. The money helped cover costs, but wasn’t essential to production.

“We had the show before (the incentives program), and we’re going to have the show after,” LaBazzo said. “What we were getting back certainly helps, but it wasn’t essential to us being able to make the show.”

Across town at Best of the West, however, the company’s vice president, Jim Sessions, said its show might suffer without the rebate.

“We learned it was disappearing around January 2018,” Sessions said. “It has significantly affected our ability to produce episodes.”

“The Best of the West” TV show first aired in 2003 and has produced hundreds of episodes since. In 2010, Nielsen reported the show reached 4.7 million households.

“We’ve aired on a number of channels including the Mens Channel Outdoors, Pursuit and the Sportsman Channel,” Sessions said. “I always thought we portrayed Wyoming very positively.”

Without the incentive program’s rebates, which have amounted to $244,000 over the years, he said Best of the West has cut its episode load by half and the future of the show could be at risk.

Shober said the incentives program was not likely to be revived in the near future.

“Not every state has an incentive program, and some state’s are consolidating their’s,” she said. “There has to be a legislative appetite for a program like this, and right now, in Wyoming, I don’t know that there is.”

Gordon says true biennium budget will lead to better planning

in Government spending/News
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Gov. Mark Gordon’s efforts to create a true two-year budget for state government should encourage state agencies to plan better for the future, he said Thursday.

Gordon, speaking during a news conference, said his plan to limit supplemental budget requests to true emergencies will lead agencies to plan better for the state’s biennium budget cycle rather than depend on supplemental budgets, such as the one passed recently by the Legislature.

“We’re working very hard to make sure that what is conveyed in (the two-year budget to be reviewed in 2020) is truly a biennium budget,” he said. “Hopefully, by looking at a two-year cycle, you start to look at what you really need. I’m working with the Legislature to see if there are ways we can incentivize better savings and build a cost-conscious culture throughout our agencies.”

State agencies submit two-year budgets for approval by the Legislature during even-numbered years. Supplemental budgets are submitted during odd-numbered years and were originally seen as a way to provide funding for urgent needs until a new two-year budget could be approved the following year.

In recent years, the supplemental requests have become more substantial.

Gordon admitted he is not the first Wyoming governor to try to limit the use of supplemental budgets.

“I’m certainly one of a number of governors that have tried this, but I’m really going to try to stick to this,” he said.

Gordon said he has already advised state agencies to budget with declining revenues in mind.

“The budget instructions I sent to agencies reminded them that revenue streams will be tight,” he said. “My goal, and I’ve been pretty consistent, has been to avoid across-the-board cuts.”

The governor also said he wants to study the number of uninsured children in the state, which a recent study said was nearly double the national average.

“I’ll bring together a task force with our insurance agencies to see what tools and what efforts we can apply to really address that issue,” he said.

On other issues, Gordon announced he has named policy director Buck McVeigh to serve as his acting chief of staff, filling the vacancy created with the retirement of Pat Arp.

As Capitol nears completion, lawmakers say the project is on time, on budget

in Government spending/News
Wyoming Capitol Square Project nears completion
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CHEYENNE – The nearly $300 million Wyoming Capitol Square Project is wrapping up and government agencies are making their way into their new digs after years in temporary office space around Cheyenne.

Consultants and project managers met with the Legislature’s Capitol Building Restoration Oversight Group on Wednesday to give their final reports on the four-year construction project.

The Oversight Group itself was meeting for the last time before the opening of the Capitol on Wyoming Statehood Day, July 10. Gov. Mark Gordon, who chaired the meeting, said he was pleased the project was nearly done and there had been no major cost overruns.

Work on the project involved the restoration of the Capitol, the adjacent Herschler Building and the space between the two buildings.

Mike O’Donnell, project coordinator, said the Capitol will be much more open and accessible by the public than it has been in the past.

“We have returned large spaces inside the Capitol back to the public,” he said. “There are fewer offices in the Capitol and there’s also a lot more what’s called ‘core,’ which is restrooms, electrical, mechanical, elevators … that was office space or meeting space previously.”

House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper, said there is much to the project that visitor’s won’t notice on first glance.

“They’ll be walking on top of it when they’re on the garden level,” he said. “It’s really all the new foundation and utilities.”

The new working environment may improve the work of the Legislature, said Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie.

“Doing the public’s work and doing it as well as possible is motivated in part by the physical space that we’re in,” she said.

The Capitol Building Restoration Oversight Group met for a final time Wednesday to tie a bow on the project ahead of the grand reopening of the State Capitol on Wyoming’s Statehood Day, July 10th.

Analysis: Who Uses the Wyoming State Plane the Most?

in Government spending/News/Transportation
Wyoming state plane
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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

The state’s two twin-engine passenger jets — nicknamed “Wyoming’s Air Force” — spend most of their time ferrying state officials around Wyoming, but about 10 percent of the flights leave the state, according to state records.

“I don’t know the background of all the flights that are flown out of state,” said Brian Olsen, the Wyoming Department of Transportation aeronautics division administrator. “It could be cheaper (than driving), but I think a lot of it could have to do with scheduling.”

Although the planes are maintained by WYDOT, Olsen explained each state agency can use them.

“We submit two reports to our Transportation Commission, detailing how many flights the planes took and (which agency) used them,” he said.

However, WYDOT does not keep track of the reasons for the trips taken by other agencies.

Olsen said he was not aware of a specific organization or committee charged with overseeing who uses the planes for what.

Previously, Cowboy State Daily reported the jets cost about $1 million to operate and maintain each year and made 663 trips carrying 2,213 passengers during fiscal year 2018. WYDOT reported about 12 percent of those flights were out-of-state.

In fiscal year 2017, the two planes logged a total of 725 one-way legs and 2,294 passengers with about 10 percent of those flights leaving the state. During fiscal year 2016, they completed 852 legs carrying 2,604 passengers and about 10 percent of flights left the state.

The numbers for fiscal years 2016 and 2017 do not accurately reflect the planes’ usage, however, WYDOT spokesperson J. O’Brien said.

If members from two agencies board the same flight, WYDOT records the trip as two legs instead of one. Also, the passenger numbers for fiscal years 2016 and 2017 include flight and maintenance crew, which are not typically considered passengers. WYDOT listed nearly 30 categories of users for each of the three years, during all of which the department was the planes’ primary user. In fiscal year 2016, WYDOT used the planes for 246 legs, carrying 827 passengers. In fiscal year 2017, the department flew 834 passengers on 222 legs, and during fiscal year 2018, WYDOT reported using the planes for 224 legs, carrying 693.

The governor’s office is consistently the second-highest user when combined with the governor’s residence category, which is used to log the flights of Wyoming’s first lady.

In fiscal year 2016, the governor’s office logged 123 legs carrying 452 passengers, while the governor’s residence reported 21 legs carrying 39 passengers. During fiscal year 2017, the governor’s office was responsible for 127 legs carrying 439 passengers, and the governor’s residence logged 14 legs carrying 29 passengers. And in fiscal year 2018, the governor’s office reported 97 legs carrying 330 passengers, while the governor’s residence recorded 27 legs carrying 44 passengers.

The Office of the Governor, Mark Gordon, who took office in 2019, said in a prepared statement: “Governor Gordon supports fiscal responsibility and the judicious use of taxpayer dollars. Several WYDOT studies have determined that owning state aircraft is more cost-efficient than private charters or driving vast distances.

“With his demanding schedule and numerous commitments across the state, the governor utilizes air travel on a limited basis in order to conduct official duties and be as accessible as possible to all Wyoming citizens, not just those in Cheyenne,” the statement concluded.

In fiscal year 2016, the Wyoming Department of Corrections Parole Board tied with the University of Wyoming for third-most user of the planes with both logging 120 legs. WDOC’s legs carried 352 passengers, while UW carried 278.

Neither agency logged more than 100 legs in fiscal yer 2017, but in fiscal year 2018, UW ranked the third-highest user with 112 legs carrying 295 passengers.

UW also owns two Beechcraft King Air turboprop aircraft, UW spokesperson Chad Baldwin said. One is designated for research, and the other is used for transportation.

Olsen said legislators can also use the state’s passenger jets, but those occurrences are rare.

“If one of them were to use the planes, they would have to log it under an agency they are working with or the Wyoming Legislative Service Office (LSO),”  he explained.

The LSO logged 8 legs carrying 16 passengers in fiscal year 2016, and 8 legs carrying 14 passengers in fiscal year 2017. No trips were recorded by the LSO in fiscal year 2018.

In addition to carrying passengers, WYDOT Director and retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. K. Luke Reiner said the planes could be used during emergency situations.

“They can be used for emergency viewing of a wildfire,” Reiner said. “And, let’s say WYDOT needs to look at a flood area or mud slide, they could be used for that, too.”

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