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Revenues ahead of estimates, though structural problems remain

in Government spending/News/Taxes
Wyoming taxes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

Wyoming’s jets cost state $1 million in 2018

in Government spending/News/Transportation
Wyoming’s jets cost state $1 million in 2018

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

With 99 municipalities spread far and wide across Wyoming’s approximately 98,000 square miles, transportation can be time consuming for state employees and elected officials.

However, some disagree on whether the best way to meet those travel needs is to keep the two state jets sometimes jokingly referred to as the “Wyoming Air Force.”

In 2002, the state purchased two Cessna Citation Encores, twin-engine transport jets, to reduce the time its employees and officials spent on the road, said Brian Olsen, administrator of the Wyoming Department of Transportation Aeronautics Division.

Not everyone, however, agrees the jets are the most efficient form of transportation.

Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper, said he has added an amendment to the state’s budget bill to sell one of the jets every year since he was elected in 2017. But, so far, the amendment has failed.

“I think they’re an example of government extravagance,” Gray said. “There’s no reason we should have this many jets.”

Olsen disagreed. By owning two jets, he said the state could ensure one plane is available whenever needed.

“When it comes to maintenance, one plane is no plane,” Olsen explained.

According to Wyoming’s checkbook, WYDOT spent about $494,700 on aircraft maintenance with Cessna Aircraft Company in 2018. Olsen said $464,000 of that total was spent on maintaining the jets. The state also owns a Cessna 208, a single-engine turbo prop used to photographically survey road conditions, he said.

WYDOT Director and retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. K. Luke Reiner said two jets is optimal.

“We have one jet going into maintenance in June,” Reiner said. “Having two planes does provide a certain sense of redundancy. Also, there’s use for two aircraft … in terms of the ability for elected leaders and agencies to fulfill their responsibilities to the state and the residents.”

Regardless of whether flying is more efficient, government air service stymies private enterprise, said Kevin Lewis, a researcher for Equality State Taxpayers Association.

“People who fly in Wyoming make up a market for air travel,” Lewis said. “Right now, the government sector is removed from that market. We’re talking about a business that lives and dies on slim margins.”

By selling the jets, he suggested the state could create an environment for private intra-state air travel to expand.

“Wyoming is never going to grow itself if your main competitor is the government,” Lewis added.

Cost efficiency

Olsen said WYDOT researched the possibility of booking flights with private charters, but determined owning and maintaining its own fleet was about 44 percent more cost effective.

WYDOT also looked into fractional aircraft, the practice of sharing aircraft ownership, maintenance and operation costs with multiple owners, and determined fractional ownership would be 32 percent more expensive than owning the jets solely.

In regards to employee travel, Olsen said WYDOT studies reported flying employees across the state was 14 percent more cost efficient than paying them to drive.

“We looked at a couple salary levels, but mostly around the $100,000-a-year mark,” he explained. “But those studies don’t take into consideration the cost of motels or opportunity costs.”

Employees are rendered somewhat ineffective while driving, because the time they spend on the road — even when carpooling — is not conducive to a productive work environment, he added.

As stewards of taxpayers’ dollars, Reiner said he believed the jets were the most fiscally responsible travel option for state employees and elected officials.

“I think these aircraft are a really good use of resources for our state,” he said.

Between bulk jet fuel purchases of about $185,000, $464,000 in maintenance costs and approximately $327,000 in pilot’s salaries, Wyoming spent about $1 million on traveling via the two jets in 2018.

Despite WYDOT’s efficiency report, Gray said he would still like Legislature to review the possibility of reducing the state’s air fleet by one jet.

“When I’ve done town halls, I’ve consistently heard the jets are a problem,” he said. “We’re going to continue trying the amendment.”

Reiner said he doesn’t believe the state needs more than two jets, but the state should maintain its current fleet.

“The planes are a tremendous asset for our government,” he said. “The bottom line is they help us accomplish our mission.”

Wyoming’s Air Fleet By the Numbers

  • Aircraft: 2-Cessna twin-engine passenger jets, 1-Cessna single-engine turbo prop survey plane
  • Viable landing strips across Wyoming: 34
  • Maintenance cost for 2018: About $464,000
  • Fuel cost for 2018: About $185,000
  • Annual pilot salaries combined: About $327,000
  • Transport jet flights in 2018: 663, carrying a total 2,213 passengers

Spending data provides window into state expenses, but lacks big picture

in Government spending/News
Wyoming’s checkbook contains a mountain of information about state agency spending, but it’s far from a full accounting of Wyoming’s budget

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming’s checkbook contains a mountain of information about state agency spending, but it’s far from a full accounting of Wyoming’s budget.

“There’s a lot in the checkbook, but there’s also a lot missing,” said Kevin Lewis, an Equality State Taxpayers Association (ESTA) researcher. “The auditor’s office only tracks the checks they write, and some agencies use their own internal accounting system.”

After a years-long legal battle between ESTA, American Transparency and the state, newly elected Wyoming State Auditor, Kristi Racines, released the checkbook shortly after taking office in January. The checkbook contains approximately 4.9 million line items of expenditures made by state agencies during the last six years, but it does not include several spending categories such as state employee salaries or victims’ benefit payments.

Additionally, Lewis said portions of the released information are missing identifying codes.

The coding system is used so the data can be broken down by agency and spending category, but some codes fall short of identifying anything more than the department that ordered the expenditure.

“You’ll frequently see (in the checkbook) Wyoming Department of Transportation only, or Attorney General only,” Lewis said. “In general, you’d like to not have that, because it makes it difficult to figure out where the money is being spent.”

Confidential payments

Releasing information to the public is a complex process, but it boils down to fulfilling information requests, Racines said.

“Payroll is different than writing a check to someone,” she said. “The auditor’s office doesn’t deal with salaries, it deals with paychecks.”

Paychecks can include confidential information about employees, so Racines said her office has to approach releasing paycheck data carefully as some of it might be covered under various confidentiality laws, both state and federal.

Regardless of the hurdles, she said the answer to why payroll information wasn’t in the checkbook is simple.

“It wasn’t in the request,” Racines explained.

If the information were to be requested, she said the office would release the information, but only after they reviewed state and federal statutes and consulted with the Wyoming Attorney General’s office about what portions of the paycheck could be released.

Other confidential categories include victim benefit payments, some law enforcement activities, subsidized adoption payments and benefit payment assistance.

“There’s a lot of categories that might seem obvious,” Racines said. “And some of the categories are not as black and white as they may seem. An expert witness payment may be confidential while a case is ongoing, but not later.”

Because the checkbook is a line-by-line expense report, the auditor said it did not include many payments protected by confidentiality laws. While the payments themselves are confidential, the amount an agency spends on a confidential category is not. 

“The public can request to see how much an agency spent on something like victim’s benefit payments,” Racines explained. “But because that wasn’t in the (checkbook) request, we didn’t include it.”

The auditor’s office handles most of the state’s accounting, but some agencies use their own accounting system.

“We use Wyoming Online Financial System, which is like a gigantic version of QuickBooks,” Racines said. “Some agencies, like the University of Wyoming, have an internal system, though.”

When an agency uses a different system, Racines said she can’t access its records, and therefore, her office couldn’t include its expenditures in the checkbook. In addition to the university, Wyoming Game and Fish and WYDOT expenses were largely absent from the released data as well as Wyoming Pipeline Authority and Wyoming Infrastructure Authority line items.

“The infrastructure authority and the pipeline authority are a little different,” Racines explained. “They’re authorities, not agencies, so my understanding is the state cuts them a check for their budget, because it is appropriated by legislature. Then (the authorities) cut out individual checks.”

Coding system

Wyoming’s agencies use about 6,000 codes to categorize how state money is spent, but the system is old and has not been regularly updated, Racines said.

“Our data is only as good as our codes are,” she explained. “We have a lot of codes that are unused, and some that could maybe be better described.”

Lewis said without better code descriptions, the data reviewers are left to guess at what the state spends money on.

“On one line item, maintenance might be spelled out, but on another it could be just MT, then in another it’s ‘Op & Maint,’” Lewis said. “Spelling and consistency problems aside, the chart of accounts often doesn’t include enough information about the item. We can see the governor’s office spent ‘X’ amount on farm equipment in 2017, but we don’t know why.”

Even with missing codes and jumbled descriptions, Lewis said releasing the checkbook was strong step toward increasing transparency in Wyoming government, but it’s just the start.

“Even though we finally got the checkbook, we only have a little bit of the picture,” Lewis said. “We have a long way to go before we figure out the rest of it.”

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