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By Leo Wolfson, State Politics Reporter
Two prominent leaders in Wyoming’s upcoming Legislature have a sobering outlook for the state’s future even as Wyoming is awash with oil and gas revenues and federal COVID-19 funds.
“We’re on a tremendous sugar high of one-time monies right now, but we all know that tougher times are ahead,” said Senator Ogden Driskill of R-Devils Tower. “We basically watch our budget very closely so we don’t put ourselves in an incredible quandary that we have to make Herculean tax increases because we made some bad steps along the way.”
That sentiment was echoed in a series of topics by Driskill and Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, during an AARP webinar in Wyoming Tuesday afternoon.
Sommers said water issues for Wyoming will increase in severity over the next century. He painted a cautionary tale of dry reservoirs across the state dropping to dangerously low levels.
The Colorado River Compact, an agreement between seven western states that regulates water use in the Colorado River Basin, was concluded in 1922 under very different terms than today. The basin is now in the midst of a decades-long drought that may take a generation to recover from.
“We’re going to fight for our water,” Sommers said.
Sommers said agribusiness in Wyoming will be particularly hard hit by water shortages. He said these users and others must learn to conserve and use every drop of water available to them.
“I don’t think any of us understand what’s going to happen. It’s going to be tough for us,” Sommers said. “In the end, a lot of ranchers will perish, I just know it.”
Not just downstream anymore
Historically, water availability has been a more critical issue for other western states like Colorado due to their significantly larger population bases.
Many Colorado municipalities and water districts have aggressively purchased water rights and storage areas for consumption many decades from now. Other facilities have enacted strict water protection guidelines.
“It’s going to cause a lot of headaches until we learn how to economize like our southern neighbors,” Driskill said. “Water has become an increasingly valuable commodity.”
Driskill said the City of Las Vegas has become quite efficient at recycling its water, operating at a rate of 97%.
“They got very creative,” he said.
water is money
He said that water availability is related to economic viability and mentioned that it was a key factor in Budweiser choosing its headquarters in northern Colorado over Wyoming.
Driskill also mentioned center pivot irrigation systems as an example of wasteful water use that drains wetlands.
“If we don’t see improved water conditions, how can I trade water to become more efficient as an agricultural producer?” asked Sommers. “We face an incredibly complicated problem.”
The low water availability will also affect the drinking water supply of the municipalities. The City of Cheyenne gets more than 50% of its water from the basin, Sommers said.
Driskill added to Wyoming’s cloud seeding efforts as a positive development.
Brain drain and profit
Sommers and Driskill also expressed concern about Wyoming’s shrinking rural population.
Driskill mentioned that Hulett High School had more than twice the student population when he attended school than it does now.
“We must not lose our rural schools,” Sommers said. “If you lose rural schools, you lose small-town Wyoming.”
Driskill said Wyoming needs to find a way to make its education funding model as economical as possible, an issue he attributes to the need to diversify the state’s economy.
Both lawmakers expect Cheyenne to become a major metropolis in the future. The state capital is one of the fastest growing areas in Wyoming.
“It’s going to be Denver or Salt Lake City of Wyoming,” Sommers said. “There will be astronomical growth in this corner of Wyoming.”
An overarching theme of this year’s legislature will be whether to spend money and invest in the future of the state or save money for a rainy day ahead.
Sommers and Driskill both prefer the middle ground.
“I think we need a good dose of both,” Driskill said, pledging to work to ensure that one-third to one-half of available cash is stashed in permanent funds.
Driskill said he also supports Gov. Mark Gordon’s proposal for an additional $354 million budget.
The state forecasts an overall revenue surplus of around $1 billion and another $1 billion surplus for K-12 education, driven largely by rising oil and gas prices over the past year.
“How we save or spend that money will make a difference to Wyoming residents going forward,” Sommers said.
cost of living
Driskill is opposed to Medicaid expansion and said he would not consider bringing legislation out of the Senate unless it was a budget change.
He believes the federal healthcare market is sufficient to meet Medicaid needs.
“It covers large sections of people if they’re willing to go out and try,” Driskill said. “Wyoming has traditionally been a state where they believe that if you can work and support yourself, you have to have a job.”
Though he’s opposed it in the past, Sommers said he supports Medicaid’s expansion after speaking to a number of people who would benefit positively.
He mentioned how he and his wife, both self-employed, had to buy insurance in the public market as it would have cost them $40,000 a year privately.
Both lawmakers said property tax reform will be a top priority in the upcoming session.
“How do we treat the older generation, your poor and your affirmed, so they don’t get taxed out of their homes?” asked Driskill. “When you’re 60, 70, 80, on a steady income, and living in a house that you’ve lived in since the 1940s, you can easily get into a position where you have to make choices about groceries and living in your house . This is not a choice for anyone.”
Driskill said he expects taxes on middle-class earners to rise in the future.
Sommers said he wants a property tax break that makes sense for homeowners and the state agencies that benefit from those revenues. Sommers mentioned a law he is drafting that would initiate a constitutional referendum to change Wyoming’s property tax laws.
Sommers said one of the biggest problems with the state’s property tax laws is that residential properties are valued under the same guidelines as commercial and agricultural properties.
“So you can’t create a senior citizen subclass or a poor subclass or a middle class subclass,” he said. “Similarly, you can’t tax million-dollar houses more than others.”
More money for state employees?
Sommers was pessimistic that a 1 percent cost-of-living adjustment would have a significant impact on state employees. He said a 1 percent COLA and a 1 percent increase in employer health insurance contributions would cost $68 million.
“I don’t know if we can create a COLA that makes sense and sustains it and, frankly, keeps our pension fund solvent,” he said, blaming the state’s inconsistent revenue streams.
Sommers and Driskill both believe that the state cannot afford to make enough significant changes to adequately fund the state’s employee pool over the long term.
“The long-term prospects are not sustainable. I hate being the bearer of bad news,” Driskill said.
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