State Budget to Include Further Cuts
Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon released his budget for the next two fiscal years during a call with reporters Monday. His goal is to save excess expenditures in preparation for future revenue challenges, which he said is imminent given the decline in fossil fuels in the U.S. economy.
“The government in Wyoming is much leaner than it was when I started. It’s much leaner than it has been for a generation,” Gordon said. “In some places, further cuts cannot, I say, cannot be made without compromising institutions.”
Gordon also noted that inflation rates, which are the highest they’ve been in the Cowboy State since 2008, hurt Wyoming’s revenue picture long-term as things become more expensive. And that’s especially true given the labor shortage the state’s government-funded workforce is experiencing, which Gordon is trying to offset by raising salaries. On the positive side, federal dollars should help mitigate some of the budget issues in the next few years, and Gordon expects to unveil a plan on how to spend American Rescue Plan funds in December.
Jackson Debates Possible Development Moratorium
A possible emergency development moratorium was the hot topic of discussion at Wednesday’s informal chat with Jackson Town Council officials held over Zoom. Officials heard from both sides of the debate, and Mayor Hailey Morton Levinson had her first chance to weigh in on a discussion that’s garnered dozens of public comments over e-mail and in public meetings.
“I feel the stress along with everyone else. It feels really hard and stressful to see all the changes. All these buildings that are going up that we know aren’t going to be serving or housing, I guess I should say our workforce,” she said. “And figuring out ways that we can address that is important to me.”
Morton Levinson said she’s open to moratoriums if they seem necessary, but Councilman Jonathan Schechter, who’s also in attendance, said he thinks any development bans enacted quickly would be a “knee-jerk” to a complex issue that needs more time. Both Morton Levinson and Schechter said it’s unlikely tangible action will happen at the next Town Council meeting Dec. 6.
Learn more about the debates over moratoriums here.
The Cowboy State is Going Nuclear
Kemmerer, Wyoming, has been chosen as the site for the state’s first nuclear power plant, according to the Casper Star-Tribune. The Naughton power plant, a coal-fired producer currently located there, will be converted to nuclear starting in mid-2024 and must be operational before 2028.
The nuclear engineering and development company TerraPower, which is owned by Bill Gates, chose Kemmerer over Gillette, Glenrock and Rock Springs. The decision will bring roughly 250 permanent jobs, and thousands of construction workers, to an area that’s been hit hard by the decline of fossil fuels in recent years. The Naughton power plant had been scheduled to shutter by 2025, but its transmission lines will now be reused in the nuclear facility, which may be the first of many in the Cowboy State, according to TerraPower.
Wyoming Republicans Drop Cheney
The Cowboy State’s GOP leaders voted to no longer recognize Congresswoman Liz Cheney as a member of the Republican party last weekend. The decision passed narrowly 31-29, and is largely a symbolic gesture against Cheney’s continued outspokenness against former president Donald Trump. Chair of the Teton County GOP Mary Martin did not vote in favor of that measure, saying it should be up for the people to decide whether or not Cheney still represents them.
“Honestly, I was really disappointed that that resolution came forward personally, but obviously I was in the minority,” she said. “This is just all fluff and aura. Smoke and mirrors, some might say.”
Martin said many members of her state party, largely from more conservative districts, felt betrayed by Cheney for her decision to join the committee investigating the Jan. 6t insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. That’s despite the fact that she voted with Trump 93% of the time while he was in office, far more than most House Republicans. But still, Martin agreed that Cheney needs to be more responsive to her own state’s needs.
“She has represented her state well up until recently, and she needs to show up in this state. I hear it all over. She’s not showing up,” Martin said.
The 2022 Republican congressional primary bid to unseat Cheney in Wyoming is already in full swing in terms of fundraising, seeing an unprecedented amount of donations from both in and out of state.
Macker Contemplates Solution to State Childcare Access
Jackson Hole residents pay a lot for childcare. Local families spend an average of 15% of their income on Pre-K and other childhood education, according to a 2020 survey. That’s more than double the federal definition of what’s affordable, and is a common problem many rural communities across Wyoming and the country are facing, often due to issues with access, time, and availability for parents. But now, Chair of the Teton County Board of Commissioners Natalia Macker thinks she has a solution to the issue.
“I would love to see Wyoming invest in building early childhood development facilities adjacent to community college and agricultural extension offices,” she said.
Macker’s proposal, called Community Care Sites, was a finalist in this year’s National Ideas Challenge, a contest that asks community leaders and policy experts across the country to look for solutions to local issues. She’s in Washington, DC, this week presenting her idea, which she’s talked about with Wyoming lawmakers, including Gov. Mark Gordon.
“We are trying to attract families. We are trying to diversify our economy and support our communities. And without child care, we’re going to continue, I think, to lose families or be unable to attract different types of business because that is community infrastructure that is needed,” Macker said.
Macker said Community Care Sites could be implemented using federal or state funding dollars, especially the emergency COVID-19 relief dollars flowing in.
State Legislature Assists Gordon in Fight over Vaccine Mandates
Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon signed the one bill that survived the state legislature’s special session this fall into law on Friday. The legislation falls short of directly challenging the Biden administration’s proposed COVID-19 vaccine mandates, which some Republican lawmakers had hoped to achieve, but it allocates $4 million for legal challenges against them.
“I thank the legislature for recognizing their distinct constitutional responsibility as appropriators in forwarding resources to support this endeavor,” Gordon said.
However, Gordon also expressed concern about the cost of holding the special session when he had already committed to filing lawsuits before it started. The seven-day session cost taxpayers more than $233,000, according to the Casper Star-Tribune.
Giving Local Fish a Hand
Construction has started this fall on the second phase of the Spread Creek Fish Passage Project. The project started in 2010 with the removal of the old Spread Creek dam, which was located just outside of Grand Teton National Park on Bridger-Teton National Forest lands. The dam removal made it possible for migratory fish to get into the headwaters of the creek, but many of them were then getting stuck in irrigation ditches. Northwest Wyoming Program Director for Trout Unlimited, Leslie Steen, explained how a new fish screen being built now will help avoid that.
“The water falls through the screen and that water goes into the irrigation ditch and gets used by the water users, the irrigators,” she said. “And then the fish actually get screened out, so they travel on top of the screen and go into a bypass pipe and are returned safely to the creek.”
Trout Unlimited is one of the lead partners on the project, along with the national park, national forest and Wyoming Game and Fish. But a total of more than 20 organizations, including local nonprofits, have also contributed to its funding. Steen thinks that speaks to the importance of the Snake River headwaters.
“In this area, we have one of the most intact aquatic ecosystems and intact native cutthroat trout populations in the entire West,” she said.
Construction on the fish screen and other irrigation system improvements is expected to be completed by next spring.