The 61st Wyoming Legislature opened Monday with Gov. Matt Mead declaring, “The state of the State is strong.”
Wyoming must plan for lower revenues from natural gas extraction, he said. But he said the state remains strong financially and still has many options to explore thanks in large part to extraction of minerals worth more than $15.5 billion and a thriving tourism industry.
The governor touched briefly on worker safety, a top priority of the Equality State Policy Center in the 2012 budget session. Mead asked the legislature to support his proposal, which includes a request that the legislature create five new positions for courtesy inspectors for OSHA. On courtesy inspections, those inspectors would assess work sites and identify potential hazards and violations of safety law but assess no penalties. The companies involved would be alerted and allowed a defined period to correct any violations.
In his very positive State of the State message, the governor spoke of the need to concentrate more on technology to diversify the economy by building on the presence of the NCAR super-computer in Wyoming and expanding the availability of broadband across the state. He also urged careful examination of “value-added technologies” such as coal-to-liquids – a reference to the big DKRW coal-to-liquids plant proposed near Medicine Bow – and gas-to-liquids.
Economic development will be improved, he said, through further investment in community infrastructure via the business-ready communities program. But the state’s ultimate economic prosperity depends on a high-quality public education system. He supported efforts to improve the system through a stronger core curriculum that is a state creation, rather than a federally mandated program.
“We need more rigorous standards,” he said and more accountability in the schools and more accountability for parents. “Mediocrity is not acceptable,” he said.
“Wyoming should strive to have a K-12 system that is second to none.”
Conservation and funding of the Wildlife Trust Fund also featured prominently in the governor’s speech. He noted the fund helps keep ranchers on their land and pointed to a University of Wyoming study that said the fund creates about 500 jobs annually.
The governor also said there is a legitimate case for pay raises for judges and custodians. Chief Justice of the Wyoming Supreme Court Marilyn Kite followed the governor’s speech with a reminder to legislators that judicial branch employees were not included in pay hikes recently approved for the executive branch. She noted that starting pay for new attorneys joining the Attorney General’s Office is considerably higher that the salary paid new attorneys hired at the Supreme Court.
He also urged support of his effort to deal with water supply problems in Pavillion, highway funding, local government support, and Medicaid.
Tax break for Big Coal
In a budget session, non-budget bills – other than redistricting measures that will be consider this year – require a two-thirds majority vote to be introduced for consideration. The ESPC opposes House Bill 38 – Coal Severance Tax Industry Factor. It was successfully introduced Monday and will go to the House Revenue Committee. The measure changes how coal is valued and will mean a loss of revenues exceeding $6.5 million in 2015, according to the bill’s fiscal note.
School finance hammered
House Bill 47 School Finance failed on introduction on a 30-30 vote. The bill included a regional cost adjustment that would have cost some local districts substantial amounts of state support. The Teton County school district would have lost millions that had been used to adjust teacher pay to compensate for the high cost of housing in that beautiful county. The measure is likely to be re-drafted and considered again but without the regional cost adjustment language, according to Wyoming Education Association observers.
So the session is launched
The ESPC will track many issues this year including worker safety, redistricting of the Legislature, an effort to eliminate public employee bargaining, proposals aimed at changing the state’s public pension system, health care, and public records and public meetings proposals.
Please track this work here and watch for opportunities to support efforts to improve job safety, sustain retirees, build a better healthcare system, and keep government accountable to the people it serves.