Former Vice President Hubert Humphrey once said, “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are at the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” No doubt those words were inspired not from his political life but from his faith as a devout Protestant. Which reminds us that in solving our state budget crisis we face not just a fiscal crossroads, but a moral one.
For decades Wyoming milked coal royalties as if it were our right. It’s as if we forgot that if 60 million years ago those peat bogs had formed 100 miles to the east, all that revenue would have gone to South Dakota. And despite a 20 year advance notice that utilities were migrating to natural gas and renewables, our politicians prioritized their short-term political careers over Wyoming’s future by not addressing our unsustainable tax structure.
In so doing, we became addicted to coal royalties and they got to keep their political jobs.
It did not have to be this way. Working in the energy sector in Texas, I witnessed what happens when oil prices drop from $120 to $35 per barrel. It was brutal. But Texas adopted a different mindset than ours, which can be summarized by the bumper sticker: “Lord, please grant me one more oil boom, I promise not to piss it away!” When prices improved, Texas leaders took their heads out of the peat bogs and invested in new industries, improved their infrastructure and created one of the finest education systems in the country.
Despite swings in energy prices, Texas consistently ranks in the top five in the nation for GDP growth.
Instead of preparing for this eventuality, and grasping the opportunity at hand, our leadership “pissed it away.” Which is why those same politicians should not now ask our children, elderly and needy to bear the burden of a squandered coal boom just to avoid the political risk of saying aloud what we all know to be true: The free lunch is over.
Wyoming needs to create a fair and equitable tax structure for those who can bear the cost. We’ve rejected taxes as if it were our birthright to get our services for free forever. But if the math means that the free lunch comes at the expense of our children, for example, we need to acknowledge the difference between rugged independence and the moral question of selfishness.
Gov. Mark Gordon has done his best given his constitutional requirements to balance the budget. But his plan requires cutting $2.75 million from the Wyoming Home Services program, which allows our seniors to stay in their homes instead of being placed in a long-term-care facility.
When I ran for U.S. Senate in 2018, I had lunch with a group of seniors in Laramie. One woman told me a heartbreaking story of how she had to sell virtually everything she owned and move into a facility. She described for me the kitchen table that she and her late husband owned. It wasn’t fancy or expensive, she said, but it had reminded her of him. It was carted off by a college student in a yard sale. She cried when she told the story, and so did I.
In Wheatland not long ago, my wife, Wendy, and I had breakfast at one of our favorite cafes. Wendy strikes up conversations wherever we go, which is how I got to hear the story of a mother who, in order to qualify for assistance, drives four hours to Green River for her son’s autism treatment.
Our governor proposes a massive $135 million reduction for the Wyoming Department of Health, which will directly impact families like hers who, to use Humphrey’s words, through no fault of their own live in the “shadows of life.”
Preparing our children for adulthood is among the highest moral calling, yet programs that offer the next generation a strong future are being reduced or eliminated. The University of Wyoming and our community colleges will see their budgets slashed by nearly 15%. Under the governor’s plan, the Department of Family Services will eliminate both the Boy’s School in Worland and the Girl’s School in Sheridan.
No one wants to pay taxes, but if in refusing to pay for the services we receive we deny a Wyoming child the same education and preparation we received, are we not confusing a fiscal crisis with a moral crisis?
Gordon announced that “every cut will hurt.” But is that to fall disproportionately on our children, our disabled neighbors and our seniors just so we can get for free those few services that remain?
This is the time for our governor to trade his political skill for fearless leadership. It is the time to set aside worries about re-election. Because this particular crossroad asks that we make a choice about our fundamental values — and for many, our faith. There is another bumper sticker that comes to mind: “What would Jesus do?”
CORRECTION: The original version of this story wrongly identified the year Hubert Humphrey was vice president.