A Note From Pete Simpson:
This month we address the issue of Wyoming’s Permanent Mineral Trust Fund – its purpose and its meaning for Wyoming both now and in the future. Kerry Drake’s column, Sometimes Wyoming needs to spend rather than save, piqued the interest of many – mine included. So, I invited two of the most knowledgeable individuals on this topic I know to contribute their views: State Senator, Charles Scott, of Casper, senior statesman in the Wyoming Legislature and its longest serving member, and Sam Western, author, journalist, lecturer and Adjunct Professor of Economics at the University of Wyoming.
Not surprisingly, they come at the subject from very different perspectives. Senator Scott instructs us on the purposes of the Fund and urges our consideration of its worth as presently administered. Sam Western, on the other hand, questions the state’s management of the Fund and asks whether the present strategy is wise for the long run. That is, of course, what the Forum hopes for – views that can stimulate reasoned debate and discussion. Which of these views accord with your own and what do you see in our future?
— Peter K. Simpson
Take A Risk: How to create a society that matches its sceneryGuest Essay by Samuel Western — March 25, 2014
Every so often we read a book that knocks our socks off. I mean really sends us for a loop. As part of the research for my next book, I read Christopher Alexander’s Timeless Way of Building. I haven’t looked at the world the same since.
Using what might be described as forceful lyricism, Alexander gets us to see that when we think of our ideal house, neighborhood, town, city, state, the question to ask is not what will it look like? Or how will we finance that vision? It’s more fundamental: what will we do there? Or, as Alexander puts it, “We must first recognize that what a town or building is, is governed, above all, by what is happening there.”
I now see Wyoming and its future through this lens. What do we want to happen in this state? What sort of activity? Are we going to pull carbon fuels out of the earth or toil away at some government job? That’s what most Wyomingites do. Is that the future for the next two generations?
Not a thing wrong with either task. However, if we continue on this path, the unprecedented prosperity Wyoming has enjoyed the last 15 years will fade. There’s a dim likelihood for an all-out bust, mind you. America needs energy and, Wyoming, one way or another, will provide.
Yet Wyoming is America’s monolith of demographic, educational, political, and economic monoculture. Historically, monocultures either collapse when their single economic driver dries up (like cod supplies in Newfoundland or phosphate on Nauru), or they slowly fade, like Scotland (which was so dependent on heavy industry) did after WWI. More importantly the young, creative and educated leave.
Wyoming ranks first in the nation with the percentage of the population over 25 with a high school degree. But we rank 40th in percentage of population over 25 with a college degree or above. We’re overwhelmingly Republican. We’re also 93 percent white and the least economically diverse state in the nation with most our revenue, directly or indirectly, coming from energy.
Feel free to call me naïve — I’ve been called plenty worse — but I’d hope Wyoming could be a center for all sorts of activity. Specifically, I’d like to see a multi-age population who creates a diverse economy that, in turn, helps their communities obtain a comforting degree of financial autonomy from Cheyenne and Washington.
See? You’d think me a little light in the Tony Lamas. I doubt we can create this sort of activity until we do three things:
1. Work on being less politically paternal. All power emanates from Cheyenne. Wyoming is a Dillon’s Rule state. That means that counties and cities only have the powers bequeathed them by the state legislature, including, for example, how much money can be spent on a county commissioner or sheriff’s salary. This micromanaging discourages independent thinking and basic healthy autonomy.
2. Break our economic paternalism. Wyoming is currently a petrolarchy that collects severance taxes on energy then distributes those revenues to cities and counties in an annual paternalistic rain of largess.
And finally …
3. Start introducing creative risk into the Wyoming template. We’re a conservative place so we have to do this incrementally. We can start by dedicating a small percentage of the revenues from our Wyoming Permanent Mineral Trust Fund, funded by energy taxes and currently worth about $6.2 billion, into creative endeavors and research, preferably at the University of Wyoming. The WPMTF is our ace in the hole. To paraphrase Bert the cowardly lion, “What do we got that they (other states) ain’t got?”
Our own private bank.
Currently, interest from our WPMTF goes into that bottomless vault called the General Fund. Last year, the WPMTF earned $366.6 million. But the General Fund is controlled by a legislature fixated on the idea that there’s no such thing as too much money in one’s savings account. Take, say, 2 percent or 3 percent of those earnings, to fund really new ideas. Give oversight to a board with limited terms and hold their feet to the fire. There will be plenty of failures, believe me, but also the affirmation that, funeral by funeral, we can break out of our monoculture.
Those familiar with state finance may roll their eyes and say, oh for crying out loud, we prime the economic pump by sending out billions out to cities, counties, highways and water accounts. Won’t decent infrastructure attract businesses? Probably not.
This isn’t about building; it’s about creating and that’s a messy business. We have such a unique opportunity to make a difference for the next generation. We made progress when the state contributed $20 million towards Cheyenne’s NCAR computer center and the 2014 legislature passed – and Gov. Matt Mead signed – a bill that create a $24 million loan fund for companies looking to expand in the state.
Yet, even with these adjustments, just lift up the carpet and witness what’s happening to our monoculture. Between 2010 and 2012, about half of Wyoming counties had either flat (1 percent or below annual growth) or declining population. For some folks, this decline is reason to celebrate. Yay less people! But reality is disinclined to oblige this idyll. Federal and state appropriations are often based on formula(s) combining population and assessed valuation. The fewer people, the fewer outside (and inside) income streams, usually kicking off a downward cycle. There’s a reason why Hot Springs County is one of Wyoming’s struggling places. It only has 4,800 souls.
For the last 40 years, Wyoming has evolved into a state with little pockets of prosperity in our cities and those counties fortunate enough to have minerals. But, even regions of the state with minerals struggle. Johnson County lost a heart-halting $311 million in assessed valuation from 2012 to 2013. Just remember that in 2000 Johnson County only had an assessed valuation of $50.5 million.
Christopher Alexander’s idea that activity dictates what sort of community you want is akin to the philosophy of an old friend of the West, Wallace Stegner, who famously yearned “to create a society to match its scenery.”
Stegner also wrote that, “towns are like people. Old ones often have character, the new ones are interchangeable.” I don’t think that’s necessarily true. In Wyoming, we can have both, but we’ve got to fund that belief.
— Samuel Western of Sheridan is a university lecturer, poet and U.S. regional correspondent for The Economist. Author: Pushed Off the Mountain Sold Down the River: Wyoming’s Search for Its Soul (2003) and A Random Census of Souls (2009).
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