The need to figure out a new way to address state government revenue and spending in Wyoming has been staring us in the face for at least the past two years, as state revenues from the minerals industry plummeted.
A new University of Wyoming poll that found the majority of residents want to increase state spending or at least maintain it at current levels.
But those poll results seem to be totally at odds with political reality. If residents like most state services and don’t favor cuts, then explain what voters did on Nov. 8.
From the top of the ticket all the way down, this was seen as a change election. Republican voters in Wyoming warmed to the idea of putting a political novice like Donald Trump in the White House when faced with Hillary Clinton’s continuation of President Barack Obama’s Democratic agenda. It didn’t matter what crazy ideas Trump spouted, as long as he offered something different — and boy, did he ever.
It’s often a winning strategy in politics to simply rail against the status quo and give people something new. Whoever is in power is open to attack, and blaming poor outcomes on government at all levels is usually a simplistic but compelling argument that favors candidates and parties that just want to see the current crop of bums thrown out.
But in Wyoming the UW poll results indicate something far different played out here. Change at all costs was never the main issue in this state. In fact, voters showed they were conflicted by two completely opposite choices about what they want state government to do.
When that situation happens, voters tend to split the difference and wind up somewhere in the middle, which almost never satisfies them. They will likely continue to complain about state governmental action though they did nothing to change it when they had the chance.
In the Nov. 8 legislative elections, voters returned 39 House incumbents and elected 21 freshmen. Nine state senators kept their seats, to be joined by six newcomers. Democrats, with only four of the 30 members in the Senate, lost one seat there when the votes were totaled.
By putting a large majority of the same lawmakers back in office, voters ensured there will be more of the same kind of reductions in spending as last year when the Legislature convenes in Cheyenne in January. The election results confirmed to these incumbents that they are doing what the public wants, even though UW’s poll shows that’s not the case. Looking at the number of re-elected lawmakers, I can’t say I blame them for their conclusion.
When will Wyoming voters stop voting against their best interests? Probably never. It happens every two years and there’s no indication the results in 2016 won’t be repeated no matter how the loss of revenue is handled.
Unless they spent the whole year somewhere else, it was impossible for voters to miss the news that Wyoming has a budget shortfall that has given its elected leaders fits. The Republicans are in charge of both houses of the Legislature and all five of the state’s elected offices, but that certainly doesn’t mean they agree about how to fund the state when tax collections from the energy industry are in freefall due to low prices.
The GOP leadership’s budget decisions have been predicated on the philosophy that it’s essential to make cuts somewhere. Those reductions have largely fallen on state services for low-income residents that need state government’s help, in an economy that has seen them increasingly struggle to survive.
In 2016, led by a far-right agenda, the Legislature wiped out the program offering tax rebates to elderly and disabled citizens. Combined, those groups are at or near the top of Wyoming’s extremely vulnerable populations. Lawmakers who demand that low-income people pull themselves out of poverty eliminated the state’s Family Literacy Centers that provided the opportunity for people who speak another language to learn English, which is essential to find better employment.
For the fourth year in a row, Republicans nixed the federal government’s offer to expand Medicaid to provide health insurance to about 20,000 of the state’s working poor. That meant the Legislature turned down hundreds of millions of federal dollars that would have made cuts to social services programs unnecessary and helped hospitals throughout the state pay their bills.
The Legislature did finally listen to the call from GOP Gov. Matt Mead, moderate Republicans and the few Democrats in both chambers and pried loose some money from the state’s “rainy day” fund. But it was not nearly as much as they needed to give the state a stable lifeline to continue providing services for residents.
Meanwhile, the GOP majority approved an obscene amount of money — $8 million — to improve recruitment of University of Wyoming athletes.
Not one of these decisions was popular. Data from UW’s poll released Nov. 22 shows that 82 percent of Wyomingites want to maintain or increase spending on health and social services. Law enforcement received even more support with 91 percent favoring increased or current-level funding. There was an even split on funding for public education — 44 percent for more funding and 44 percent to continue the money now in place.
These results are despite a well-recognized $157 million hole in the state budget for the next fiscal year that legislators are required to fully fix. Campaigning Republicans actually told voters they didn’t make enough budget cuts in the 2015-16 biennium and promised they’d be back with a bigger axe. No one should be surprised when that’s exactly what happens.
Since they’ve not been given any incentive to actually listen to what the public wants — more surgical precision in budget cuts instead of just wiping out social services programs — the Legislature doesn’t have to get better at its job. Instead of more careful, thoughtful reductions, lawmakers will probably keep cutting funding for programs that aren’t supported by the lobbying power that’s routinely exercised by the minerals industry, large and small businesses, the university and gun-rights advocates, among others.
That leaves tapping more from the rainy day fund (which doesn’t seem as objectionable to the GOP as it was only a year ago) and putting modest tax hike proposals on the table that will quickly be attacked and withdrawn as opposition grows. There was modest support shown in UW’s poll for instituting a state income tax — 18 percent approved it unconditionally, and 23 percent would accept a state income tax if it was tied to the reduction of an existing state tax.
But 49 percent flat rejected the idea of imposing a state income tax. Looking at those numbers will likely convince most incumbents to continue leave a state income tax on the drawing board. Lawmakers have long memories, and they all saw the dust they stirred up when the Legislature passed a 10-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase a few years ago.
If Wyoming residents truly support keeping up or increasing state spending on infrastructure, education and social services even in fiscally tough times, they need to start looking at the big picture. What they want will never be accomplished unless voters become determined to elect a new group of legislators who will change how state government operates instead of continuing what lawmakers think is working fine. It isn’t, but it’s unfair to put all of the blame on a legislative body that keeps being sent a mixed message about what the electorate wants.
Whining about state government being ineffective doesn’t cut it. How will Wyoming’s philosophy about state spending, savings and growing revenue resources ever change unless people demand it?