CHEYENNE — With just two weeks to go before he's sworn in as Wyoming's 32nd governor, Matt Mead said he's prepared to start working to try to improve the state's economy as soon as he takes office.
Mead, a Republican, said he's been talking to Wyoming business and economic leaders to pick their brains and also meeting with representatives of outside companies to try to get them to relocate to the state. In particular, he said he's hopeful he can recruit commercial data centers — large facilities used to house computer systems — to Wyoming.
Mead, 48, said he's emphasized to company officials that Wyoming would be a good place for data centers both because it's geologically stable and the state's generally brisk temperatures would keep cooling costs low.
"Everybody talks about diversity, but I think that really will provide a mechanism to diversify our economy in many ways," Mead said of the data centers. "And I think it will provide an attraction to keep many young people in our state." Outgoing Democratic Gov. Dave Freudenthal has asked lawmakers to put up $14.5 million to try to recruit two companies considering Wyoming as a possible location for data centers.
Chris Boswell, Freudenthal's chief of staff, said the identity of one of the data center companies is unknown to the state because it's working through an intermediary. He said the other company negotiating with the state has asked that it not be identified.Mead also said it's critical for Wyoming to continue its role as a major energy producer. He emphasized it must remain financially worthwhile for energy companies to invest in clean energy innovations.
Mead said U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu told him recently at a meeting in Washington that China is making more efficient coal-fired power plants than those in the United States. Yet, Mead said, China is getting a lot more practice.
"They have more at-bats than we do," Mead said. "We need to make sure that we continue to get those at-bats, and what I mean by that is we need to make sure that we continue to have that coal industry and oil and gas profitable. And that is the way we're going to get better technology in terms of clean energy."
The Wyoming Legislature convenes a week after Mead gets sworn in next month. One of his first jobs will be to write a letter to the Joint Appropriations Committee spelling out his recommendations for the state's supplemental budget bill.
State fiscal analysts say healthy energy prices mean Wyoming will have well over $1 billion available either to save or spend in the 2011 legislative session. That's in addition to the two-year, $2.9 billion state funds budget approved in early 2010.
Mead said he and his transition team are already analyzing the Wyoming Department of Health budget, looking at both existing agency spending and its supplemental budget request.
Freudenthal has recommended the Legislature early next year bump up the state's roughly $1 billion Medicaid budget for the current two-year budget cycle by more than $170 million. He recently told lawmakers that the health department overspent its budget for the fiscal year that ended in June by more than $20 without prior authorization.
"We're looking at how we can save money," Mead said of his review of the health department. He said the agency clearly provides necessary services, but said its budget is so huge that realizing even a small percentage savings would translate in significant money for the state.
On other budget issues, Mead said he tends to support Freudenthal's recommendation that the Legislature put up roughly $50 million to increase funding for local governments and the same amount for road infrastructure. He said he couldn't say yet exactly what his overall final budget recommendations will be.
With Freudenthal leaving and many Democratic legislators suffering defeat this fall, Republicans starting in January will hold every statewide office in the state, together with huge margins in both houses of the Wyoming Legislature.
Mead said he remains committed to getting Wyoming into a federal lawsuit in which Florida and some 20 other states are challenging the constitutionality of the federal Health Care Reform Act. Mead has said he believes a provision of the law that would require everyone to have health insurance is unconstitutional.
Mead said he and his transition staff have been busy interviewing people interested in landing state jobs as well as state employees interested in keeping the jobs they already have. He said existing employees will be replaced only if there's a better person available to replace them, or if Mead decides it's time for a fresh set of eyes in a particular position.
Mead said he expects Wyoming will continue along its same general course on the issue of how to manage wolves. Wyoming has fought in the courts for years to try to get the federal government to end protections for the animals under the Endangered Species Act and turn management over to the state. Wyoming proposes to classify wolves as predators that could be shot on sight in most areas.
"I don't know that I can forecast where it's going to go," Mead said of the wolf issue. "What I can forecast is that my work on that will continue because the frustration level within the livestock industry, the frustration level within the sportsmen grows every day that we don't have a resolution."