UPDATE -- 5:30 P.M.: CHEYENNE, Wyo. -- Gov. Matt Mead acknowledged Monday that Wyoming is not an island, and that energy revenues, long the bulwark of the state's economy, are slipping as national and international factors reduce natural gas prices.
Nonetheless, the Republican governor in his second State of the State address, hammered on Wyoming's strengths, saying its people, its agricultural heritage and its vast natural resources leave it positioned for future success.
"Working together, I know that Wyoming can continue to be the best, both in title, and in reality," Mead said.
Mead said the state's agriculture and tourism industries, as well as continued energy production and long-term savings, combine to put Wyoming far ahead of many other states.
"We have over $14 billion dollars in assets and can build on savings again this year while continuing to invest for future success through wise appropriations," Mead said. "Wyoming remains strong financially."
While the rest of the nation continues to face high unemployment, Mead said, Wyoming's employment picture remains strong. While the national unemployment rate stood above 8 percent in December, he noted that the Wyoming's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate that month was 5.8 percent.
Wyoming's revenue projections have been slipping in recent months. State analysts were projecting natural gas to average $4 per thousand cubic feet this year when Mead first proposed his $3.4 billion state funds budget in December.
Just a month later, analysts cut that projected average to $3.25 per thousand cubic feet, a cut that forced Mead to slash his spending recommendations by over $100 million.
Gas prices have continued to fall, meanwhile, a fact that some analysts lay at the feet of increased production from new gas plays in other states and increased production from controversial newer production techniques such as hydraulic fracturing.
Some analysts are now calling for natural gas prices to average only $2.50 per thousand cubic feet this year. The Legislature's Joint Appropriations Committee in January approved setting aside $150 million from state reserves that Mead could tap into if necessary to keep government functioning.
Despite falling revenues, Mead called on lawmakers to resist the call for across-the-board funding cuts for state departments.
"We don't want to be penny-wise and pound foolish," Mead said. "We have sufficient resources to save wisely, invest wisely in our communities and our infrastructure, and at the same time, make necessary reductions in budget growth."
He has called on lawmakers to continue strong investment in counties and local governments as well as continued spending to maintain the state's highways.
Mead said he's aware that not everyone in the state is doing well. "We know we are not a bank that only cares about the bottom line, and we know we are not an island," he said. "We have seen economic instability grow and spread across Europe. We have watch debt mount at the national level. We have observed the effects of an unstable global economy."
Mead said Wyoming needs to continue its strong emphasis on children's education. State lawmakers have been working to overhaul the state's K-12 education system for the past several years, saying student achievement and test scores have been lagging far behind the state's heavy financial commitment to education.
The Legislature's Joint Interim Education Committee is pushing an accountability bill to change the state's student assessment system.
"Wyoming kids have to compete on a global scale," Mead said. "Nothing but the best education will do. We need accountability in our schools, accountability in our parents. And with every decision, all of us have should make it known that mediocrity is not acceptable."
Mead also called on lawmakers to endorse a wolf management plan that would designate the animals as predators that could be shot on sight in most of the state, a move he says would protect the state's agricultural interests.
Mead and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar last year agreed on a plan to end federal protections for wolves in Wyoming. The federal government already has turned over wolf management to state governments in Idaho and Montana.
Under the Wyoming proposal, wolves would be subject to controlled hunting in a flexible area in the northwest corner of the state, generally around Yellowstone National Park. They would be left unprotected elsewhere.
Wolves were reintroduced in Yellowstone and other areas in the mid-1990s. There are now more than 1,600 in the Northern Rockies, including more than 300 in Wyoming. Wyoming has sued the federal government repeatedly to try to end federal oversight of wolves in the state while environmental groups have filed many other legal challenges seeking to continue federal protections.
"The only clear winners to date have been the attorney's and the wolves," Mead said. "To be clear, they are not one and the same."
State lawmakers of both parties said after Mead's address that they agreed with the governor's message that Wyoming is better off than most other states and that it must continue to emphasize education.
"What I heard was a reminder, or perhaps an accounting, as my mother would say, of counting our blessings in regard to the strengths of Wyoming," Sen. President Jim Anderson, R-Glenrock, said of Mead's address.
Rep. Pat Goggles, D-Ethete, is the minority floor leader, one of only 10 Democrats in the 60-member House.
"We do agree with the governor in terms of education," Goggles said. "We do agree with his fundamental goal that Wyoming should strive to have an educational system that's second-to-none."