Wyoming lawmakers: Energy boom-era savings was correct choice

2012-11-15T23:45:00Z 2013-03-21T11:56:11Z Wyoming lawmakers: Energy boom-era savings was correct choiceBy JEREMY FUGLEBERG Casper Star-Tribune The Billings Gazette
November 15, 2012 11:45 pm  • 

CASPER, Wyo. -- Three leading state legislators and one former lawmaker on Thursday defended Wyoming's savings and spending choices in recent boom years, as budget cuts loom in the upcoming legislative session.

The lawmakers served on a panel at the Wyoming Business Alliance's annual meeting in Cheyenne. They analyzed the previous decade -- in which the state started with a multimillion-dollar budget hole yet ended up with a billion-dollar trust fund as new coal-bed methane and gas fields pumped tax revenue into Wyoming's coffers.

Roy Cohee, a Casper Republican legislator from 1999 to 2010 and the state House speaker in 2007-2008, recalled the $230 million hole the state found itself in during his first budget session. Times were so tough, officials were grateful when a woman died and left the state millions in inheritance tax, he remembered.

In following years, though, the state found itself flush with cash -- particularly as the Powder River Basin's coalbed methane wells and the Jonah natural gas field near Pinedale blossomed.

Cohee and the other legislators plunged money into endowments, a trust fund and such infrastructure improvements as highway construction and repairs.

"A lot of great things happened around the state because of the money we found ourselves with," said current state House Speaker Ed Buchanan, R-Torrington, a legislator since 2003.

Cohee recalled the legislators minting buttons to wear calling for $4 billion to be set aside in a trust fund by 2010. As of July, the state's Permanent Mineral Trust Fund stood at more than $5 billion.

"I'm proud, as anything I've ever done, that we exceeded that goal," Cohee said.

But Cohee said legislators may have overspent, as Gov. Matt Mead and current legislators consider budget cuts to deal with slumping revenue chiefly caused by depressed natural gas market prices. Cohee wondered aloud if the state may be bringing its spending back to where it should have been all along.

The economic heyday between 2005 and 2010 might prove to be an anomaly, he said.

Low prices, and hence lower mineral tax revenues, "may be the new norm going forward," he said.

State Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody, is chairman of the Senate's education committee. He said Wyoming's large per capita investment in education and the Hathaway Scholarship Program for Wyoming students naturally led to a need for accountability, to ensure students are well-educated and graduate from high school ready for a career or college.

Coe and the other legislators acknowledged their concern for students who enter college but require remedial education, or lose access to the state's Hathaway Scholarship during their first year in college.

"It's not happening right now," he said of accountability measures. "We need to make sure that happens."

State Senate President Jim Anderson, R-Glenrock, said the lawmakers' moves during the boom years since 2005 were an attempt to think forward, stabilize the state's economy, and strengthen and educate the next generation and make its members responsible, independent Wyomingites. To emphasize his point, he echoed an expression he said his father used.

"We don't want them to be bucket cats in the morning bawling for something to eat," Anderson said.

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