January 12, 2017
If you’ve ever thought Wyoming is stuck in a boom-bust economic cycle despite the best efforts of our Legislature, here’s a reality check from Rep. David Miller (R-Riverton):
“Diversifying the economy will not diversify the tax base. In fact, every non-mineral job is a further drain on our limited revenues,” Miller said in a speech yesterday. “Minerals can support Wyoming in perpetuity. However, that requires access to the minerals.”
You read it right. Miller is actually arguing against diversifying the state’s economy.
A lawmaker for 14 years, Miller is the House Majority Floor Leader, so he decides which bills are heard in that chamber.
The 63-year-old geologist who specializes in uranium mining has let it be widely known he wants to be speaker of the House someday. Under his reign, we could be sure the state’s economy would never be protected from the mining industry’s wild swings, and the state never remotely in control of its own economic future.
What Miller said is particularly astounding when you compare it to what other legislators have repeated over the past century: The state needs to diversify its minerals-based economy so it is no longer as dependent on energy development for its fortunes. Lawmakers from both parties regularly lament about the need to stop the boom-bust cycle that has plagued Wyoming’s economy for generations.
In his “State of the State” address to a joint session of the Legislature on Wednesday, Gov. Matt Mead literally agreed with nothing Miller said. He repeatedly stressed his office’s work to expand and diversify the state’s economy through initiatives like Economically Needed Diversification Options for Wyoming (ENDOW), announced last November. The 20-year economic diversification plan, developed in partnership with the University of Wyoming, will streamline efforts to continue beyond Mead’s and other governors’ tenures.
Unlike Miller, who envisions a future where nothing stands in the way of minerals being the only revenue producer, the governor said bringing other types of industries and companies to the state will actually benefit energy, tourism and agriculture.
Mead also mentioned another upside of economic diversification: giving young people more employment options so they have additional reasons to stay in Wyoming. The energy industry provides good-paying jobs while prices are high, but when a bust occurs and there’s no other work to fall back on, young adults leave the state to find jobs and raise families. Mead said a whopping 60 percent of Wyomingites between ages 18 – 25 leave the state.
New House Speaker Steve Harshman (R-Casper) made comments similar to Mead’s on the importance of long-term economic diversification strategies. “We need to have a permanent effort that lives [economic diversification] night and day,” Harshman said as the 64th Wyoming Legislature opened on Tuesday.
Democrats, like Senate Minority Floor Leader Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie), say they strongly support economic diversification. Rothfuss said it needs to be linked with changes to the state’s tax structure. That will likely prove to be as much of a challenge in 2017 as it has in past sessions, given the anti-tax mood of the Legislature’s GOP leadership and the attitude of lawmakers like Miller.
In the meantime, we can watch Miller pursue his dream of killing non-mining jobs while gaining more access to minerals as he pushes his pet cause: transferring federal public lands in Wyoming to the state. Lawmakers like Miller would love the 27.6 million acres of public land currently under BLM and National Forest Service jurisdiction to fall into the state’s clutches. In one fell swoop, the state could sell the land to mining companies, giving them access to minerals, and destroy the open spaces and wildlife habitat required by Wyoming’s growing outdoor recreation industry, which currently employs about 50,000 people in the state. A proposed state constitutional amendment that would lay the groundwork for public land transfer—but that actually, Miller claims, is meant to protect access for sportsmen (wink, wink)—has been beaten back by an organized coalition of outdoors groups and seems unlikely to pass this session.
But dreamers like Miller don’t quit. As long as he’s in the House, he’ll keep pursuing his vision of a Wyoming economy shackled to commodity prices, thriving and crashing at the whims of OPEC and Saudi oil princes. The rest of us can watch the state go broke, unable to pay for schools or police, and then boom for a while and pray that it lasts.
Until it doesn’t. Again.