CHEYENNE – A lot remains unclear for the state’s ENDOW report with just days before it is due to Gov. Matt Mead and the Wyoming Legislature.
ENDOW (Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming) is Mead’s initiative to diversify the state’s economy in the next 20 years. The ENDOW executive council met in Laramie on Monday and Tuesday to discuss its report outlining preliminary findings and recommendations for state leaders to consider in 2018.
The report is due no later than Dec. 31. There was some broad consensus among the council members during its meetings, but many details are still being finalized as they work against the clock.
After a loose voting exercise, its priorities were reflected in the recommendations that are expected to rise to the top in the final version of the report. Broadband development, workforce training and expanding commercial air service received the most favorable votes. Improving higher educational attainment, fostering an entrepreneurial ecosystem and emphasizing computer science in K-12 education all received a significant number of favorable votes as well.
While there were times the group seemed to get bogged down on laborious details, ENDOW executive council co-chairman Greg Hill said it was an important part of the process. Hill, a Wyoming businessman, said he’s happy with how the meetings turned out.
“Part of the group dynamic is making sure you have enough conversation, so you have alignment and agreement,” he said. “I feel like we’re walking out of here with that.”
Since its first meeting in May, the council has focused largely on overcoming impediments to diversified economic growth. Whether it’s the state’s lack of access to reliable air service, the young workforce fleeing the state or broadband internet infrastructure, the council made it clear the state needs to set itself up for success.
Hill said some of the recommendations, such as commercial air service, are already in bill form. Others, he said, will likely find their way to that end. But overall, he said the first year is really about laying groundwork and making sure some funding is available to dig deep on its priorities.
“All we want to do – and (Mead) said this – at this point is earmark some money,” Hill said. “There will be some that turn into bills. But we’re really throwing our support and saying, based on our work, the people of Wyoming really want this.”
Mead recommended a $37.5 million appropriation for continuing ENDOW’s work in his budget released earlier this month. The money would come from the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account, commonly referred to as the “rainy-day fund.” And the state’s legislative leaders – Senate President Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, and Speaker of the House Steve Harshman, R-Casper – are both ex-officio, nonvoting members of the executive council that have expressed repeated support for the initiative. Bebout has said in the past he thinks using rainy-day fund dollars for continuing ENDOW is an appropriate use of the savings. And that’s significant.
ENDOW is not the first time Wyoming has tried similar efforts, only to result in glossy reports sitting on the shelf. Hill said it was imperative to his signing on to the project to know that wouldn’t happen with ENDOW.
“When (Mead) asked if I’d do this, I sat down with them all, because I wanted to get eyeball to eyeball,” he said. “I’m running an international oil company, so I wanted to make sure they were really committed.”
Hill said he also thinks this time is different because ENDOW’s work must succeed. Wyoming is slowly recovering from its latest bust related to mineral commodities that account for around 70 percent of its revenue. And while busts in the past have always been cured by inevitable booms as commodity prices go back up, Hill, Bebout and others have emphasized this time is different.
Economists forecasting better revenues for 2018 are also cautioning the bounce-back is likely going to flatten. Competing states with mineral resources, technology and more are working against the possibility of another boom.
Wyoming still has considerable reserves saved from more prosperous times.
With that in tow, Hill said many in Wyoming realize now is the time to act on its long-sought goals of economic diversification.
“I think the advantage is Wyoming’s back is against the wall,” he said. “We have a lot of wealth in the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund and all those sources that give us time to build a bridge. A lot of states don’t have that.”
It’s now up to subcommittees, stakeholders and staff to incorporate the council’s feedback into the final report. Until it’s released, the draft report is not being made public.
Hill said the public shouldn’t worry, however. He emphasized the preliminary nature of even the final report, and said it is still his goal to keep the public involved in the initiative.
Some things that are important to different interest groups might have fallen to the back, but Hill said it’s not because the council doesn’t recognize their importance. The initial work is about determining recommendations that are immediately actionable. With buy-in from lawmakers and the public, Hill said 2018 is where he expects the rubber to hit the road.
“This is early thinking,” he said. “2018 is going to be about going deep.”