CHEYENNE – Six of Wyoming’s 11 candidates for governor discussed state budget deficits, economic diversification and job creation at a Pancakes and Politics forum Monday morning.
The event, hosted by the Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce and moderated by local attorney Gay Woodhouse, hosted Republicans Bill Dahlin, Foster Friess, Sam Galeotos, Harriet Hageman and Taylor Haynes, as well as Democrat Mary Throne.
The conversation kicked off with questions about how each candidate would address efforts to diversify the economy via technology.
Dahlin, whose career has spanned a variety of sectors, including railroad and minerals, said the Wyoming Business Council’s efforts to strengthen the economy have fallen short for two decades.
“Almost a billion dollars have been spent, and we are still 70 percent dependant on the energy sector,” Dahlin said. “It is important to note that we have made significant attempts to bring in the tech sector, and that has not worked out so well.”
Instead, Dahlin emphasized the need for more organic growth industries, such as industrial hemp, which is not to be confused with marijuana. The industrial hemp industry was estimated to be worth nearly $700 million in 2016. Some uses for hemp includes paper, textiles, biodegradable plastics, construction, health food and fuel.
“It is just a start, but hemp has a lot of opportunity, and has 25,000 uses,” Dahlin said.
Friess, a megadonor from Jackson, said he would build on existing Wyoming companies, rather than exhausting means to attract new technology to the state.
“Sometimes we bring in new companies, give them the benefits of big subsidies, and they wind up costing us more than what they generate in revenue,” he said.
Better utilizing Wyoming beef in trade markets is one possible solution to economic shortfalls, Friess said.
“Let’s try to harness our existing strengths,” Friess said. “Seventy percent of our income is coming from minerals. The challenge is budgeting for the low periods and, when the good periods come along, put money away. Just be financially responsible with the resources we have.”
On the topic of supporting entrepreneurship in Wyoming, surgeon and rancher Haynes said he would reduce taxes and regulation on small businesses and build more robust vocational facilities for premier education.
Cheyenne attorney and former state legislator Throne said there are technological limitations across the state, making it difficult for small businesses to succeed.
“From a baker in Rock Springs who cannot get her internet to run because she uses satellite and it is cloudy, to the larger manufacturing facility in Campbell County that could use better internet, we have opportunities across the state,” she said.
Through his business advisory roundtable, Cheyenne businessman Galeotos said he has identified six key prerequisites to growing business in the state.
“The first thing is we need workers. The second thing is we need an education system that is creating workers for us years from now, and we need to be connected physically through air service and electronically through broadband,” he said.
When asked how she would best address much-needed infrastructure funding, Cheyenne attorney Hage-man said the state must recognize what industries are most important, protect fifth-penny sales tax funds and apply for federal block grants.
The forum wrapped up with candidates discussing transportation opportunities up and down the Front Range.
“Transportation is vital to Wyoming,” Throne said. “I would certainly consider the possibility of a commuter rail. I think it could be a game changer and very important for our state. But before we make any of these investments, we have to make sure they pay off for Wyoming.”
Haynes expressed concern with spending taxpayer funds on efforts to increase transportation to Colorado, rather than into Wyoming communities.
“If you are talking to me about the state investing in this thing on the Front Range, I am not interested,” he said. “The transportation system that we need is into the interior of Wyoming.”
Although each candidate had his or her own ideas about how to best govern the state, every candidate in attendance agreed an income tax in Wyoming would stifle economic development.
“I think it would be very destructive to Wyoming,” Hageman said.