CHEYENNE – Wyoming lawmakers officially launched the 2019 general session Tuesday with pomp and circumstance, including serenades from choirs, speeches from state officials and the swearing-in of new members.
But after the celebrations and congratulations were finished, both chamber leaders outlined the challenges facing the state and the Legislature’s responsibility to tackle them.
Education funding, health-care coverage and cost, and finding a way to create a sustainable and modern tax structure that helps move the state away from the boom-and-bust cycle of the mineral markets remain the key issues. How the Legislature attempts to solve them during the next 40 business days remains to be seen.
The Senate’s new president, Drew Perkins, R-Casper, pulled off an oratory feat by including quotes from both President Abraham Lincoln and “Star Wars” character Han Solo in his first speech as leader of the state’s upper chamber. But the major thrust of Perkins’ address was to lay out the issues every senator knows loom on the horizon, and the need to come together to find a way to solve them.
“We need to not only look at the tax structure, but we also need to continue to exercise restraint on our expenses,” Perkins said. “The object is not to raise more revenue. The object is to stabilize revenues.”
Perkins said it was imperative for Wyoming to find ways to broaden the tax base, take a cue from other states without an income tax, and make sure more services are taxed, especially those taken advantage of by out-of-state visitors.
“It’s not about increasing the tax burden on our citizens. It’s about having visitors to our state pay a fair share of the cost associated with their visit. They need to pay for those services, which range from good roads to management of wildlife,” Perkins said.
While the Senate has a new face in the president’s chair, House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper, keeps his perch for two more years. The move is a rarity in Wyoming politics.
In Harshman’s introductory speech, he outlined many of the issues that have continued to vex lawmakers and citizens alike. He also urged lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to take the long view when considering action over the next two months.
Harshman pointed to the work of legislatures past that created the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund and the first sales tax in Wyoming, and those who were the first in the nation to extend the right to vote to women. He urged this batch of lawmakers to follow their example.
“The issues that we’re going to look at, there are going to be a few of them where you’re going to wonder, ‘I just can’t support that.’ But I would encourage you to take the long view at this,” Harshman said. “I would like folks to look back and say, ‘Jeez, those guys back in the teens, that was really a good thing they did.” Some of these issues before us are really going to drive the future of our state for the next 20, 30 years.”
When it comes to education, Harshman said it was imperative for Wyoming to move the funding of that most critical piece of state government away from being overly dependent on mineral revenues. He said if Wyoming wants to keep the state from having to consider an income tax, lawmakers needed to come up with an answer for how to create viable funding streams to provide the necessary services.
“The House of Representatives, we’re the ones who have to first talk about that. Nobody wants to talk about that. We’re one of seven states that doesn’t have an income tax. We don’t want an income tax,” Harshman said. “But how are we going to modernize and update our sales tax system and our current taxes? Other states have gone through this: Texas, South Dakota. Other states have similar tax structures to us, and I think we have to learn about these issues.”
Minority Leader Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, echoed Harshman and other speakers about the need to create a thriving economy that truly takes advantage of Wyoming’s business-friendly environment. But to do that, Connolly said, Wyoming needed to finally step up and pass an anti-discrimination law. She said that would signal to businesses outside the state, and the young people who are currently leaving Wyoming in droves, that the Equality State is truly living up to its name.
“We’re losing our youth; not just the gay ones, but their friends and family who do not want to stay in a place where their loved ones live in fear,” Connolly said. “Here in this body, we need to take the risk to go home and tell our constituents proudly that Wyoming now joins the majority of the nation in recognizing and doing something about discrimination.”
Wyoming Secretary of State Ed Buchanan on Tuesday came back to the House, a chamber he led from 2011-13, to address the newly sworn-in lawmakers. And he used his time at the podium to stress the need for the Legislature to address critical election infrastructure needs with House Bill 21 – which would set aside $7.5 million and create a dedicated elections account for future expenses – and to pass needed changes to the state’s election laws.
“When I came into the office in the spring of 2018, we subsequently went right into the election season, and several of these issues presented almost immediately, (and) the election code was not equal to the task,” Buchanan said. “Election-year scenarios that perhaps did not present themselves in more simple times now challenge us to be more contemporary in our approach.”
Buchanan cited the creative use by some political action committees, the proliferation of social media, and the overall advancement of technologies, in general, as reasons for the state to change how it governs its elections.