Michelle Irwin

Watching the Wyoming Senate Appropriations Committee’s hearing on House Bill 207-Coal fired generation facility closures-litigation funding (which sets up a litigation fund to sue other states for their energy portfolio choices), my husband and I were both nearly apoplectic about the money Wyoming is spending to try to save coal. Not only did the committee not kill this bad bill, but it increased its funding.

Committee members’ motives for introducing these Hail Mary efforts have been stated clearly again and again: We don’t think we can win the “war on coal,” but we’re doubling down anyway to try and play out the clock, because additional seconds we can scrounge will mean money for our state and jobs for our people.

Only this is a false narrative, like a fairy tale. It’s gambling with the state’s money on the misguided hope we can stay in the game long enough not to lose it all.

It’s not just fossil fuel workers who are facing the economic change wrought by upheaval in the extractive industries. Wyoming residents of all stripes – including people employed by the community colleges and local governments – face job losses, thanks to our dependence on coal. Meanwhile, critical programs at the Department of Health and other state agencies to help our state’s most vulnerable are on the chopping block in the budget bill. How many times do we have to learn the lessons on the backs of the very workers legislators supposedly care so much about?

Not one dime has been spent to support workers, their families and the communities most impacted by the myriad socioeconomic impacts of the declining coal market. In fact, the very services the workers and industry have paid for are being cut, just when they need them most.

This coal litigation bill is the worst of the bunch because it says we will sue other states for not taking our coal. The Wyoming Legislature shot down marijuana legislation that might have brought in substantial revenue. Should Colorado, Oregon, California and even Utah sue us to allow some of their legal products to be sold in our state?

There are a few champions and folks with true fiscally conservative values left in the Wyoming Legislature, though they are a rare breed this session. Doubling down on coal in a state that is rich in resources is the height of fiscal foolishness. Our resources are many and include minerals, sun and wind, open space, wildlife, as well as creative and resilient people.

With the bills to “save” coal at any cost, Wyoming is in a state of delusion. Let’s consider the opportunities lost and the fallout of suing other states.

First, the $1.2 million for this bill is money that can be better spent elsewhere. Workers and local governments would most likely much rather use these funds as seed money to secure matching grants for economic development and to provide long-term jobs. The money in this one bill could be better served providing training for the workforce of today and tomorrow.

Or it could help bolster mental health programs in the state. There are so many creative and useful ways money like this could be spent that would actually make a difference right here, right now!

Second, we need to consider that our second-biggest industry, tourism, can be negatively impacted, too. Already, many tourists are choosing Colorado over Wyoming because of that state’s clear and welcoming message of progressive policies on personal freedoms and the environment, including climate change. Our state of denial will cost us in markets beyond energy.

What kind of future do we want for Wyoming? How are we going to protect the things that matter most? Those discussions are worth having and should inform the decisions made by the Wyoming Legislature. But especially in these times of fiscal constraint, the Appropriations Committee needs to do better.

To achieve a sustainable future for Wyoming, we need to invest time and funding into diversifying our tax base and economy and helping our citizens and communities with the support services they need.

Michele Irwin lives in Sweetwater County, where she and her husband raise bison along the Green River and together worked more than 50 years in the local trona industry. She is currently a teacher of civics at Western Wyoming Community College, and works as a community organizer for Powder River Basin Resource Council. This column first appeared at WyoFile.com.

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