It isn't every day that someone hands you more than $1 billion and says, "We know people are hurting right now. Take this and do all you can to help them."

For that reason, we agree with Gov. Mark Gordon that it's important not to waste the unique opportunity offered by the American Rescue Plan Act, passed by Congress earlier this year. Yet, based on the initial recommendations he presented recently to the Legislature's Joint Appropriations Committee, we think there's a good chance that's exactly what will happen.

That's because, as Wyoming's leaders often do, they've opted for a shotgun, when the weapon of choice should be a rifle.

This time around, the sense seems to be that there's way more ammunition than we need (in fact, most Wyoming politicians opposed the bill's passage in the first place). So who cares if we use some over here and some over there? There's still going to be plenty left, right?

One group wants money to promote the arts and historic preservation? Sure, here's $10 million. Wildlife advocates want money to build more crossings along Interstate 80? Toss them $10 million, too.

In fact, who else was unhappy with the outcome of the general session at the beginning of the year? Small-town government officials scared they won't be able to cover the bills without additional state aid? Here's $50 million. People still critical that we're not doing enough to diversify the state's economy? Put $2 million toward another "special projects team" so we can say we're working on it.

And let's not forget to send yet another strong message to those in the coal industry that we're doing all we can to prop them up. How about setting aside $100 million to provide matching grants for energy projects like "carbon capture utilization and storage, carbon capture on coal/gas-fired utility plants, industrial carbon capture, coal refinery ... ?" (Oh, all right, go ahead and toss in wind and solar at the end of the list to keep the renewable folks off our backs.)

This is not to say all of the governor's proposals are bad. In fact, many of them seem to be well thought out and may be just what the state needs right now, especially in terms of health and human services. The governor and his "Strike Team" seem to be tuned in to the need for better access to mental health services and ways to lower the state's consistently high suicide rate. There's $7 million to expand the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, $3 million to expand telepsychiatry services and $200,000 to create a Mental Health First Aid program. 

But how do we know these amounts are enough to make a long-term difference, and not just bandages to temporarily stop the bleeding?

For example, Gov. Gordon rightly acknowledges that a shortage of low- and moderate-income housing is one of the state's largest challenges right now. But $22 million to create a Wyoming Housing Trust Fund seems like the equivalent of using an eye-dropper to put out a forest fire. How about putting $100 million immediately into building low-cost housing in communities like Cheyenne and Jackson that are struggling to recruit and keep workers because of sky-high rental rates and insufficient supply?

The governor says his strategy throughout this year has been a deliberate one, with an eye toward "making valuable investments that were sustainable and would have a long-term impact or a return on investment." And the Strike Team's 10 "areas for planning and further study" are solid. But it's time to stop spending money on studies and start putting it into action that produces impactful, long-term results.

Which is why the fact his plan calls for saving half of the windfall is frustrating. It shows an ongoing lack of knowledge about the best ways to address the state's challenges and an unwillingness to put in the time to create "shovel-ready" solutions. Wouldn't it be nice to hear about brick-and-mortar projects already underway because state officials had projects lined up and waiting for funding?

Instead, Gov. Gordon plans to use $75 million to fully fund the Wyoming Wildlife Trust Fund – not an unworthy project, just not something we would consider in need of "rescue."

Which brings us back to the reasons ARPA was passed in the first place. In addition to the $1,400 stimulus checks most Americans received earlier this year, the $1.9 trillion bill provided billions to support distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine, reopen schools, help people stay in their homes and reduce child-care costs.

But it also included $360 billion in "emergency funding for state, local, territorial and Tribal governments to ensure that they are in a position to keep front line public workers on the job and paid, while also effectively distributing the vaccine, scaling testing, reopening schools and maintaining other vital services." Sorry, but we're having a hard time seeing how many of the things on Gov. Gordon's list fits those objectives.

Every time the governor talks about ARPA funds, he emphasizes that this is "money borrowed from future generations." We don't disagree. But the money's here now, and it has to be obligated by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026. It's time for state officials to grab the rifles, sight in the targets and stop taking the scattershot approach to solving the state's ongoing issues.

If they don't, future generations will surely look back on this as one giant wasted opportunity.

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