It is the end of an era in Wyoming state politics.
Senate President Phil Nicholas, R-Laramie, announced Friday he will retire from a historic career as a Wyoming lawmaker in 2016.
The Albany County Republican said he wanted to make the announcement now so others would have time to run for his seat. Rep. Glenn Moniz, R-Laramie, who currently represents House District 46, said he plans to run for Nicholas’ Senate District 10 seat. No one else has announced plans to seek the office.
Moniz said Nicholas provided what he considers exemplary leadership.
“I’ve viewed him as a mentor, as well as Kermit (Brown),” Moniz said.
Albany County will now lose having both of the highest leadership positions in the Legislature in its county, as Speaker of the House Brown, R-Laramie, announced earlier he will not seek another term in the Legislature after 2016. Laramie Chamber Business Alliance President Dan Furphy said he plans to run for Brown’s seat.
Nicholas said he does not plan to run for another office at this time.
“I’ll be honest, when a person decides they want to climb through the chairs and go through leadership, you begin making a decision you probably never seek another office,” Nicholas said during a press conference at his law office in Laramie on Thursday morning. “When you begin to look at the success rates of former speakers and former presidents to run for another office, it’s pretty sobering. When I made the decision to go through presidency, also made the decision that it’s unlikely I’ll have much of a political career after that.”
Rep. Charles Pelkey, D-Laramie, said Laramie and Albany County were in a unique situation having both Brown and Nicholas as leaders in the legislature.
“That was a big plus for Albany County and the University (of Wyoming),” Pelkey said. “It was wonderful having both (Nicholas and Brown) in both houses at the same time. It benefited the community and the state.”
Nicholas served on a number of standing and interim committees, as well as serving on the Albany County Hospital Board, Laramie Area Chamber of Commerce, Laramie Economic Development Corporation, Albany County Planning Commission and the Laramie Beautification committee.
During his two decade long career in the state house and senate, he changed the face of Wyoming as one of its chief budgetary architects.
Brown said he’s convinced Nicholas knew the budget better than anyone else in state government.
“It was just discipline and time spent, and he just had that thing memorized,” Brown said. “He knew where every nook and cranny was in the budget and it served us all well and made us all look better.”
Nicholas said he sees his political career in three phases, beginning in the House of Representatives in 1997 when Wyoming was in a dismal economic situation. Similar to the current revenue tailspin, mineral resources had declined and there was very little for the state to fall back on.
“We spent a year examining revenues and expenditures in the late ’90s, and we really thought we were heading toward an income tax,” Nicholas said.
But with the development of coal bed methane and deep natural gas, Nicholas said the state all of a sudden had a “wonderful, magnificent budget surplus.”
“It was a pretty remarkable time,” Nicholas said. “Knowing we’d come off a very tough time that we often call ‘the lost years,’ we knew were into something pretty special.”
In the second phase of his public career, the Legislature paid off Wyoming’s debt and started putting money into its aging infrastructure.
The real effects of those dollars began in 2003 when Nicholas was appointed Chairman of the Appropriations Committee in the House, he said. He would serve the following 10 years on the appropriations committee while in the House and continued when he was elected to the Senate in 2005.
During those years, Nicholas said he knew the boom wouldn’t last forever. Looking at the revenue picture from the last 15-20 years and the last big boom in the 1980s, Nicholas said he and his colleagues started planning for the future on the years of surpluses, paying attention to what lawmakers could do with the boom they entered into. They set up a policy where one-third of the surplus would be used for current needs, one-third for intermediate needs and one-third for long-term needs.
“Through that fundamental philosophy, we did a number of things that are pretty significant,” Nicholas said.
With the knowledge of how difficult the 1990s were for Wyoming with its depleted rainy day fund (known as the Mineral Valuation Fluctuation Account), the Legislature decided to focus on how to prepare for the state’s economic fluctuations. They began putting money into what would be called the Legislative Spending Reserve Account. Though the account wouldn’t reach the hefty $3 billion target, they did reach $1.8 billion. The amount, Nicholas said, was based on what they thought would be equivalent to general fund expenditures would be for a biennium.
“We set a target and began selling our colleagues on the idea of a $3 billion savings reserve to protect us from the next volatile cycle of revenues,” Nicholas said. “We didn’t accomplish that, but we came pretty close.”
Increasing the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund, a severance tax on minerals, Nicholas said the state started to see benefits from the revenues generated in that effort.
Today, as Wyoming’s volatile economy enters another bust cycle, Nicholas said it has an advantage it did not have in the 1990s with substantial reserves.
Nicholas said he is most proud of the approach to addressing short-term, intermediate and long-term goals. Part of that was making investments throughout time in projects, rather than say no because something couldn’t be funded in a single budget. Projects such as the University of Wyoming Science Initiative, revitalizing downtown Casper, developing the Hathaway Scholarship and State Capitol reconstruction were only possible with a vision of what could be done through committing time and investment.
“Part of what I focused my career on was developing a budget format that encourages and promotes that type of view,” Nicholas said. “Even if you can only put in a little money, do it so that projects become more achievable.”
Investing in local communities has also been a priority for Nicholas. He helped establish Business Ready Community grants, which funded the development of projects such as Laramie’s Cirrus Sky Technology Park.
Brown said Nicholas was the “conceiver and author” of what is today called hardship funding for local governments, which are critical to a community such as Albany County and Laramie, as they have the smallest budgets per capita in the state.
“Without that, (Laramie and Albany County) would just die on the vine,” Brown said.
Part of revitalizing Wyoming is making investments in its intellectual commodity: students at the University of Wyoming. Nicholas said in meeting with human resources representatives from big oil companies and technology firms, it was clear the state needed modern facilities and competitive programs to produce quality graduates and recruit business to the state. As one of the leading advocates in the legislature for investing in the university, Nicholas said it took some convincing to get his colleagues on the same page. But, he said he thinks he was successful in doing so.
“I believe the majority of the 90 members that are elected understand and are willing to invest a university that is strong,” he said.
The final phase of Nicholas’ career is his current term as the president of the Senate, which he was elected to in 2015 after being vice president from 2011-2012 and majority floor leader from 2013-2014.
Entering the twilight of that phase, one can look back on things the state did not have before Nicholas. Things such as a dedicated coal lease bonuses for funding school facilities, the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust, facilities for treating residents with mental health and substance abuse issues, the STEM initiative at the University of Wyoming, beautification projects and more serve as evidence that Nicholas is leaving an undeniable mark on the state.
Moving forward, Nicholas said he thinks Wyoming is “in pretty good shape.” He said future legislators have more resources and information than ever to help them understand how to make good policy decisions. Brown and he have worked to give broader experience to elected officials and recruit replacements to carry on the philosophy of governance they’ve lead by, Nicholas said.
As part of a family with several public servants, Nicholas said he is going to miss every part of being a state legislator. But, he said it is the right time for him to step down.
“I believe you have to make room for other people with new, creative ideas to come behind you,” Nicholas said. “Other people would like to have the opportunity to serve communities. What makes the Legislature work is having 90 independent people with their own ideas coming in and finding a pathway to move forward.”