Wyoming legislators have what they obviously think is a fool-proof plan to avoid ever having to address Wyoming’s state budget crisis, and they’ve been enacting it for years.
Here’s how it works:
Step 1: Avoid talking about taxes or any other way to raise revenue in an election year. Say some vague things about “cutting excess spending” and “making the government more efficient.”
Step 2: Wait until the January, after you’ve been safely elected or re-elected, to start acknowledging the problem of an “all cuts, no new revenue stream” budget.
Step 3: When the legislative session starts in February, complain that everything has been rushed and you can’t possibly be expected to enact legislation to fix the problem without having enough information and time to really understand it.
Step 4: Call for a study or report to be done.
Step 5: Carefully file away and ignore the study or report, then run out the clock on the non-election year.
Step 6: Start campaigning in the election year again and repeat all previous steps.
It’s an effective way to talk about the budget crisis we’re in without ever having to take personal responsibility to solve it. Lawmakers say all the right things to show that they’re concerned about the situation, but never have to sully their voting record with any specific action, and they sail into the next election cycle with the dreaded word “taxes” never passing their lips.
It isn’t so much kicking the can down the road as it is placing the can in a hamster wheel so that the can is constantly moving without ever getting anywhere.
While it’s been working for the past decade or so, it is obvious that it can no longer work – not with budget deficits predicted to be as high as $1.5 billion over the next two years. But apparently no one has told the legislators that. Because even while we’re facing a deficit of unimaginable proportions, our current leaders are trotting out the same old game plan. It’s clear that they were hoping to never have to come to this point and are unprepared now that we’re here.
No one could have foreseen the double-whammy of COVID-19 and the bottom falling out of the oil market. But people did foresee the looming trouble of an economy based on the diminishing returns from the mineral extraction industry, and the cycle of Steps 1 through 6 has occurred for decades, as each legislator hopes that they can wring just one more session out of the electorate before they are asked to make the most unpopular choices. They return again and again to the old favorite: the spectre of a bloated, misappropriated government budget and an admonition to “trim the fat” from the spending.
Well, as any rancher knows, there is only so much fat on an animal before you hit something vital. We are long past the point where being more mindful about our paper clips and decreasing travel budgets for training would suffice as a stopgap measure. We have cut the fat from the budget, and now that COVID-19 has hit, we’re already cutting into the meat. We are seeing the fallout of sparse budgets being asked to cut even more – people losing their jobs, vital services being left unfunded and infrastructure needs going unaddressed.
When lawmakers are talking about budget cuts now, they aren’t talking about inefficiencies. They’re talking about people. People who have important jobs that will be left unfilled. People who contribute to our local economies who will have no money to do so. People who are part of our communities who will have to move in order to find new positions. They are talking about deliberately weakening the pool of talent, skills and creativity that we can draw from to find new solutions to problems.
We need those new solutions now more than ever, and we’re increasingly disappointed when we turn to our government officials for answers. COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on our economy, but it is only worsening an already dire situation.
A few weeks ago, we asked candidates to present us with clear, specific policies and action items that would help us through these hard times. So far, most of them have responded with Steps 1 through 6. They are not only refusing to make the hard choices, they are refusing to even talk about making them.
They will not consider obvious steps that will help both the economy and the health of citizens like Medicaid expansion. And they are refusing to draft bills that will prompt important discussions like a small increase in property taxes, let alone vote on them. Instead, they insist on chasing the mirage of revitalizing the extraction industry, as if our state halving mineral service taxes (budget crisis who?) will miraculously turn around a global market force.
The mineral extraction industry was a fantastic provider of both jobs and revenue for many years, but those years have long since passed. It is time for legislators to take responsibility and do their jobs, even if that makes them unpopular.
We’re tired of Steps 1 through 6. Either legislators need a new plan, or we need new legislators.