Two local Democrats vying for an open seat in the Wyoming House of Representatives faced off last week in a virtual forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Laramie.

The primary battle for House District 45 is heating up as University of Wyoming professor Jean Garrison and activist Karlee Provenza look to take the seat being vacated by Rep. Charles Pelkey, D-Laramie. Whoever emerges as the Democrat’s nominee will likely face Republican Roxie Jackson Hensley in the general election. Hensley was also invited to participate in the July 9 panel, but did not attend.

As Wyoming continues struggling through the COVID-19 pandemic and the largest budget deficit in the state’s history, moderator Mike Massie covered the budget, education, health care and more during the panel.

The primary election is set for Aug. 18. The general election will take place Nov. 3.

The budgetGarrison said she doesn’t see a lot of fat in Wyoming’s budget and doesn’t expect another economic boom will rescue lawmakers from an enormous deficit they will face in the 2021 session. She said she does, however, see some tax measures she would advocate for to help address the decline in revenue, such as excise and sin taxes.

The state’s Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account, commonly called the rainy day fund, would have to bridge the gap in the meantime, Garrison said.

“I think we need to have an honest discussion about a broad range of taxes in order to maintain our essential services,” Garrison said. “I’m very concerned about what happens if we don’t modernize our economy.”

Provenza also said she didn’t see room for cuts in the budget and that Wyoming must look to taxes to maintain services. She emphasized an approach that Provenza said would spare taxpayers already struggling with finances, pushing for taxing large corporations and the wealthy. Additionally, she said legalizing or at least decriminalizing marijuana would help the state with its fiscal and social problems.

“We need to put that onus on big corporations,” Provenza said. “Previously the Legislature talked about big box taxes, so companies that are making a ton of money but not paying for services, it’s time for folks like that to pay for public infrastructure we have, and it would also be good to see people who are not financially struggling to pay more in taxes.”

Education

The largest and perhaps most debated expenditure in state government, K-12 education, is on the table for cuts as lawmakers look to balance the budget.

Cutting K-12 education is not a viable option for Provenza, she said. Again, she said the state must craft more revenue raising measures that will protect the integrity of the education system. To do that, Provenza said she would build coalitions with like minded legislators.

“We have to raise revenue. We have to figure something out. We can’t continue to ignore that education is a costly endeavor because we live in a rural state where it’s more difficult to get young people to school.”

Garrison agreed the Legislature should not cut K-12 education, but said if it’s going to happen whether Democrats like it or not, she would be a pragmatist about where the least harm could be done. Coalition-building would also be a focus if elected and Garrison said she would, as an educator, be a strong advocate for the practical benefits of protecting education funding.

“I hear rumors about education cuts, so when that happens, I think it’s really important to recognize there are areas we can focus on like administrative consolidation,” Garrison said. “On the broad level I don’t want to see any cuts, but I recognize we might have to think about what that means.”

Health care

It wasn’t a difficult admission for either candidate that expanding Medicaid is the best way to provide coverage for the uninsured in Wyoming.

Garrison said it was a “no-brainer” to accept the federal money offered in Medicaid expansion. Furthermore, she said the state needed to find ways to expand affordable mental health services. That, Garrison said, would mean the revenue would need to be available to support the programming she suggested.

“What I’m proposing here would be a series of things where we would maintain funding, and need to invest more,” she said. “I think the COVID-19 context has demonstrated where we are most vulnerable.”

It was shocking, Provenza said, that even Wyoming’s Republican supermajority Legislature didn’t expand Medicaid in all the years it’s been available. In addition to covering Wyoming’s thousands of uninsured residents, she said expanding Medicaid would save the state and its hospitals a significant amount of money and improve the economy in a way that would help with it’s budgetary crisis.

“Expanding Medicaid goes back to the same discussion we keep having which is how do we provide good jobs, take care of the people of Wyoming and ensure we have access to health care?” Provenza said. “We’ll see the savings that are going to come.”

Locality funding

Wyoming’s towns, cities and counties have for years been dependent on large allocations of state funding to maintain local services. But with drastic cuts on the table, many lawmakers have suggested that is no longer possible.

Provenza said Albany County and Laramie needed more control in terms of raising revenue, but that it wouldn’t be enough to fill a gap left by reductions in the state’s allocations. In order to help Wyoming’s citizens without hurting the poor with regressive taxes, Provenza said state lawmakers would need to develop progressive revenue raising measures.

“We need to find ways at the state level to help in these areas where they don’t have more disposable income like in Teton County that we can take care of people here in our community,” she said. “I can’t tell you specifically what taxes. I would need to know more.”

As many in the Wyoming Legislature’s Republican majority emphasize a philosophy of local control generally, Garrison said it’s “ridiculous” to prevent localities from generating revenue as taxpayers please.

“I think when we changed the way we do sales tax and took tax off food, we had a promise from the state they would make up that gap,” she said. “And I think we know those payments are coming to an end. We already saw the fight between smaller cities and Laramie losing out.”

Occidental land purchase

Wyoming’s executive branch is currently in the works of potentially making the biggest public land purchase since Alaska with the 1 million square acres of surface acreage and 4 million square acres in subsurface rights across Wyoming’s southern end. While the land deal’s proponents argue investment’s return would help the state stave off new taxes, others say it’s the wrong time to spend what’s previously been estimated as high as $1 billion or more out of Wyoming’s largest sovereign funds.

Garrison said the land deal would be taking investment funds that, while not performing impressively are showing return, and put those into a “big what if.” Instead of doubling down on extractive industries with the land deal, she said Wyoming should be focused on investing in green energy. A lack of legislative involvement in the deal, Garrison said, was also concerning.

“I think it might be a foregone conclusion, and it’s a lot of money to put into a land deal,” she said. “I’m hoping our former treasurer who is now the governor has looked at this carefully.”

The land deal would not be a wise investment, Provenza said, because of how it further ties Wyoming’s economic future to mining. Lacking transparency, she said the deal’s proponents haven’t effectively convinced Provenza it is a good deal for Wyoming.

“We can think more outside of the box, and I think we have to,” Provenza said. “We have to look for more consistent revenue streams. If we continue to look at revenue streams like this land purchase, I don’t know how we’re going to benefit.”

Supporting UW

In her third round of budget cuts as an administrator at the University of Wyoming, Garrison said she recognized the importance of the university’s land grant mission. If elected, she said she would evaluate what the university does well, such as funding that allows many students to graduate with little to no debt, and other areas that need improvement. Additionally, Garrison said she would put an emphasis on improving the town and gown relationship.

“We’re lucky here in Laramie this institution is located here,” she said. “The services that are available to people across the state, they’re just down the street.”

Provenza said the university’s mission is “tremendously important” to Albany County, Laramie and the state, and that Wyoming lawmakers should protect and expand investment in UW. Looking at Wyoming’s notorious “brain drain” where many students receive a quality education only to leave for economic opportunity, Provenza said it will be critical to move forward other policies that would keep graduates in the state.

“If we can bring forward the things we’ve been hammering on tonight with our economy and social issues then we can bring students from across the world and country who are strong graduate students and strong undergraduates who can hopefully stay here and help us in investing in the state of Wyoming,” Provenza said.

Editor’s note: The July 16 panel also included Democrats Cathy Connolly and Marc Homer who are seeking the nomination for House District 14. The Boomerang will have coverage of that race in an upcoming edition.

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