Democratic primary opponents went head to head during a forum last week as a challenger seeks to upset the longtime incumbent.

There was speculation that House Minority Leader Cathy Connolly would not seek re-election after 12 years in the Legislature, but she said that changed when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Educator and policy advocate Marc Homer, who announced his candidacy in January, decided to stay in the race, saying it is time for a change in House District 13’s representation.

It will be an uphill battle for Homer going against the incumbent who has comfortably won re-election throughout the years. But the newcomer attempted to distinguish himself on several policy areas from Connolly during the July 9 forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Laramie via Zoom. Historian and former state lawmaker Mike Massie moderated the forum.

With no Republican filed to run in the Democratic stronghold HD 13, whoever emerges from the primary is likely to coast to a victory in November.

The primary election is set for Aug. 18 with early and absentee voting underway. The general election will take place Nov. 3.

The budget

After years of difficult legislative sessions with lawmakers struggling to balance the state’s budget amid a downturn in extractive industries, the greatest challenge yet appears to lie ahead in the 2021 session as the COVID-19 pandemic only compounded the fiscal woes. Wyoming is facing perhaps the greatest budget deficit in its history that’s already led Gov. Mark Gordon to direct all state agencies to cut budgets and prepare for layoffs.

As has been the case in the last several sessions, the debate will be what can lawmakers cut and what kind of revenue-generating measures, if any, can make it through the Republican supermajority.

Connolly, long a proponent and sponsor of bills that would impose new taxes, said Wyoming cannot cut its government services any further and must turn to revenue. Additionally, Connolly said Medicaid expansion must be part of the discussion for the federal money it would bring in to help the uninsured.

“I’m in favor of and have offered bills along the lines of a two-tiered income tax with 0% for those who earn less than $350,000 (annually), or a 1% sales tax or a 1% increase in property taxes,” she said. “All of those would change our three-legged stool from its reliance on the extractive industries to a more diversified revenue stream.”

Homer also said he doesn’t want to see state government cut any further and would support several progressive tax measures, such as an income tax, legalizing and taxing marijuana and a second home tax. On the subject of Medicaid expansion, Homer took a jab at Connolly, saying she’d had 12 years to push the measure through without succeeding. Homer, he said, would take a different approach.

“I really think the onus is on the Republican majority,” Homer said. “We liberals no longer need to make ourselves the scapegoats for Republicans, because everyone of them has signed the Wyoming Tax Association’s ‘no tax pledge.’ So we need to be a little quiet and let them pick up the ball here and make their move and they can fail or succeed.”

Education funding

Funding for K-12 education is sure to be in the crosshairs for Wyoming lawmakers looking to find cuts in the largest expenditure in state government.

Rather than looking for areas in education to cut, Homer said he wanted to raise revenue to expand educational opportunities in Wyoming that he says would yield economic benefits. Along with establishing grants that could lure workers to Wyoming, Homer said the state must invest in early childhood education.

“Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman has said that every dollar invested in early childhood education produces a $13 return, it creates jobs in the sector mainly for women, it ensures that kids are educated and achieve more academically later in life, and won’t go through our social services system as frequently,” Homer said. “It’s a great long-term investment, but we need to invest in those things right now and we have the power to do it.”

Connolly made no bones when she said education cuts are “absolutely not” in the cards for her. It’s her expectation that the fight will be had in the upcoming session. But Connolly did say she saw opportunities for efficiencies in consolidating school districts, pointing to Albany County’s unified school district. Finally, she said there was work to do to modernize Wyoming’s approach to education, including childhood education.

“We also know the schools and their needs are different than they were 15 years ago,” Connolly said. “That includes far more in terms of emotional and social support for our kids. It means taking a good look, for example at our school lunch program. We also need to modernize our curriculum. I’ll fight for those things.”

Health care

With cases of COVID-19 continuing to rise in the Cowboy State and across the nation, Massie asked the panelists what ought to be done regarding tens of thousands of uninsured of Wyomingites.

For Connolly and her opponent, it was obvious the Legislature must act to expand Medicaid. Connolly said it was an absolute necessity to do so, as the alternative in absence of the federal money would be to dip into the state’s Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account. In addition to providing coverage for thousands who are uninsured, Connolly said the federal money would support rural hospitals that struggle and expand medical care in ways the state previously hasn’t been able to do, including in areas like mental health and rehabilitation.

“I am proud I have brought up this issue for several years and taken a beating over it, and have not backed down,” she said. “This is the right thing to do for 18,000 people who don’t have coverage. Those are our friends and neighbors.”

Homer said he’s been moved by experiences he’s heard about from people who have struggled with access and affordability for care. While he said he appreciated Connolly’s advocacy on the issue during her legislative tenure, Homer again asserted his opponent had come up short and wanted a chance to take his approach to seeing Medicaid expansion passed.

“We need people who are skilled in building advocacy networks across the state to build pressure through the media on the supermajority to get this done,” Homer said. “We need to get this done. Health care is a human right.”

Locality funding

Since the downturn in extractive industries began in 2014, many in the state Legislature have said it’s time for large state allocations to cities, towns and counties to drastically change or come to an end. Much of the conversation for addressing the issue has surrounded allowing local governments to raise taxes beyond the current statutory limits.

As a member of the city of Laramie’s Planning Commission, Homer said he’s spoken to city administration about how municipalities’ hands are tied by state statute with raising revenue. Homer said he’s not sure he’s on board with potential sales tax increases, instead favoring progressive tax measures that would have more of an impact on those in higher income brackets.

“I don’t want regressive taxes, where people in trailer parks and apartments will be driven further into poverty,” he said.

Connolly said she had been skeptical about proposals that would allow municipalities to raise a penny of additional taxes. However, she said a lot of evidence gathering and conversations made her think otherwise, and as such, supported a bill that passed giving municipalities that authority. And there are other areas, Connolly said, that lawmakers could explore to help local governments continue providing essential services.

“Another example is a local real estate transfer tax, that’s a possibility, as well,” she said. “So let voters decide, but I’ll watch out for Albany County to make sure our most vulnerable aren’t being taxed more.”

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.

Homer said “these speculative land deals” aren’t a good idea, and criticized the state’s $2.5 million payment to banking giant Barclays to evaluate the purchase. The state’s focus on mining with the purchase, he said, wasn’t the right way to think about how public lands should be used, instead calling for a greater emphasis on recreation and tourism.

“Public lands should be used by myself and many I know who enjoy cross-country skiing, mountain biking and fishing,” he said. “This is our heritage. Tourism is a much better bet.”

Connolly took a different view. While she sees the concerns raised by Homer are others as legitimate, Connolly said the deal should be considered. The land now isn’t public land, and if the deal goes through, Connolly pointed out it would be. But the answer for Connolly, she said, really comes down to a return on investment.

“Years ago, I was in favor of Amendment A, that was a ballot initiative that allowed for the treasurer’s office to do different kinds of investments of our portfolio because we weren’t getting the return on investment that we should, and we rely incredibly on investment income for our revenue stream,” Connolly said. “This isn’t that, but it is an alternative outside of the box to increase revenue outside of our existing investments. So I’m willing to take a look, but I’d like to see the price and the return on investment.”

University of Wyoming

The University of Wyoming is bracing for budget cuts and uncertainty in the months ahead as it attempts to resume campus life amid COVID-19.

Connolly emphasized the importance of UW to the economies of Albany County and Laramie in her statement that the Legislature must maintain support for the university. Referring to issues surrounding the departure of former UW President Laurie Nichols and other issues of transparency surrounding governance at UW, Connolly said there were things that needed to be “turned around 180 degrees.”

“We also in the Legislature need to make sure that funding for UW continues so education for our students from around the state, as well as nationally and internationally, continues,” she said.

UW will hurt from the cuts it’s facing, Homer said, and should face no further reductions. He said he wanted to see an environment where more international students come to UW and that more should be done to encourage Wyoming students to apply for the Hathaway Scholarship. Additionally, he said he hopes UW President Edward Seidel would make positive strides with retaining faculty and securing funding for research.

“I’m confident that our current president who came from Illinois and managed research institutions -- hopefully he can increase revenue by seeking out grants and maintain good faculty,” Homer said.

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