As a group of top Wyoming officials work to prepare a bid for the potential purchase of 1 million acres of surface land and 4 million acres of mineral rights, Wyoming is facing substantial revenue shortfalls that must be addressed.
The parcel is former railroad grant now owned by Occidental Petroleum. Most of the land is in Wyoming, but some pieces are in Colorado and Utah. The property is not contiguous, but is described as “checkerboard parcels” spread over a vast area.
There is no formal appraised value for this highly diverse property, but the sheer volume has led observers to predict that the purchase price will be more than $1 billion. It would be the largest governmental land purchase since the United States bought Alaska from Russia.
The State Loan and Investment Board (SLIB) is made up of the governor, treasurer, auditor, superintendent of public instruction and secretary of state. That body has the authority to spend Wyoming’s investment money. If the SLIB votes to enter a bid for the land, the money would come from the Permanent Minerals Trust Fund that currently has some $7 billion in assets. Originally Gov. Mark Gordon had recommended that this purchase be handled and funded by the state Legislature, but he decided to veto the authorizing legislation passed during the last session with the idea of handling it within the executive branch as an investment.
This decision has raised questions about funding, transparency and how the negotiations will be handled. If this was still a legislative process then the money would have come from the state’s so-called rainy day fund. The problem there would have been that the fund contains less than $1.5 billion. And with projected shortfalls because of reduced mineral revenue, most of that money will be needed in the next couple years just to pay operating expenses for the state.
We are experiencing a torrential downpour, not a rainy day. Taking a billion dollars or more from the only fund available for that kind of spending would have been fool hardy.
We have long advocated using the money in the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund dynamically to invest in ourselves rather than to use it only to buy securities and stocks. But, like any investment, particularly of public money, there must be careful consideration to make sure the investment is a wise one.
That is a question that the SLIB will have to answer, which they are expected to do Monday.
There are other potential bidders for this huge parcel of land. Probably some of them are private corporations. But in any event, because there is an active competition involved the negotiations and planning for the bid are permitted to be confidential. That is troubling when talking about this much public money, but understandable.
In order to maintain public confidence in this purchase, the governor must make every effort to keep this process transparent and as open as possible. Any details that don’t have the potential of forcing a higher price should be shared with the public as soon as possible. That includes plans for managing, using, selling, trading or leasing this property. It also includes any plans for using this land for public access, particularly for recreational use.
Part of the process must include a formal public accounting on a regular basis that shows the revenue generated by this land and the costs involved with managing and developing it. Sometimes those kinds of details can become hard to determine when various aspects are spread out through numerous bureaucracies.
This could be a huge gain for Wyoming, particularly if managed and planned carefully and creatively. But details matter and the public must have access to information about those details.