In a governor’s race that revolved largely around health care, education funding and Wyoming’s economy, the two major-party candidates have advocated starkly different approaches to each problem.
This year’s election played out against the backdrop of a looming state budget shortfall of hundreds of millions of dollars. As Gov. Matt Mead pushed for economic diversification as a way to draw more business and revenue to the state, Republican Mark Gordon and Democrat Mary Throne took their own stances.
“We have to build a tax structure for our economy of the future, not the economy of the past,” said Throne, a Cheyenne natural resources attorney who spent a decade in the state House of Representatives, part of it as minority leader.
That means less reliance on taxes from the minerals industry, which currently represents the lion’s share of state revenue. If Wyoming is going to escape the long-standing boom-and-bust pattern that fluctuates with the prosperity of minerals, Throne argues, this is the key.
According to a study by the economic forecasting firm REMI, diversifying the state’s economy without reworking its tax code would actually harm the economy.
By attracting more businesses and employees — which means increased stress on infrastructure and government services, in addition to higher education needs — Wyoming would take on a major burden with no obvious way to offset the cost, because the tax structure is not built to collect taxes from new industries.
Gordon, the state treasurer since 2012, has said that it’s worth having a conversation about the tax code but he generally opposes new taxes. He believes Wyoming can meet its needs within the current system by slashing redundancy in government and doubling down on minerals products like the activated carbon produced by Atlas Carbon in Gillette.
“I think by adding value to our existing energy products,” he said, “we can also add to our tax revenues in the existing structure we have.”
He has also argued for more small-business development throughout Wyoming as a way to expand the economy without the higher costs of introducing major industries.
In addition to boosting the state’s overall budget, Throne sees new or increased taxes as a way to stem the loss of revenue to Wyoming’s education system, which has seen millions of dollars in cuts in recent years.
Besides taxes, she has also said the state could potentially divert money into its investment portfolio to bring in more income for schools.
“Going forward,” she said, “we have to find revenues and meet our constitutional obligations.”
Gordon would prefer to leave the matter mostly in the hands of individual school districts, allowing them to make the spending decisions that work best for them, rather than the state dictating how they should offer adequate education.
The state should provide “some accountability and some guidance,” he said, but besides that should not impose.
“From a top-down approach,” he said, “it is very hard to calibrate what’s going to work in Meeteetse and what’s going to work in Natrona County.”
Though the federal government would pay 90 percent of the cost of expanding Medicaid, Gordon worries that in the long run Wyoming’s portion would become overwhelming, leaving the state with a Medicaid shortfall.
“The big thing about Medicaid expansion that concerns me,” he said, “is can Wyoming afford it? Especially over time.”
A greater priority, as Gordon sees it, is cutting costs for health care. He points to greater transparency in medical billing as a way to drive down costs and increase competition across state lines.
Medicaid expansion has been one of Throne’s rallying cries throughout her campaign. She says it’s a “no-brainer” that the state should accept the hundreds of millions of dollars available to it from the federal government.
“We have an easy way to get health care to 20,000 of our neighbors,” she said.
It won’t necessarily be easy in practice, though. Even as Republican Gov. Mead has advocated broadening the program to people earning up to 133 percent of the poverty line, the state Legislature has consistently rejected the idea. But Throne has said she believes she could build support.
Two other candidates, Rex Rammell of the Constitution Party and Lawrence Struempf of the Libertarian Party, both urged voters to consider voting outside the two-party system.
Rammell, who bills himself as the most conservative of the four, said the Democrats and Republicans have “put Wyoming in terrible shape.” His flagship issue is federal lands, which he believes should be transferred to the state.
“It’s time Wyoming took control … of our own future,” he said.
Struempf, agreed it’s critical to broaden the influence of other parties in elections, and to rid the political system of dark money.
As a “modern libertarian,” he said he wants to protect individual rights but also maintain government services like public lands and public education.
“We want to keep the services that Americans have fought and died 200 years for,” he said.