2022 State of the State address

Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon speaks in the House Chambers during his state of the state address to the Wyoming Legislature on Monday at the Capitol in Cheyenne. Gordon’s speech kicked off the monthlong 2022 budget session.

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — State employee raises should be Wyoming’s top priority as lawmakers begin working on a budget for the next two years, Gov. Mark Gordon said.

Attracting and keeping employees has become difficult after years of state budget cuts, Gordon and Supreme Court Chief Justice Kate Fox both told lawmakers Monday.

“From our troopers, snow plow drivers, social workers and others, Wyoming is struggling to staff the very agencies that provide the services the people of Wyoming need,” Gordon said in his annual state of the state address.

Ninety percent of Wyoming state employees are earning less now than their peers in other states were five years ago, the Republican governor said, and 30% need second jobs to make ends meet.

“We must do better. Our towns and counties can. They’re hiring away our staff. Neighboring states, they’re hiring away our staff,” Gordon said.

Gordon’s speech kicked off a monthlong legislative session focused on crafting a two-year budget that will take effect July 1. Lawmakers have drafted almost 200 bills for the session, from renaming a road for former President Donald Trump to instituting runoff primary elections, but any bills not directly related to the budget will need a two-thirds vote to be introduced.

Gordon and other lawmakers have outlined a $2.8 billion budget for 2023-2024. While less than the $3 billion budget lawmakers approved two years ago, it’s more than the $2.4 billion left after Gordon cut spending in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and plummeting oil and gas prices.

After selling at recent lows in 2020, oil prices are now approaching $100 a barrel, most recently due to fear of a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine. Gas prices also have increased to pre-pandemic levels.

The oil, gas and coal industries all provide a large chunk of Wyoming’s revenue. State economists in October raised revenue projections through 2024 by almost $600 million, and in January nudged up their predictions again.

Gordon described the proposed upcoming budget as well-planned, forward-thinking and frugal but positioned against the highest inflation in 40 years.

“Those of us building businesses at that time remember how devastating the cure to high inflation was to many of our farms and ranches. It crippled energy businesses, and it changed Wyoming,” Gordon said.

Fox devoted much of her state of the judiciary address to echoing Gordon’s call for higher state pay, saying the state is struggling to retain court clerks and technology workers.

“We can’t keep them because they can make more money at McDonald’s or even in the same building, working for the county,” Fox said. “We must pay our people a fair wage if the courts are to continue to perform our constitutional functions.”

The governor is responsible for drafting versions of the state’s budgets, which are then sent to the Joint Appropriations Committee (often referred to as “J-A-C”).

The committee has held numerous meetings since the governor made his budget recommendations. Members heard from dozens of interested parties on how the money was being spent.

In the end, the Joint Appropriations Committee did not make many changes to what Gordon proposed.

Now that the draft budget has been delivered to the Legislature, lawmakers will begin to offer up amendments.

Government watchdogs will hear lawmakers and lobbyists calling this current budget “flat.” In this context, “flat” means Gordon did not make any groundbreaking recommendations. Perhaps the most notable change is the increase in pay for state workers. The increase is not universal for all positions, but determined by the “market value” for each sector.

Those increases work out to about 5% on average, appropriations committee member Rep. Clark Stith, R-Rock Springs, told the Casper Star-Tribune. Wages are currently about 19.4% below market value on average.

Sen. Mike Gierau, a Jackson Democrat, said he hoped the pay increases would have been higher. While workers are set to receive raises, the base budget does not create many new positions. Fears that the relief money will eventually dry up, leaving some of the new positions without a funding source, drove that decision.

“The size of Wyoming’s government stays pretty small in this view,” Stith said. “The governor was really careful to recommend not growing government.”

Gordon earmarked the budget’s largest expenditure for the Department of Health at roughly $1.9 billion — the majority of which is federal money. Some of the dollars would go toward mental health services, but no amount is explicitly allocated for suicide prevention, despite the state having the highest rate in the nation.

The next largest expenditures are planned for the Department of Family Services ($300.7 million), the Department of Corrections ($262.6 million) and higher education ($600 million).

Together, those four allocations form about two-thirds of the proposed budget.Another substantial portion of the budget would be put toward “medium-term and long-term savings,” Stith said.

Specifically, $75 million would be directed toward the Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust Fund, $75 million is planned for the Permanent Wyoming Mineral Trust Fund, and $75 million would head to the common school land account, what Stith calls “medium-term savings.”

The rainy day fund would grow to about 1.7 billion, according to Rep. Tom Walters, R-Casper, another member of the appropriations committee.

Because the budget is so “flat,” not much drama is expected, but some disagreements could happen.

“Where I think the flash point might be is on the Senate side,” Stith said. “They might want to increase that savings number.”

Wyoming lawmakers will also be considering redistricting, which occurs once per decade following the census. The process involves redrawing lawmakers’ districts based on how the population has changed.

Only bills related to the budget or redistricting will be automatically heard. All others will have to reach over a two-thirds introductory vote hurdle.

Arkansas and Wyoming are the only states that have a two-thirds introductory vote threshold, and Rep. Steve Harshman, R-Casper, is proposing a constitutional amendment that would take away that requirement.

In the Cowboy State, constitutional amendments require two-thirds support from each chamber to be put on the ballot in the next general election. After that, it requires a majority of the total votes cast to go into effect.

If Harshman’s bill is successful in the Legislature, it will still need voters’ backing.

— Casper Star-Tribune reporter Victoria Eavis contributed to this report via the Wyoming News Exchange.

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