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Wyoming’s fiscal woes dominate governor candidates’ debate

October 19, 2018
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Republican candidate Mark Gordon, left, reacts as Constitution Party candidate, Rex Rammell, speaks during the Wyoming gubernatorial debate at Casper College Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018, in Casper, Wyo. (Josh Galemore/The Casper Star-Tribune via AP)

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Wyoming’s gloomy fiscal future, including how to pay for health care and education, dominated a debate Thursday between gubernatorial candidates.

Wyoming faces looming budget deficits amid tough times for the coal, oil and natural industries that provide 70 percent of the state’s revenue.

Much of the debate in Casper boiled down to whether Wyoming should seek out new sources of revenue, such as a state income tax. Wyoming is among just a few states with no income tax.

“I’m against the taxes already. I think one of the most important things is how we get a fiscal situation that is sustainable and stable over time,” said Republican candidate Mark Gordon, who has been state treasurer since 2012.

Democratic candidate Mary Throne left open the possibility of new taxes, saying Wyoming could be more attractive to businesses by paying its bills.

“During the boom times, we don’t make enough effort to attract new businesses. And during the bust, we slash and burn and make ourselves unattractive for business opportunities. What I have advocated is breaking out of that cycle and doing things completely differently,” Throne said.

Throne and Gordon also disagreed about expanding Medicaid. Gordon reiterated widespread concern among Republicans that Medicaid costs now borne by the federal government could eventually become a burden for states.

“The big thing about Medicaid expansion that concerns me is: Can Wyoming afford it? Especially over time,” Gordon said.

Wyoming’s Republican-dominated Legislature has repeatedly made clear that expanding the federal low-income health care program in the state is a non-starter.

Expanding Medicaid like neighboring Montana is “an easy way to get health care to 20,000 of our neighbors,” said Throne, a natural resources attorney and former Wyoming House minority leader from Cheyenne.

“I am really frustrated that Mark continues to say he has a solution for this population when he has none. Of course we can afford it. We take $2 billion in federal money with assorted matches, we can do the same with Medicaid,” Throne added.

One of Wyoming’s biggest fiscal challenges is how to pay for public education with revenue from minerals, especially coal mining, drying up.

“We could talk about property taxes but mostly we have to talk about a fair, equitable and competitive tax structure that can fund education,” Throne said.

The state should give local school districts both small and large leeway to make money-saving decisions that work the best for them, Gordon said.

“From a top-down approach, it is very hard to calibrate what is going to work in Meeteetse and what is going to work in Natrona County. I think it is very important that we give some accountability and some guidance to our school boards to be able to make those choices,” Gordon said.

Constitution Party candidate Rex Rammell, a veterinarian from Rock Springs, and Libertarian candidate Lawrence Struempf, a community college instructor from Laramie, also took part in the debate.

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Follow Mead Gruver at https://twitter.com/meadgruver

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