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Wyoming lawmakers hint at less belt-tightening

January 8, 2019

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Wyoming legislative leaders began an eight-week session Tuesday by hinting they will insist less on cutting spending than they have in recent years.

Recent cuts include $400 million in state spending and reducing the state workforce to the smallest number in a decade, House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper, pointed out in opening remarks to his chamber.

Adjusted for inflation, the general fund is down 3 percent a year over a dozen years, he added.

Lawmakers and former Gov. Matt Mead made the cuts in response to oil prices that plummeted starting in 2014. Now, state revenue from extracting fossil fuels, including natural gas, is back up.

“I think at some point, you’re not going to cut your way to prosperity,” Harshman said.

Lawmakers still need fiscal restraint but should also look at modernizing the state’s tax structure, Senate President Drew Perkins told his chamber.

One bill would establish a 5-percent statewide lodging tax. Tourism hasn’t lagged during the fossil-fuel downturn and Perkins expressed support for the tax.

“We need to have out of state visitors pay a fair share of the services and benefits that they enjoy when they come to our state. We can do that by looking for ways to broaden our tax base while lowering the tax rate,” Perkins said.

“The object is not to raise more revenue. The object is to stabilize revenue.”

Republicans command their biggest majorities in the Wyoming House, 53-7, and Senate, 28-2, in modern history. They also hold the top five elected state offices, giving the party overwhelming domination across state government.

Legislative priorities for Mark Gordon, a Republican who was state treasurer before being sworn in as governor Monday, include allowing a state “rainy day” fund called the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account to be invested in securities.

“That doesn’t mean you take it to Las Vegas. It does mean you invest it prudently,” Gordon said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.

The fund, which lawmakers can draw upon in lean times, currently totals about $1.5 billion. A recent state constitutional amendment provided more flexibility for state savings to be invested in stocks.

“I have a really good working relationship with the Legislature. I’m very hopeful about what we can do,” Gordon said.

This should be the fourth and final session the Wyoming Legislature meets in a Cheyenne office building instead of the state Capitol, which along with a neighboring state office complex has been undergoing renovation. The $300 million project is scheduled for completion this summer.

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

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