By Eric Barlow and Dan Dockstader
January 14, 2021
On Tuesday, the Wyoming Legislature gaveled in the start of the 66th Legislative Session. Now begins our hard work on behalf of the people of Wyoming.
This year presents distinct challenges, both operationally and on a host of budget and policy issues.
The continued impacts of the Coronavirus pandemic pose notable obstacles to the Legislature’s work. Our top priorities are to safely, effectively and transparently carry out the work of the people we are elected to serve, and to ensure the health and wellbeing of all staff, legislators and the public. We can do both.
To that end, both chambers approved rules that provide latitude to allow legislators to participate based on their needs and within the schedule we have developed. That schedule includes a mix of virtual and in-person participation, which will begin in earnest next week when committees begin meeting virtually to work bills. Importantly, the full session schedule includes 34 legislative working days, which closely aligns with past general sessions.
As public health conditions evolve, we will adjust the Legislature’s participation options as appropriate. We are encouraged by the rollout of vaccines and other health measures, which we hope will allow the Legislature to meet in-person starting March 1. There are many challenges and opportunities facing our great state, which is why we remain committed to meeting in-person when it is safe to do so.
Wyoming faces significant budget shortfalls. The economic slowdown caused by the pandemic coupled with a drop in energy production and prices delivered a one-two punch that left big holes in the state’s coffers. A study commissioned by the Legislature last May predicted a $1.5 billion decline in revenue through June 2022. A revised forecast provided this week improves revenue by about $132 million, which owes to better-than-expected activity in the oil and coal industry, but there are still significant gaps that will have to be closed.
Those budget realities will require even greater stewardship of taxpayers’ dollars. It won’t be easy. It will require stretching public funds further and partnering with the private sector to foster economic growth and job creation. New taxes that would fall on our hard-working men, women and families the most at a time when they can afford it the least will be a last resort.
Fossil fuel production has always been a key driver of Wyoming’s economy. We will continue to work with the oil, gas and coal industries to ensure our state remains at the forefront of the United States’ march towards energy independence. At the same time, we will strive to further cultivate a business-friendly climate that supports innovation and growth.
In recent years, efforts that began laying the foundations for blockchain development have positioned Wyoming as a national leader in this emerging technology. That success offers an example of innovative thinking that invites new opportunities to grow and diversify.
Even as we explore ways to stabilize state revenues, the Legislature will be forced to make difficult spending cuts. Among those may be funding for our public schools. We understand the vital importance of our schools and the significant sacrifices our educators make already. We must ensure Wyoming’s schools are sufficiently funded to meet the needs of our children and that cuts, if and where they must be made, are as far from the classroom as possible.
This will be a legislative session unlike any other. We have our work cut out for us. As the Legislature launches into session, we will work with and for the people of Wyoming to tackle our challenges head on. And we are grateful for the opportunity.
As Governor Mark Gordon said during his message to the Legislature on Tuesday: God bless the United States, God bless Wyoming and God bless each of you.
Eric Barlow (R-HD3) is the Speaker of the Wyoming House of Representatives. Dan Dockstader (R-SD16) is the President of the Wyoming Senate.