State legislators discussed interim activities, upcoming Budget Session

(Lander, WY) – On Friday, four of Fremont County’s six state legislators attended the Legislative Session Preview Luncheon at the Lander Community Center. The event was co-hosted by the Lander, Riverton, and Dubois Chambers of Commerce.

Senators Cale Case and Tim Salazar along with Representatives Ember Oakley and Pepper Ottman were each given five minutes to share what interim legislative activities they have been part of and discuss what issues they expect to be addressed at the 2022 Budget Session, which convenes on February 14th.

The biggest topic between the state legislators was the upcoming Budget Session, and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money Wyoming is slated to receive.

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Approximately half of the roughly $1 billion ARPA funds have been earmarked for the general fund, according to Representative Ember Oakley. $109 million have been slated for broadband construction in hopes of improved infrastructure for businesses and economic growth. They are looking at putting $256 million in the Strategic Investment and Projects Account (SIPA) fund. These are only a few of the focus areas for ARPA funding.

“There will be a concerted effort by all legislators, I can certainly say I will commit that to you, to look at the projects and figure out what’s best for Wyoming to maximize those dollars and do what’s best for all of us and hopefully economic improvements and diversity,” Oakley said.

Senators Cale Case and Tim Salazar shared concerns about this one-time money impacting the 2022 Budget Session.

Wyoming grew the slowest compared to our companion states in the West, and our gross domestic product has gone down, Case explained.

“We had the biggest decline in the gross domestic product of any state in the country. It’s not good,” he said.

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The decline is due to changes in the fossil fuel industry, according to Case, which is driven by people who have concerns about global warming.

This GDP loss leads to the Revenue Committee coming up with proposals for how to change the tax structure for when the mineral industry is no longer able to support Wyoming.

With ARPA money coming in this year, Senator Case shared, it cuts our incentive to have tax reform for real profits.

Senator Salazar emphasized the ARPA funds will run out.

“I hope the state legislature has some forethought and understanding that the COVID money, the one-time money, is going to run out very quickly,” he said. “Then we are going to have to go back to the very difficult decisions that we were facing before 12 months ago.”

Legislative redistricting was another popular topic for both Senator Case and Representative Ottman.

Redistricting happens every ten years and according to Case, Wyoming has not grown that much overall but the population has shifted.

In the last ten years, Teton and Laramie Counties tied at 8.6% for largest population growth, and the biggest decline was in Sublette County with a loss of 4,000 people. Fremont County lost around 800 people.

“When you try to draw up legislative districts that are all the same, these are tremendous changes,” he said.

Ottman shared her opposition to losing a portion of Fremont County to the Bighorn Basin due to the decrease in population.

“One of the areas that is under a close microscope is the Valley area,” she said. “Ten years ago, the Bighorn Basin lost population at that time the redistricting was going on and Shoshoni and Lysite were put into the Bighorn Basin. Well, now ten years later, the population has also been lowered in that section of the state, and so they’re looking at taking the Valley. I am against that totally.”

A Q&A session with attendees wrapped up the luncheon. Topics included property tax increases, government budget cuts, school district consolidation, revenue from electric vehicles and wind farms, and encouraging voters among a few others.

Representative Lloyd Larsen was in budget hearings during the luncheon and unable to attend. Representative Andi LeBeau sustained an injury and was unable to attend.

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