Rep. Sommers hosts town hall

SUBLETTE COUNTY – Rep. Albert Sommers met with community members at a town hall meeting hosted by the Sublette County Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, May 13, at the Pinedale Library.

Sommers discussed the possibility of a special Legislative Session this summer to hammer out the impasse in the state’s education funding model and examine how to use federal COVID-19 relief money.

Sommers fielded questions on numerous topics – most focused on declining revenue and the economic outlook for Wyoming.

What specific cuts were made in the state’s budget?

Agencies across the board were affected by budget cuts, Sommers responded, from education to Wyoming State Parks.

The largest revenue decrease hit the Department of Health, Sommers said, with approximately $111 million slashed from the department’s general fund. A significant number of programs under the Department of Health’s umbrella receive federal dollars in matching grants, Sommers added. When state funds are cut from these programs, the Department of Health also loses the corresponding federal dollars, he explained.

The Department of Corrections also saw a significant hit to its budget. Legislators examined excess spending in staffing and structural issues, including prison facilities built on unsound locations, Sommers said.

Agencies like the Department of Family Services received initial cuts, but the Legislature found funds at a later point to funnel some money back to certain programs, Sommers added.

With the energy and mining industries taking a hit, what alternatives are the Legislature looking at raise revenue and keep Wyoming in the black?

Taxation was a primary way to raise revenue, Sommers replied. Wyoming citizens, on average, receive three to four times the services in terms of the taxes they pay compared to other states, he added.

Sommers said he was aware that the appetite for taxation in Wyoming is limited. He talked about the half-cent sales tax to offset cuts to education in House Bill 173 on the school funding model. This bill failed to pass the Senate, Sommers added.

Wyoming faces an uphill battle in raising revenue, Sommers explained. The state’s revenue system is designed around the mineral and energy industry, Sommers added, and attempts to raise new taxes have been met with strong opposition.

How is the Legislature working to attract high-tec industries to the state?

Technology is a priority for the Wyoming Business Council in terms of recruitment, Sommers said. The challenge in attracting business to relocate from places like Denver to Wyoming lay in the state’s harsh weather, Sommers added.

Sommers emphasized the role expanded broadband internet access could play in attracting businesses to the state. Federal COVID-19 relief money offered potential in spreading broadband to rural areas, Sommers said.

Finding ways to develop Wyoming’s workforce, particularly through the community college system, to meet employer demands was another priority Sommers discussed.

What role can the Legislature play in offering incentives to bring businesses to Wyoming?

The state government primarily uses grants or loans to attract businesses, Sommers said. While neighboring states like South Dakota are able to provide cash incentives to businesses, the Wyoming Constitution prohibited direct payments to individual companies, he explained.

Sommers encouraged communities to work with local chambers of commerce to come up with grassroots ideas to attract businesses.

Can you address unemployment in the community and state?

Sommers highlighted Gov. Mark Gordon’s May 12 announcement to end Wyoming’s participation in federal supplemental unemployment benefits.

Federal unemployment payments helped families during the pandemic and were needed at the time, he said.

Unemployment remains a problem in the state and he worried about continued turnover in the energy industry. Time will tell if the governor made the right decision to pull Wyoming out of federal unemployment program, Sommers said.