by nathan oster
While conceding the dire outlook for the state’s economy — “in a word, it’s bad,” he said — Gov. Matt Mead told a gathering of journalists Friday afternoon in Casper that he opposes cuts in local government funding as well as the slashing of K-12 school funding and an early childhood literacy program.
Speaking at the Wyoming Press Association’s winter convention, Mead began by citing gains made in the past four years, including recognition that has come the state’s way for its tax-friendly business climate, increased international exports, relatively low unemployment rate of 4 percent and rising incomes.
But the gradual downturn in the minerals industry has overshadowed those gains and left state leaders with some tough choices to make in their upcoming budget session.
Mead said he wants to send the message, “We’re not going to stop doing business.” He said that with 70 percent of the state’s income derived from minerals, he knew the state would take a hit. “We can’t control the price of natural gas, oil and coal, so the question is, how do we react?”
Mead renewed calls for legislators to consider borrowing from the “rainy day account,” noting that it’s doubled in the past four years and that “we are in a better position now than we have faced (similar economic downturns) in the past.”
For the first time in state history, there have been five consecutive CREG reports showing downgrades from previous reports. “If it’s not raining now I don’t know when it will be,” he said, renewing calls for legislators to borrow from the rainy-day fun and use a 1 percent diversion of severance taxes to repay the rainy-day fund along with investment income. “It’ll be paid back at the end of two years,” he predicted.
Mead said the state must continue to invest in local governments, saying it’s “where the action is” and that if the state is going to pull itself out of its economic situation, that’s where it must begin. He and the Joint Appropriations Committee differ on the level of that investment, with Mead wanting more than the JAC by about $33 million.
“If we can’t fund local governments and take care of our roads and bridges the best we can, we will lose the momentum we have in economic development and we will lose this image we have to the rest of the country of making tough choices but good choices to diversify the economy and keep more young people in our state. We have great momentum, but we have to keep it going.”
Mead also touched on a legislative subcommittee’s decision to remove Medicaid expansion from the state’s proposed 2017-18 budget. The JAC voted to remove Medicaid expansion and the $268 million in federal funds that come with it from the state budget.
The move would keep nearly 20,000 Wyomingites from access to health insurance.
While still no fan of Obamacare, Mead said the state fought the fight and lost — not only legally but also politically — and that the time has come to accept that it’s the law of the land.
“There are 20,000 people in the state who fall in the gaps, who don’t have access to adequate medical care,” he said. “The ACA takes money from Wyoming and sends it to Washington, D.C.”
By continuing to oppose it, “We are saying, ‘Take the money Wyoming has given to you and send it to Colorado or California because we don’t like it.’ I have trouble doing that.”
Mead said his question for legislators is going to be what they intend to do with the 20,000 people who would be denied access to affordable health care.
“There’s great room for improvement, and I see our congressional delegation working to make those changes. I do not believe the next president is going to say to hospitals and insurance companies that this plan is done. The money is so intertwined in the system, I don’t see that in our future.”
The day before Mead met with journalists, The JAC voted to cut $45 million in public school money over the next two years. It also recommended the elimination of eight family literacy programs throughout the state.
Mead said he disagreed with both decisions.
“It’s a deliberative process and it’s not over,” he said, “What I can tell you is, my wife and I believe that one of the keys to making education as great as it can be is by making a commitment to early childhood literacy.”
Mead said it’s critical for students to reach their reading goals by the third grade. Those who do not face an uphill battle, he said.