CODY — As the state realizes substantial losses in coal income, it’s become more important to look to tourism to diversify tax revenue, Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon said during a recent speech in Cody.
Unlike mineral extraction, it costs money to boost tourism, Gordon told the Wyoming County Commissioners Association at the Holiday Inn on Friday.
“If you’re going to invest in diversification in Wyoming, you’re going to cost taxpayers money,” Gordon said.
That was something the state Legislature was unwilling to do in the past session. Lawmakers killed a bill that would have pumped more money into the Wyoming Office of Tourism through a statewide lodging tax. Wyoming ranks 31st nationally in funding for tourism efforts — well behind western states competing for tourist dollars; for instance, Colorado spends twice as much attracting tourists than Wyoming and Montana spends 50 percent more.
Wyoming’s tourism budget, however, has been stagnant for the past decade, despite seeing increases in tourist dollars spent here.
Many in the region — including tourism industry leaders themselves — hoped increased investment in the agency would result in increased visitation to the state. The failed legislation would have passed most of the cost to visitors, with roughly half of those dollars coming from tourists in Park and Teton counties.
While wanting to make his point, Gordon was very careful not to step on the toes of the coal industry at this pivotal moment.
Diversifying “doesn’t mean we’re deemphasizing minerals, by the way,” he said. “It just means we’re growing our economy, not just diversifying away from [mineral extraction]. We need to make sure that the tax system is sustainable over time.”
Gordon said if the Legislature is unwilling to invest in diversification, he may have to look at program cuts to make up for a loss in coal revenue.
“We’re going to start walking through programs,” he said. “I don’t care if there are federal matching dollars, if we can’t afford it, we’re going to drop those programs.”
Gordon said making cuts is politically unpopular, but necessary. Revenue from coal extraction funds much of the state budget, bringing in about $800 million annually, he said.
“You all know it’s under pressure everywhere,” he said.
Gordon also said the state should look to solar and wind energy for more revenue. Gordon said he wants to make sure green energy investors know Wyoming is open for business, but at the same time make sure the state is fair to traditional energy sources, so green energy sources don’t end up “penalizing Wyoming citizens” in the way they are taxed.
“There is a cost to green energy,” Gordon said. “This is not a free thing.”
The governor also pushed for support in investment capital for carbon capture technology in hopes of stemming the phasing out of coal due to environmental impacts.
In an effort to make sure coal is “not a thing of the past,” Gordon hopes to invest in environmentally friendly techniques to burn coal.
“If we are going to keep our climate from increasing our temperature by 1.5 percent, you have got to invest in carbon capture and sequestration,” he said, qualifying the statement that he is not taking a stand on any particular climate notions.
“The point is we need solutions and Wyoming is the solution driver,” he said.
Gordon said the federal government also needs to be a part of finding solutions, including giving states ownership of the the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. NEPA requires that government agencies follow a review process intended to discover significant environmental and public health impacts before allowing development. Many Western political leaders feel the process is stifling development — especially in mineral extractions.
The Trump administration has ordered a review of the act, enacted in 1970, as part of a “energy first” push. Many, including Gordon, see this as an opportunity to streamline the process of development and increase tax revenues.
“We have an opportunity to put the counties and the state out in front of the NEPA process,” Gordon said.