State of State hits on education, efficiency


CHEYENNE — In his first State of the State speech, Gov. Mark Gordon laid out his vision for his first year in office and touched once again on the topics he ran on last year - fiscal responsibility, efficient government and finding a sustainable funding solution for the state's education system. 

While he stuck to a number of the well-trodden themes of his campaign, he didn't go into specific details on how Wyoming would deal with many of the issues that have kept lawmakers awake at night for years. 

The new governor did throw his political weight behind several bills, including funding a new skilled nursing facility for veterans and funding for school safety infrastructure.

Gordon also proposed creating a new permanent fund to help finance career and technical education in the state. 

"I believe Wyoming should create a new trust fund under the Amendment A provision, with private industry's support and a Wyoming match, that would offer scholarships for career and technical education," he said. 

"I look forward to making Wyoming Works a reality. I applaud those who are proposing bills that would help Wyoming students move more seamlessly from high school to college and from community colleges to the University of Wyoming."

Gordon said it was imperative that Wyoming finally create a stable education funding stream. That has been a common theme among lawmakers heading into this year's legislative session, but Gordon didn't offer a specific strategy for how Wyoming should move in that direction. 

State Sen. Tara Nether-cott, R-Cheyenne, said she didn't expect Gordon to dive into how Wyoming would 

fix every issue. Instead, she was glad to see him lay out what the state needs to have its focus on in the coming year.

"I don't think it would have been appropriate for him to go into specifics in the State of the State," Nethercott said. "We would have been there for four hours." 

She said she hopes to see a clear vision for diversifying Wyoming's economy and funding education moving forward. 

The lack of detail in how to fund education and other things was a sticking point with the Democrats in the Legislature. During a news conference after the speech, the Democratic leadership said Gordon and the Legislature needed to come up with concrete ways to fund operations and provide affordable health care.

"There are some areas where there are just not enough details, not enough specificity for the vision," said Senate Minority Leader Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie. 

--Where Gordon wants to focus--

During his tenure as state treasurer, Gordon helped spearhead increased investment of Wyoming's various trust funds and savings accounts. That helped bring in significant revenues in recent years, and Gordon reiterated his support of opening up the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account (commonly known as the "rainy-day fund") to increased investment, along with a clear definition of intended uses for the money.

Given the state's increased reliance on investment revenue from its various funds and accounts, Gordon said increased use of that money - which doesn't provide some return on an investment - would cut into revenues.

"Before we lend out money for low or no interest, please remember any reduction in earning capacity, in my view, is tantamount to raising taxes, and none of us is eager to take on new taxes," Gordon said. 

"That means we will first have to do our best to contain expenditures."

Rep. Sara Burlingame, D-Cheyenne, said while she expects there will be ideological disagreements, she trusts Gordon's experience in this arena and is looking forward to working on bipartisan efforts to increase government efficiency.

"I do really think it helps that he's coming from the treasury," Burlingame said. "He really has seen it from the inside." 

As part of increasing efficiency, Gordon said pay increases for state employees needed to be on the table. Former Gov. Matt Mead had included raises for state workers in his last supplemental budget request, which the Legislature is considering this session, and Gordon officially backed the allocation in his speech. 

But whether the Legislature believes the state can afford it remains to be seen. 

"All of a sudden this appears to be the year everyone needs an increase in pay," said Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne. "I think that may be the most concerning; it's a pretty large chunk of money in one year, and I'm not sure we're totally out of the woods yet to meet that goal ... especially in a supplemental budget." 

Gordon addressed Wyoming's need to better serve people dealing with mental health and substance abuse issues by creating more cooperation between state and nonprofit agencies. He pledged his administration's support for those issues, but didn't outline a specific plan or expenditure to help increase access.

"Through improved coordination of these nonprofit, public and private programs, we can provide better mental health services in the places where people live," Gordon said. 

House Minority Leader Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, said Gordon was right to call out the need for better mental health and substance abuse treatment in Wyoming. But it will take more than creating partnerships with the private sector to solve the issue. 

"We cut our budgets drastically over the past four years," Connolly said. "We need to invest in our communities, invest in our people and, most importantly, invest in our most vulnerable.”

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