A cautious governor confronts an ‘unprecedented time’

At Gov. Mark Gordon’s January 2018 inauguration ceremony, Sheridan musician David Munsick sang the song “Forever West.” 

The paean to Wyoming includes this stanza:

“It’s boom and bust

and hang on just

until the times get better” 

Gordon, Wyoming’s 33rd governor, requested the tune.

The lyrics may be inspired by Wyoming archetypes of hardscrabble ranchers and energy workers, but they could just as easily apply to the state’s chief executive. In Wyoming, governors’ legacies are formed in large part by how their tenure coincides with commodity markets outside their control. 

Now, not halfway into his first term, the Republican Gordon is confronting what may prove the most consequential bust yet. Wyoming’s fiscal crisis, a slow-motion train wreck years in the making, has finally come off the rails. It did so on Gordon’s watch. 

Then there is the pandemic. The global health emergency has forced Gordon, like governors across America, to pivot, adapt and make life-and-death decisions on short notice.

With savings and a little luck, Gordon and the Legislature might be able to cut budgets and “hang on until the times get better.” Or until new politicians take their places. 

Widening divisions within the Wyoming Republican Party and a Legislature that’s proven unwilling to decouple the state from its energy-industry dependence make the governor’s task all the more daunting.

Will Gordon steer the state’s government through the current disarray to a more sustainable future? Can he? 

Gordon has spent more time in the public spotlight than usual since the pandemic shut down much of daily life in March. He has held almost weekly live-streamed press conferences to discuss the state’s virus response and unfolding budget crisis. 

The governor is a measured public speaker by nature — often sounding more like an earnest professor than a politician. During 2018 primary debates, he tended to meander so deeply into policy nuance that advisors worried his campaign might not survive them. But more emotion has crept into his addresses during the COVID-19 era. 

He has heaped scorn on those who put others at risk. He has waved printed health orders in the air and thrown newspapers to the floor in anger. He choked up at the podium on at least two occasions: announcing the state’s first pandemic-related fatality and canceling the summer’s biggest rodeos. 

He has pushed back against criticism of his pandemic response that seems to come from every direction. Members of the far right labeled him a tyrant for going too far and protested on the steps of the state Capitol. Observers from the left called him a coward for not going further and accused him of endangering the population through inaction. 

Others still found fault with Gordon’s compromise. 

“It was kind of a half in and half out kind of deal,” Rep. Scott Clem (R-Gillette), who has opposed the state’s virus response as government overreach, said. “It was some intervention just not as much intervention as the other states were doing,” he said.

Such jabs aside, the governor’s leadership has been lauded by many Wyoming politicians, including those across the aisle. 

“I would have liked him to take stronger measures about testing and masks and contact tracing and all those things,” said Rep. Andy Schwartz (D-Jackson). But, “by and large I think he’s done a pretty good job. He’s just a calm leader and we need a calm leader at this time.”

Overall, the public has approved of Gordon’s virus response, according to polling conducted by UW researchers over the course of the pandemic. The approval rate is dropping as the pandemic continues. In March, 82% of poll respondents approved of how Gordon was handling the virus. That approval rating had dropped to 69% by the most recent poll, conducted Aug. 10. 

In some areas, critics say the governor’s live-streamed grit isn’t consistent with his actions.

Gordon has dressed down those who reject masks but eschewed one himself at gatherings where they aren’t popular. 

He has pleaded for the people of Wyoming to recognize just how bad the state’s finances are. He has called on the Legislature to confront the fiscal crisis and asked voters to elect lawmakers who are more pragmatic than ideological. But some say he should combat the state’s far-right political block and lobby the Legislature more forcefully for tax reform. 

The Legislature has not met since May, and it’s now unclear if lawmakers will convene another special session this year. So for now, Gordon is shouldering the fiscal salvage work largely on his own.

Gordon has stripped $250 million from the state’s general budget and is working on another 10% cut. He is asking the Legislature to cut further  — ideally from its own program mandates — and address education funding, a near $2 billion budget Gordon argues the executive branch doesn’t have the authority to reduce alone. 

Even after Gordon’s $250 million spending reduction, the state faces a $1 billion deficit.

What leaders do next could shape Wyoming life for the next decade, if not longer.  

Gordon says he is embracing the challenge: “I didn’t anticipate this,” he said, “but I was definitely going to do whatever I needed to do when it came.”

He is doing the job without pay. Since April, Gordon has been donating his salary to First Lady Jennie Gordon’s effort to combat hunger.

On a late July day, the governor spoke at the Cheyenne Rotary Club’s first in-person lunch gathering since the pandemic. Gordon wore a mask above his suit as he mingled among Cheyenne’s leadership class.

Cheyenne attorney and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Tara Nethercott (R) introduced Gordon to the crowd. He is “the unprecedented governor, in an unprecedented time,” Nethercott said.

Asked later about her description, Nethercott gave a terse summary.

“He was meeting with armed protestors in front of the capitol during the same month he is taking the lead on bidding on a billion dollar land purchase [from Occidental Petroleum] during a pandemic,” Nethercott wrote in an email.

Ever optimistic in public remarks, Gordon often references rancher credos about hard work and meeting problems head on. Still, it seems little has gone his way in 2020. 

By July’s Rotary luncheon, Republican hardliners were already well on their way to consolidating control of the state’s party. Many in that political camp fiercely opposed Gordon’s gubernatorial bid during the primary. Some party power-brokers were so frustrated that they tried to legislate voting restrictions for Republican primaries. 

Far-right candidates then unseated several prominent lawmakers in August’s primary election — a heavy blow to any hope Gordon may have harbored for tax reform. 

Wyoming lost the Occidental bid. The oil company sold its property to a mining firm for $1.33 billion, around $130 million more than what the state offered. 

Governors like to welcome new businesses opening in the state. Gordon had to shutter Wyoming’s main street economies. They like to push initiatives and task forces — among Gordon’s cuts is one of his own initiatives, a program to boost vocational education in community colleges, that had hardly begun.

Governors attend rodeos, get feted and wave at the crowd. Gordon had to cancel some of the state’s largest in 2020. 

Gordon knew the job would be hard when he ran for it, according to people who know him. It’s hard to imagine, though, that he anticipated just how tough. 

Gordon began his run for governor in the spring of 2018 after serving as the state’s treasurer for six years — experience that gave him a good grounding in the state’s fiscal machinery. 

“He knew the challenges, knew the financial crisis that the state of Wyoming was in even back then,” said David Picard, a longtime Wyoming lobbyist and political consultant. Picard advised Gordon’s gubernatorial campaign and ran the committee to plan his inauguration. 

Then again, so did most people paying attention. The cracks — a steadily declining coal industry, low natural gas prices and an increasing reliance on stocks and the volatile oil industry for tax revenues — had been growing wider for some time. 

“Any observer knows that over the course of the last two decades we were on an unsustainable path,” Picard said. 

“Every campaign stop people would say, ‘appreciate you running but God, why would you want the job?’” Picard said. “He wanted the job because he wanted to make the changes.” 

Gordon came into office thinking he had some time. Many believed the Legislature had built up enough savings to float the state through a transition. Gordon argued then, and continues to make the case amid worsening odds, that developing carbon capture solutions can slow coal’s decline. 

“We really did feel that there would be an opportunity to have a glide path,” Gordon said, “and a transition that wouldn’t have the precipitous cliff at the end of it.” 

Gordon brought a light touch to the first legislative session of his tenure, which began within a month of his inauguration. He pushed limited initiatives as Senate and House leadership fought another battle in a long-running war over education funding.

Coal bankruptcies dominated the following summer’s headlines — first Wyoming staple Cloud Peak Energy and then the dramatic collapse of Appalachian-based newcomer Blackjewel. 

For his second session, Gordon doubled down on coal. He gave a rousing speech on the topic to open the Legislature, and his administration pushed a number of measures for coal research and carbon capture. Lawmakers took up the call and passed a slew of coal-boosting bills. 

But by the session’s final week, the bottom was falling out. Caught up in the finale of a packed month of lawmaking, the Legislature did not act on ever-worsening pandemic news or an oil price war breaking out between Russia and Saudi Arabia. 

Days after lawmakers left Cheyenne, Gordon began issuing orders closing schools and many businesses. The state and national economy lurched to a halt.

In May, the economists that write the state’s revenue projections met for their first emergency meeting since 2009. Surveying shattered oil markets and global financial instability, the economists wrote the state’s revenues down by a range of $1.8 billion to $1 billion. 

Just like that, the two-year budget lawmakers had just passed was untenable. The crisis was at hand. 

“I had no idea that it would become so imminent so quickly,” Gordon said. 

Analysts say an economic slowdown and subsequent deceleration of electricity demand likely accelerated coal’s decline and made a reversal all the more unlikely. Meanwhile, Wyoming’s increased reliance on the oil industry for tax revenue ensured the price war pummeled state coffers. 

But if a virus that emerged in Asia and an international oil price war were the sparks, but the fuel for today’s conflagration had been stacked for years at home. Decades of inaction on the state’s energy dependence by past leaders suddenly mattered. 

Is Gordon frustrated to have inherited an old problem at just the wrong time? 

“I don’t really know how to respond to that,” he said. “Do I rue that? Yeah. But it’s also … it feels good to have to make really monumental decisions. And I think some of these really are. You’re talking about the health of the population of the state of Wyoming and health both in terms of real health and economic health.”

Gordon tries to balance the urgent demands of the moment with contemplation of  Wyoming’s eventual future, he said. In recent press conferences he has talked often about opportunities the pandemic might provide — people are seeking open space, low populations and safety. Many see it here, Gordon says, and there is some very early evidence backing that idea. 

“Keeping people thinking about the future, thinking about … the opportunities that Wyoming provides, having to do that sort of makes it worthwhile getting up in the morning,” Gordon said.

People who work for or with Gordon describe a cautious decision maker who seeks consensus before taking any leaps. 

“He’s a very classic Wyoming type in that he’s a moseyer,” Rep. Sara Burlingame (D-Cheyenne), said. “He doesn’t gallop, he moseys.

But in Wyoming’s current political climate, full consensus is unattainable, she said. That’s particularly true when it comes to right-wing activists and politicians who have often rejected and denounced him, she said. 

In April, when Gordon came down the Capitol steps to pray with protesters demanding an end to health orders, his attempts to explain his reasoning were shouted down. One of the protesters referred to him as a secret Democrat. 

“He believes that, ‘if I can just talk to you and look you in the eyes that I can bring you around by the force of my goodwill,’” Burlingame said. It’s a “misplaced belief” that “if we just sit down at the table long enough, take enough calls, … we’ll reach consensus,” she said. “I just think that’s inaccurate.”

Before the pandemic, Gordon made strides with the hardline conservatives who today run the Wyoming Republican Party. 

A government transparency task force, a bold set of vetoes on his first budget bill and his signing of legislation limiting abortion had all earned Gordon praise from state GOP leadership and conservative lawmakers. 

Right-wing stalwarts like Clem, however, think the virus response may hurt Gordon with the Republican voters he needs to win another primary election. 

Voters resent the public health measures, Clem argues. “I think there’s a growing gulf between main street public Wyoming and the media and government,” he said. “They’re going two different directions.”

Much of the state party’s messaging also suggests that health orders are overblown and intrusive. A recent post on the party’s Facebook page was flagged by fact checkers as misinformation. It’s unclear if the label diminished its influence.

The cuts he’s made will impact public safety and Wyoming’s most vulnerable residents, Gordon said.  

He’s discussed the outrage he’s received from some residents over closing some highway rest areas — a cut that barely scratched the surface, Gordon says. However, cuts to government services may not hurt him with many Republican voters who believe state budgets are inflated. 

The other side of the budget equation, raising new revenue through tax increases, for example, are far riskier. 

At his Aug. 26 press conference, Gordon was asked again by reporters if he would push the Legislature to take up taxes. (The question has become a staple of the governor’s press briefings.)

A day earlier, the Joint Revenue Committee had rejected bills to remove sales tax exemptions and add an additional 1% to the sales tax. Gordon has asked lawmakers to examine the state’s sales tax exemptions on a wide variety of business and personal services. Such an action, taken alone, could add $140 million to coffers over two years.

“I don’t think it’s a big surprise that they didn’t take any actions,” Gordon said. “Part of it comes back to me, to indicate that ‘sure, we can spend [savings] down over the next two years … then what?’”

Democrats like Schwartz and others want more. The governor knows what needs to be done, and should use his platform to push the Legislature for tax reforms, they say.

“He’s the only person who can stand up in a situation like this and say, ‘I hate taxes too but if we don’t do this we’re gonna be in worse trouble,’” Schwartz said.

“But I’m a Democrat so that’s easy for me to say,” he added with a chuckle.  “He will probably want a second term,” Schwartz said. “And he doesn’t have to worry about someone running to the left of him in a Republican primary. The threat to him … is the strength of the extreme right.” 

Gordon might have inherited big problems, but Schwartz doesn’t let him off the hook so easily. Picking up past governors’ fixation on a carbon capture solution for coal is a harmful crutch, he said: “We spent $25 million on carbon research in [the 2020] budget. We’re throwing this money in a raffle and we’re kicking the can down the road.”