CHEYENNE – The Wyoming Legislature will meet May 15 for its first special session since 2004 in an effort to address immediate needs caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gov. Mark Gordon announced his executive order calling the session in a news conference Thursday afternoon.
The special session, which will last at least two days, will be conducted virtually, with an “anchor location” at the Capitol in Cheyenne.
As the governor issued his order, a few lawmakers were working on a bill for the special session to help Wyoming businesses struggling to stay afloat.
The legislation would create three programs that would be run through the Wyoming Business Council. Under the bill as amended, the programs would begin with about $250 million coming from Wyoming’s share of the omnibus federal COVID-19 relief bill passed in March.
The idea was first brought by Gordon’s administration during the Legislature’s Management Council meeting last week.
The first part of the bill would establish the Wyoming Business Interruption Stipend Program, which would be open to independent, Wyoming-based businesses with 50 employees or less.
Initially, only businesses that missed out on the federal Paycheck Protection Program were eligible for the grants, which would range from $15,000 to $50,000. But lawmakers ultimately voted to make the program open to businesses that met the other requirements, with priority still being given to those that missed out on federal relief.
In Wyoming, demand among businesses for financial aid has far outweighed what was offered by the Paycheck Protection Program. In the initial 10 days of the federal program, more than 7,600 loans were authorized in the state before preliminary funds dried up.
“I think the demand for that shows the scale of need in Wyoming and nationally,” Renny Mackay, the governor’s policy director, told the Joint Minerals, Business and Economic Development Interim Committee.
The largest portion of funding in the bill – $175 million – would establish a loan program open to businesses with 100 employees or less.
Getting the program off the ground, however, could be an issue.
Josh Dorrell, CEO of the Wyoming Business Council, told the committee that the administrative burden of a loan program could be tough for his office.
“It may require us to bring on some temporary additional staff … and to look at other agencies to bring in,” Dorrell said. “We would prefer something that’s as simple as possible.”
Others questioned how much interest there would be in a potential loan program.
State Auditor Kristi Racines, who has chaired the governor’s business-focused COVID-19 task force, said businesses have shown little interest in taking on added debt.
“I know this loan contemplates being forgivable, but that may not help if you’re not sure whether you’re going to exist or not,” Racines said.
Lawmakers nearly amended the loan program to make it a grant program, as well, but the amendment to do so failed by a 7-6 vote. Rep. Shelly Duncan, R-Lingle, who voted against the amendment, noted the loan program could be tweaked to reduce the risk for small business owners who might be hesitant to apply.
“At first, I thought about just the grant (program), but the more I’m thinking on the loan part, we should just be concentrating on the forgiveness part so much more rather than the actual loan,” Duncan said. “It ends up being a grant somewhat, because it ends up being what the PPP is.”
Under the program, loans would be capped at $300,000 per business, with a 1% annual interest rate. The term of the loan would be 10 years, with no payment due in the first two years after distribution.
The third prong of the legislation would establish another grant program to reimburse businesses for health-related expenses, such as personal protection equipment and cleaning supplies. Individual reimbursements under that program were amended to be capped at $500,000.
Several people testified remotely before the committee. Representing industries ranging from mining to horse racing to breweries, they reflected the across-the-board impact of the virus on the state’s economy.
During testimony, Britney Wallesch, executive director of the Wyoming Nonprofit Network, asked the committee to consider including nonprofits among the businesses eligible for the programs, which would expire at the end of the year.
However, an amendment brought by Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, to make the state’s nonprofits eligible failed by a close vote.
After working on amendments, lawmakers took no final action on the bill Thursday. Instead, they’ll finalize it for the special session during their committee meeting Monday.