When I moved to Wyoming 40-some years ago it was not with the intention of staying. I really hadn’t given post-graduate school any thought. I guess I assumed I’d probably return home. I know it is what my mother assumed. She still thinks I’ll come to my senses and move back to … ssshhh … California.
But once I got here, I couldn’t think of a good reason to go back. Hunting, fishing, unfettered access to the outdoors and, best of all, very few waiting lines. If you are 20 miles from some place you want to go it takes 20 minutes to get there, (or 15 depending on the stretch of road), not two and a half hours.
Within a few weeks of arriving in Laramie, I took to running around with a small group of ranchers and cowboys, most of whom were from some Wyoming ag community. Every once in awhile, not very often mind you, we would wind up at the local watering hole to celebrate whatever needed celebrating, events like brandings, births, deaths, snow, no snow, marriages, divorces or just the fact we had survived the night before.
What impressed me about this small band of Wyomingites was that they always insisted on paying their way. Where I came from, you needed to pay attention because if you were the last man at the table, you paid the bar tab. Everyone else would have slipped off to the bathroom, the dance floor or an exit if they saw someone headed our way with the tab.
But with these cowboys, no one shied away from paying their share. Often money would just be placed on the table, the bar maid would take what she needed and usually walked away with a $20 tip to boot. It was important to these guys to do the right thing and pay their share.
It was the small things, really, that kept me in Wyoming; hunting, fishing, lack of traffic and the cowboy code. My decision to make Wyoming my home was not based on the lack of a state income tax, or that sales taxes were minimal or that, for the most part, the cost of living was much cheaper here than where I came from.
Housing was cheaper here, as was insurance, bullets, guns, trucks, gas, horses, tack and a hundred other necessities. But let me make the point again, it was Wyoming itself that kept me here, not its economy. And, unfortunately, those 1993 truisms are not so much anymore.
I believe it is a privilege to live here. And it’s a privilege for which I am willing to pay.
It amazes me the number of legislators and residents that become apoplectic if there is even a whisper that Wyoming residents pay a little bit more for the privilege to live here. The battle cries heard in Cheyenne every year include, “No More Taxes!” “Cut waste!” And my favorite, “We spend too much!” But spending too much is only a problem when there is a bust, otherwise every legislator and voter in the state has a favorite program or department they think should get a larger slice of the pie.
In 1993 the legislature raised the state sales tax from three percent to four percent. And there it has lingered through three boom and bust cycles.
In 1993, the last time the sales tax was raised,
n The Dow Jones was around 3,600.
n A gallon of gas was $1.16.
n Average cost of a home was $113,200.
n Average cost of a car was $12,750.
n The average income was $31,230.
So basically, what is happening is the state is bringing home a 1993 paycheck and trying to live within a 2017 budget. Based on experience, I’m pretty sure I know how that is going to work out.
I hate to say this, but we, those of us that call Wyoming home, have probably ridden on the back of mineral royalties as far as it is going to carry us. There are people, many people, out there that will poo-poo this because the overriding attitude during our current fiscal predicament is “It (coal) will bounce back, we just need to wait it out.”
And that’s the problem, our decades old boom and bust mentality is the greatest barrier we face to diversify the state. As long as Wyoming defines itself by its booms and busts, companies will be very reluctant to risk their businesses on an undependable economy. It’s happening now.
Thousands of coal workers have been laid off, many of them have spouses who work in schools, retail stores, doctors offices, hospital or personal businesses and are being counted on to keep the household afloat. But a bust does not discriminate, there is plenty of bust to go around. Less money means fewer things are bought, fewer trips to the doctor and prescriptions for Xanax are on the rise because teachers are gravely worried about their jobs.
In a recent interview with Gov. Mead, he said the first question potential businesses looking to relocate to Wyoming ask are how are the public schools?
I can just imagine the governor’s answer, “They’re great as long as we are in a boom cycle, but all bets are off if we’re in a bust.”
“Well how is the supply of skilled workers?”
“Great, as long as we are boom, not so much if it’s a bust.”
I am thankful for the privilege to live in this state, but am amazed at the stiff, unrealistic insistence that we, as individuals, shouldn’t pay our fair share to protect it.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a wad of cash that I’m looking to give away, but I want to remain in this state and I want my kids and grandkids to have the opportunity to stay in this state, too, rather than having to move away because of necessity.
Yes, there is waste in government. But collectively, we act like every dollar sent to Cheyenne is wasted.
“Cut waste, cut the waste. But hey, why hasn’t anyone been out to grade the county road in front of my house.”
“Well, its because we can only afford a five gallon bucket of gravel and we had to sell the grader so we could repair the water treatment plant.”
In the Code of the West, which our state legislature adopted several years ago as the state’s official code, it says, “Do what has to be done,” and “Be tough, but fair!” Well, its time for those of us that want to remain here, and want to see our loved ones be able to remain here, to do what has to be done, and be fair about it. Its time we put our money on the table, pay for the drinks we ordered and make sure we leave enough behind to make sure no one, willing to work, gets left behind.