By Khale Lenhart
With the dawn of a new year, we naturally look to the future and express our hopes and expectations for the coming year. Now is a good time to do the same for Wyoming politics, as our state’s voters and elected officials will have important decisions to make in the next 12 months. The decisions made this coming year will have impacts on Wyoming’s political future for years to come. It is a big year for Wyoming.
The most pressing issue in state government right now is the state budget. State spending currently outpaces revenue and our state’s revenue streams are dependent on taxes on natural resource extraction, coal especially. Unfortunately, the coal market appears to have undergone a widespread change that will likely result in Wyoming receiving less in taxes in the future.
While we have a few years to implement the big changes that need to happen in Wyoming, the time to start making progress on addressing our budget issues is now. Gov. Mark Gordon’s budget message to the Legislature indicated that he recognizes some of the issues we face, although I had hoped for more immediate action to address the looming issues. In this coming year, the Legislature will make its choices on what to fund in our state budget over the next two years.
We should all hope that they are far-sighted enough to start taking action now. The longer they wait, the steeper the inevitable spending cuts and/or tax increases will be.
This year is also significant in that it is an election year that will have significant impacts on Wyoming’s representation, both in Washington and in Cheyenne. Sen. Mike Enzi is retiring, which means Wyoming will have someone new representing us in the U.S. Senate. Depending on what path Rep. Liz Cheney takes, we may also have an open seat in the House of Representatives.
With Wyoming’s small population, electing quality officials to Washington is particularly important, as the entire state’s interests must be supported by only a few people. Although we do not know what the candidate fields will look like yet, open seats in Wyoming have not had any problem attracting interested persons, so this summer promises to see another spirited campaign season in Wyoming.
The same holds true for our representation in the state Legislature. Every state representative and half of the state Senate will be on the ballot this year. As Wyoming wrestles with difficult decisions on our future, it is important that we elect quality officials. Single-issue candidates and those running out of vanity often perform poorly in office and do a disservice to their fellow citizens.
Our Legislature meets too briefly, with too little support, to elect those without the capability to perform their own research, quickly understand complicated issues and make good decisions. Wyoming voters must carefully consider both the capabilities of the candidates and the ideas they put forth for Wyoming’s future when casting their votes this year.
Lastly, significant issues arise every year that are simply not on anyone’s radar ahead of time. No one knows what this year’s surprise issues will be yet, but we can hope that our elected officials will deal with them properly. The most important thing our legislators can do is to consider these unexpected issues carefully and thoughtfully. They should think critically about what is at stake and how their decisions will impact those around them.
Too often, overworked legislators will defer to those who speak the loudest. This usually means they defer to those whose personal interests are impacted one way or another. While this is vital information for legislators to have, they must also step back and consider how their decisions impact the state as a whole. Will their decision be fair? Who will it help and who will it hurt? Will it address the underlying problem, or only address symptoms of a deeper issue? What consequences will flow from their decision? If our legislators ask these sorts of questions before voting, they are far more likely to make the right decision than if they simply go along with the loudest voices.
This is an important year for Wyoming, with big decisions to be made. The choices made this year will impact us for a long time, so let’s hope that Wyoming’s voters and elected officials are as careful and thoughtful as we know they can be.
(Khale J. Lenhart is a partner at the law firm Hirst Applegate in Cheyenne, where he has practiced since 2011. He is a former chairman of the Laramie County Republican Party and the Laramie County Library System Board of Directors.)