Whether you believe the coronavirus is a grave emergency or not, the economic decline from the measures to combat it is. When small businesses across the state are shuttering their doors, oil trades below $30 per barrel and the Opal hub natural gas price is less than $2 per mcf, it is a rainy day in Wyoming. The federal relief package of $2.2 trillion will help Wyoming, but Wyoming must also help itself.
The Wyoming legislature adjourned on March 12, 2020, just as the corona virus recession was getting underway. In part because the deadline for introduction of bills was February 12, 2020 and in part because of a collective failure of imagination, none of the acts of the 2020 Wyoming legislature was taken with Covid-19 in mind.
The Governor should call a virtual special session of the legislature immediately. Article 3, §7(a) of the Wyoming constitution authorizes the Governor, in a “grave emergency” to “temporarily convene the legislature at a place or places other than the seat of government.” This would allow the Governor to convene the legislature over the internet. Oddly, Wyoming’s constitution does not give the legislature the same power to call a special session at a place other than Cheyenne.
Where the private sector suffers a sudden loss in demand, there is a role for government to step in. Although our longer term budget picture is challenging, for the moment Wyoming does have cash in the bank, about $1.6 billion in the so-called rainy day fund, formally known as the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account.
There are several things that the Wyoming legislature should do now, before the damage to our state becomes worse. These include: (1) passing the approximate $120 million state capital construction bill, Senate File 119, which inexplicably failed on the last day of the 2020 session. Without it, Wyoming’s otherwise $1.6 billion construction sector will contract, with negative economic multipliers for other sectors; (2) increasing the State payments to cities, counties and towns, which depend upon sales tax for about two thirds of their revenue – as sales tax receipts dry up, local governments will not be able to pay their bills. Sales tax generates roughly $500 million per year for local governments statewide – if that declines 20%, it will create a $100 million hole in local government budgets statewide; (3) temporarily injecting funds into the Wyoming Business Council so that local economies don’t falter; and (4) certain non-monetary measures, such as for the prevention of hoarding of essential foodstuffs.
All of this may sound “statist” for a person who believes that the government should ordinarily get out of the way of the free market, but this is not an ordinary time. It’s a rainy day.
/s/ Clark Stith
House District 48