ENDOW releases 20-year plan

By Austin Huguelet

Wyoming Tribune Eagle

Via Wyoming News Exchange

CHEYENNE — The committee charged with diversifying Wyoming’s energy-centric economy released an ambitious 20-year plan Wednesday afternoon, including recommendations to reform the state’s tax code, hire a diversification czar and broaden the role of the University of Wyoming. 

ENDOW chairman Greg Hill and vice chairman Bill Schilling laid out dozens of lofty goals in the report, and perhaps even more ideas for how to reach them, though none discussed specific price tags.

The leaders also lauded the Legislature’s accomplishments in economic diversification in the 2018 budget session, including gains on state-run air service, broadband expansions and a new emphasis on equitable computer science education. 

Hill and Gov. Matt Mead, who has made the ENDOW a cornerstone of his second term, will hold a media conference today to discuss things further and potentially fill in a few gaps. 

On first read, a few things stood out. Here’s a rundown:

1. ENDOW won’t work without tax reform

Mead and ENDOW members initially refrained from making judgments on Wyoming’s tax system; in its report to the Legislature in January, the committee said tax policy was “better left to policymakers.”

But after an economist told the Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee in June that attracting well-paying jobs would actually hurt the state fiscally under the current tax structure, Mead told WyoFile he supported a change. 

And below a subhead reading “Economic growth requires tax change,” Hill and Schilling wrote: “While ENDOW is absolutely necessary, it will not be sufficient to solve the ultimate revenue problem: a likely declining minerals revenue contribution coupled with a non-sustainable fiscal model where a typical family of three pays $3,050 in taxes, yet receives $28,750 in public services.” 

They didn’t encourage any specific targets or approaches, but made clear they want leaders to do something.

“We understand that tax policy is complicated, and change will be difficult and unpopular,” it reads. “But it is imperative that our elected officials revise Wyoming’s tax code. We believe it is possible to establish a stable and more diversified tax structure that creates stability while at the same time maintains Wyoming’s business-friendly competitive edge.”

Whether it’ll move legislators who shunned proposed tax increases last year remains to be seen, but the report sends a clear message: Fix the tax code or we can’t reach our potential. 

2. ENDOW wants a leader in the governor’s office

The committee also recommends appointing a “chief economic diversification officer” within the governor’s office to oversee and carry out the 20-year plan with help of a “Commission for Economic Diversification” with representatives from the public, public schools and state agencies. 

The report assures readers the action will not require new spending, but asks lawmakers to codify the role as a Cabinet position with a six-year appointment subject to state Senate approval. 

Such a suggestion is not uncommon in government studies and reports, but legislative ratification could be a bellwether for long-term support of the initiative. 

3. ENDOW will rely heavily on University of Wyoming

Another notable action item recommended “significantly expanding the University of Wyoming’s footprint beyond Laramie” by “establishing research facilities and distance learning centers in partnership with community colleges to ensure Wyoming residents have physical and digital access to a wide range of bachelor and graduate degree programs ..”

The report says less than 30 percent of residents have that access now, and authors say that’s leaving the talent in Wyoming communities behind.

UW will also be called upon to be the “world’s pre-eminent energy research university and establish “world class” programs in subjects like entrepreneurship and artificial intelligence.

With no line item in the report and the university coming off recent cuts, it wasn’t immediately clear how the state plans to pay for all the moves. But UW has gotten some grant funding to help with Mead’s order to increase the number of residents with postsecondary degrees. And another action item encourages officials to better align UW’s priorities with the state’s diversification needs through more specific budget line items.

4. ENDOW is shooting high

According to the report, an “ENDOW-influenced economy” will make Wyoming more populous and Wyomingites significantly better-off in 2038 than one without any changes. 

The report estimates ENDOW recommendations will grow the state economy by $12 billion, create 104,000 more jobs, add 108,000 more people and increase wages up to 20 percent.

But it remains to be seen whether those numbers will be enough to gin up investment and spur reform.

5. Potential support for anti-discrimination law?

One thing missing from the main body of the report was a definitive statement from ENDOW on whether it supports enacting a law banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. 

ENDOW members Jerad Stack and Matt Kaufman said at a meeting last month that research indicated an anti-discrimination law would have a “high impact” on attracting new skilled workers to the state, according to the Laramie Boomerang.

The idea also appears in a listing of recommendations from the ENGAGE initiative, which looked to residents ages 16-35 for input. 

But ENDOW’s portion of the report contains less specific language, saying “Recruiting, hiring and retaining high-quality talent is essential to growing successful businesses in a global economy. It is important that Wyoming residents and visitors are treated with equality.”

The Legislature has shot down attempts to pass such a law in the past.