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In Wyoming, Republicans’ gain in legislature coincide with budget shortfall

“People will do what they need to do to survive,” said Eldredge, 32, who voted for President Trump because she felt the media was biased against him. “I honestly don’t think the government should be paying for everything, because that will just cause more of a deficit.”

This community, in Sweetwater County, elected a Republican state senator for the first time in decades in November, part of the brutal backlash against state Democratic candidates in predominantly White, working-class rural communities.

The GOP gains, which were particularly extensive in coal-producing regions, all but assure that Trump’s rigid brand of politics will persist in state capitals, becoming incubators for a new generation of politicians who reject compromise and bipartisanship.

Republicans picked up a net 295 state legislative seats nationwide last year, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislators — giving the GOP complete legislative control in 31 states, including veto-proof majorities in at least 15.

When the Wyoming legislature convenes Jan. 12, Republicans will hold the biggest advantage that any party has held in the Cowboy State in at least a century, according to Kerry Drake, who has reported on local politics for more than four decades. Only nine of 90 Wyoming legislators will be Democrats.

Those gains were made just as Wyoming and many other states are facing massive budget shortfalls fueled by the coronavirus pandemic and shifting economic fortunes, including the decline of the fossil fuel industry.

According to a December report from the National Association of State Budget Officers, 32 states experienced a decline in revenue last year. States are on track to collect $135 billion less in general-fund revenue in fiscal 2020 and 2021 than they had expected before the pandemic hit, the report estimated. Those known for energy production are being hit especially hard, with Wyoming’s revenue expected to drop 31 percent.

Wyoming’s budget shortfall has coincided with a sharp move to the right in the statehouse, where a coalition of “Freedom Caucus” lawmakers formed last year on a fierce objection to tax hikes.

State Rep. Dan Laursen (R), who helped form the Freedom Caucus, reflected voters like Eldredge in questioning whether services such as mental health and substance abuse treatment are “really government’s job.”

“Is that really what our Constitution says we should be doing?” Laursen said. “Or have we just let [spending] get so far out of hand?”

That perspective has left some Democratic politicians and moderate Republicans worried about the consequences in a largely rural state, which can be especially isolating for poor and sick residents.

“I am terrified for the future of Wyoming,” said Liisa Anselmi-Dalton, the Democratic senator who lost her reelection in Sweetwater County. “This state is in a fiscal free fall, but we elected all of these people who say they won’t raise taxes no matter what.”

Anti-government sentiment

Composed of mining and railroad towns that were carved into the Rocky Mountain plateau 170 years ago, Sweetwater County has deep ties to the nation’s labor movement. For generations, miners and rail yard workers flocked here for work, and they were reliable Democrats, especially in state and local races.

During the 20th century, as underground mines closed, the region’s economy continued to flourish from oil and natural gas production and strip mining. In recent years, however, the county of 42,000 residents has been battered by the drop in oil and natural gas prices, as well as declining demand for coal, as power companies increasingly turn to cleaner energy sources.

As the economy has tumbled, Sweetwater County residents have been re-registering as Republicans. Just 12 years ago, Democrats held a 1,500-person registration advantage here. Today, Republicans outnumber Democrats by more than 2 to 1, and Trump won nearly three-fourths of the vote in November.

“People out here really don’t like [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi, and they don’t like the Green New Deal” to fight climate change, said Stan Blake, a Sweetwater County Democrat who served seven terms in the state House but lost in November to a little-known Libertarian candidate. “People just feel like the Democratic Party has forgotten people in rural states in the West.”

As a result, the state’s budget crisis has been left in the hands of its most conservative legislature in recent history. Arch conservatives unseated a half-dozen moderate and more mainstream conservative GOP incumbents in state primary contests, accusing them of being too willing to compromise with Democrats on taxes and social issues, such as abortion and transgender rights.

“I think we will keep pushing [the legislature] to the right and expose the Republicans who aren’t really Republicans,” said Laursen. “They are trying to find any excuse that they can to tax our people more. The government thinks they can spend our money better than [residents] can spend their own money.”

Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon (R) has often tried to straddle the moderate and staunchly conservative wings of his party since being elected in 2018, but the formation of the Freedom Caucus has set up a possible bitter intraparty battle this year over the budget.

Over the summer, Gordon suggested that Wyoming’s budget crisis is so severe that the state could eventually have to abandon some towns, effectively allowing the Western prairie to reclaim them to save money. Gordon already has cut funding for senior citizen programs, health-care initiatives — including support for hospitals — and substance abuse and mental health treatment clinics. He is asking state legislators to make even deeper cuts this year, which has alarmed social services advocates as well as some who rely on government assistance.

“If I didn’t have this, I wouldn’t eat as much,” John Warren, 69, who is disabled and relies on home-delivered meals under a state-funded program now slated for budget cuts, said from the door of his Sweetwater trailer, as a volunteer dropped off spaghetti and meatballs.

“No one wants to give up money to the government, but you got to support these programs,” Warren added.

Wyoming is among the least-taxed states in the nation. There is no state income tax, and most counties and cities also rely on the state for the bulk of their funding. A typical family living on $65,000 a year pays an average of $3,200 in sales, vehicle and property taxes. But they receive about $27,000 in public services, according to an analysis by the Wyoming Department of Administration and Information’s Economic Analysis Division.

Gordon declined to be interviewed for this report. But Frank Eathorne Jr., the chairman of the Wyoming Republican Party, said state GOP conservatives increasingly believe that the “core values” of the party are “nonnegotiable,” including limiting “the size and scope of government.”

Party activists adopted a rule last year that elected officials had to adhere to the state GOP platform at least 80 percent of the time to still receive support.

“The overall message we are hearing — and this is emanating from activists in the counties in Wyoming — is that we are looking to right-size our government,” said Eathorne, who helped engineer staunch conservatives’ takeover of the Wyoming Republican State Central Committee over the past decade.

Republican state Sen. John Kolb, who defeated Anselmi-Dalton in Sweetwater County, said GOP leaders are wise to consider whether Wyoming can still afford robust public services as the wealth from minerals and natural gas extraction evaporates.

“Small towns and counties in Wyoming have always come and gone with the minerals,” he said. “We’ve got counties in the state of Wyoming that are on life support with state money . . . and maybe it doesn’t make sense to keep doing what we are doing with counties, or cities.”

But Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, a moderate Republican who in the past has relied on Democratic support to help block initiatives from the far right, said he doesn’t see how the state can right-size without keeping higher taxes on the table.

“Wyoming is going to have to do something to raise revenue to get us out of this hole,” Zwonitzer said. “We could fire every state employee and still not have a balanced budget — that is how bad this is.”

Rock Springs Mayor Tim Kaumo (R) said he doubts that voters who flocked to the polls to support Trump understood the consequences of their down-ballot votes on city services. He fears his city might even have to trim its police force, or consolidate it with that of a town 20 miles away, due to expected cuts in state aid.

“Sometimes when people vote straight party line, we get candidates and officials that are maybe not what we asked for,” Kaumo said.

Anselmi-Dalton, the former state senator who lost in November, believes that’s exactly what happened in her reelection bid. She could sense a few weeks before Election Day that her town’s history and heritage would be no match for the wave of anti-Democrat sentiment in Sweetwater County politics. She received phone calls from close childhood friends saying their parents planned to vote straight Republican ballots to send a message that they supported Trump and no longer trusted Democrats to represent them in any office.

“When I heard them say that, I was like, ‘Oh no, this is really going to be a bad year to be a Democrat in Wyoming,’ ” Anselmi-Dalton recalled.

‘This is really scary’

The new GOP legislative majority has left many Democrats — who account for about 1 in 5 registered voters in the state — anxious and fearful that government will become even less empathetic and responsive to the needs of struggling residents, said Joe M. Barbuto, chairman of the Wyoming Democratic Party. Some state legislative committees now are unlikely to have any Democratic members.

“We are electing people who think the government is the enemy, and truthfully, all of us are the government, so this is really scary,” Barbuto said. “Things were already not looking good for Wyoming, and we have just doubled and tripled down on that with an agenda of cut, cut, cut . . . and at the end of the day, the losers are going to be the people of Wyoming.”

Social services advocates are also worried that the absence of Democrats in the legislature will make it even harder for moderate Republicans to build the coalitions that support funding for state government programs.

Tom Lacock, associate state director of AARP Wyoming, said state budget cuts could spell the end of a program that delivers hot food and other services to homebound senior citizens, a rapidly growing share of the state population.

“That is kind of a big deal in Wyoming,” Lacock said. “In some cases, you are serving people who can be 50, 60 miles from another provider.”

Linda Acker, executive director for Southwest Counseling Service in Rock Springs-Green River, said state leaders also are proposing millions of dollars in cuts to mental health and substance abuse programs in Sweetwater County. The county has among Wyoming’s highest rates of substance abuse, she said.

“If a person comes and says they have no money, or are unemployed, they are still going to get services from us, because the state was paying for that,” Acker said. “But that is probably going to disappear.”

Gordon, the governor, also requested last summer that school districts and public universities cut 10 percent from their budgets, to help close an estimated $300 million to $500 million shortfall in education funding.

Administrators with the Sweetwater County School District #1 fear they may have to cut as much as 30 percent of their budget if state lawmakers do not raise more revenue.

“That would devastate education in this county,” Superintendent Kelly McGovern said. “You could close all the elementary schools and still not have enough” savings.

As a new lawmaker, Kolb, the Sweetwater senator, may play an outsize role in determining just how severe the budget cuts may be. During the campaign, he signed a no-new-tax pledge, and he plans to abide by it, at least for now.

“We will see how much backbone I have as time goes by,” Kolb said.

And even if he one day decides he has to break his pledge, Kolb said one thing will never change: To live in Wyoming, you should be hardy and self-reliant.

“If you need government to support your life,” he said, “this probably is not the greatest place to live.”

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2021-01-10 18:30:00

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