Friday, February 5, 2016

What is our vision for Wyoming?

Wyoming is at a historic crossroad. Yogi Berra said when you come to a fork in the road, take it. But Robert Frost knew that when two roads converge in a yellow wood, you cannot take them both. You have a choice between the easy one and the one less taken.

Wyoming is there. Our long, easy reliance on fossil fuels is coming to an end. Oil prices are hovering at a per-barrel price much less than required to fund the state’s budget. Coal is fast becoming history. Like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the leaking dyke, the state’s politicians have “courageously” attempted to hold climate change reality at bay.  But the leak was real and too large for their thumbs.

Here we are. Two roads diverge in a yellow wood, and sorry we cannot travel both, we stare down one as far as we can, hoping for an easy stroll by the coming river of red ink.

As the reality of the international drop in the reliance on fossil fuels crept upon us, Wyoming politicians avoided anything that resembled vision. With thumbs in the dyke, they hoped against hope that a new technology or fake scientists could save us from the wrath.

But the first episode of this reality show requires state lawmakers to cut 200 million dollars from the state’s budget. Legislators can take the easy road or the road they have far less traveled, the one that requires vision.

Traveling the road less traveled means giving some thought to where we want to be at the end of that road. We know the financial structure the state uses to support it goals must change. The question is how will the state change?

A state’s budget isn’t simply a collection of numbers. It’s a reflection of the state’s vision for the future. Legislators must do more than add and subtract. They must have an idea of what they are adding to and subtracting from. Unfortunately, with all that fossil fuel money flowing, they haven’t had to do that. Now they must.

Simply cutting budgets while parroting the threadbare mantra “no new taxes” is easy. That requires little thought and no vision. However, this year’s 200 million dollar cut is not the end but only the beginning of a long, painful readjustment. If we attempt to stay on the easy road, we will one day come to the end and find not only a stagnant economy but also a declining population with little hope.

Instead of asking what budget can be cut and which programs eliminated, our lawmakers might ask where are we going? What kind of a state do we want? What is our vision for Wyoming?

My suggestion is that they put people and families first. There is ample evidence from financial thinkers such as the Federal Reserve Board that a commitment to early childhood education produces not only healthier children and families but also a more vibrant economy. That would give families and businesses a reason to come here and stay.

Legislators could make Wyoming a shining example of what happens when a state commits itself to making higher education affordable for everyone. Create quality jobs by focusing the budget on improving the state’s infrastructure. Make the health of our citizens a priority with tobacco taxes high enough to reduce smoking and use the revenue to pay the costs of early childhood and higher education.

These are the times that will try voters’ souls. I’m not confident the voters did a very good job in the last election of choosing visionary rather than doctrinaire lawmakers. But they’ll get another chance after the coming budget session. Regardless of whom they choose, Wyoming will be at that place where two roads diverge.

I’d like to think the day will come when we shall be telling this with a sigh. Two roads diverged in a wood, and we—we took the one less traveled by. And that has made all the difference.         

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