Wyoming’s budget cuts are taking a toll. My grandchild’s excellent but untenured teacher has been told she’ll not be teaching next fall. Because the legislature had no vision beyond cutting budgets, her University of Wyoming education degree has been devalued. She’s not alone. Many of our neighbors are suffering the impact not of an economic downturn, as politicians claim, but of a state that views itself as the helpless victim of another boom and bust cycle.
Doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different outcome is Wyoming’s strategy. We passively await another boom while some lose everything. The pattern will continue until policymakers think differently or voters choose different policymakers.
What follows are suggestions for turning Wyoming into a place for thinkers and doers who are now thinking and doing in more progressive environments.
The current political imbalance may serve the interests of the Republican party, but not Wyoming’s future. The state’s political system needs to be reinvigorated. Currently party label, not competence, matters, trumping the ability of thoughtful candidates to bring new ideas. Remove party labels from the ballot. Force voters to decide between candidates, rather than parties.
Wyoming must alter its method of apportioning legislative districts, giving primacy to county lines. Gerrymandering precludes healthy decision-making. Reform may add to the numbers of legislators serving, but that would make the process more democratic, less beholden to lobbyists.
Second, let’s elevate the significance of higher education. Those wanting college educations should be rewarded. Tuition should be free, as the framers of the Wyoming constitution envisioned. Along with an accessible college diploma or certificate, Wyoming grads should be given priority for jobs.
Third, honor and respect hard-working Wyomingites. Eliminate “at-will” discharges, as a matter of fundamental fairness. Upon completing one year of probation, the livelihood of public employees cannot be deprived without good cause. Private-sector workers deserve the same.
Attack the gender wage gap. Require wage transparency and force employers to demonstrate their rationale for wage differentials. Raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. These reforms would boost the spending power of the state’s middle class, stabilize their jobs, and pour millions of dollars into local economies.
Fourth, focus not only on the “right to life,” but on a child’s right to quality of life. Support parents with healthcare, affordable housing, and child care. The most effective economic development program states can adopt is the establishment of affordable early childhood education.
An important aspect of children’s lives is stable housing. Address the problems families have in finding affordable housing. Adopt strict tenant protection laws. Prohibit landlords from profiting by renting inadequate and unsafe dwellings.
Fifth, prioritize public health. Policymakers should behave as though they believe the science. Higher tobacco taxes and bans on public smoking reduce deadly tobacco use. Likewise, translate the knowledge we have about why seatbelts matter into law. Tackle the problem of health insurance. Simply saying “no” to Medicaid expansion is not a policy.
Sixth, join a majority of states and legalize marijuana. End the use of expensive prison cells for non-violent drug crimes. Require courts handling drug and alcohol cases to adopt “drug-court” models.
Seventh, recognize the economic power of diversity. Wyoming suffers from perpetuating an image that the LGBTQ community is unwelcome and unsafe. The state must take affirmative actions to alter this perception if it wants to attract the best and the brightest.
Finally, we enjoy the most beautiful environment in the nation. Act like it. Wyoming’s future centers around the attraction of its natural beauty. Policymakers should behave like the state’s most important assets are clean air and water and public lands.
Transition from fossil fuels. Even Gary Cohn, Trump’s top economic adviser, admitted coal doesn’t “make much sense” and that renewables could make America “a manufacturing powerhouse.” The same is true for Wyoming.
In 1890, as statehood teetered, one Congressman assured colleagues that Wyoming would become “a strong, prosperous, and progressive state.” (Congressional Record, June 25, 1890). The first two descriptors depend on Wyoming becoming the latter.