Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Selfish conservatism never did anything for Wyoming?

If you start the dialogue about Wyoming’s future by saying, “We are such a unique state, different from anywhere else in the world,” your aim is off and you will never hit the target.

That was the assertion of former Republican state chairman Matt Micheli in the first of his series of op-eds discussing Wyoming’s future. Under the headline, “Who are we, Wyoming?” Micheli’s argument is a restatement of the same old stuff. He begins by arguing that Wyoming’s problem is the middle class is not paying its fair share and that we levy too many taxes mining industries that are making out-of-staters wealthy.

His roadmap then veers into the tiresome conservative refrain alleging “over-regulation.” Finally, there is the usual conservative attack on education spending.

I look forward to his columns and hope others will join the dialogue. It is clear to me that  Micheli’s outline suggests that by doing the same things we can achieve a different result.

Wyoming, like all states, has its unique qualities, but it is not “such a unique state, different from anywhere else in the world.” This a pretext for rejecting progressive ideas that worked elsewhere. If you start with the assumption that Wyoming is so different that what worked elsewhere can’t work here and add a myth that the highest income producing industry in the state needs protection, we’ll find ourselves in a cul-de-sac that will bring us back, as it always has, to where we are.

The challenge Wyoming faces is overcoming selfish conservatism. Its apologists always start with how to reduce taxes on those who are getting rich off of Wyoming’s natural resources. But, there is a demonstrable lack of concern for raising the fortunes of the state’s middle class and low-income families.

It is apparent in the absence of any mention of the need for affordable housing, the celebration of low wages, lack of interest in making certain that families have health insurance, the unwillingness to make a sustained commitment to education, and ignoring the universal need for affordable child care and early childhood development.

A decade ago, several state agencies presented the legislature with a stack of studies promoted by the Federal Reserve Bank documenting the foundation of economic development. Those studies rejected lowering taxes or providing incentives for business relocation and economic diversification. They found that one of the most important tools for economic development is the progressive idea of funding early childhood development.

Saying “there is no time like the present” to review state priorities, the Federal Reserve Bank of Minnesota concluded the best roadmap to economic development includes funding early childhood development. These were not bleeding-heart liberals with mushy ideas. These were economists with a deep understanding of how focusing on children and their early education contributes to reducing poverty and other social costs while providing a strong workforce.

The research provided the Wyoming legislature 10 years ago was clear. When children enter public schools without fundamental reading and language skills “they never catch up. They are destined for low-skill, low-paying jobs and many will experience trouble in school and with the law.” Federal Reserve Bank economists documented that early childhood programs, adequately funded, enjoy a high rate of return.

Legislators rejected the idea in favor of conservative bunk about how it isn’t the responsibility of the state to “raise children.” They rejected the idea because, you know, Wyoming is unique and the norms in human behavior that apply elsewhere, don’t apply here. It was a selfishly conservative choice that placed an unnecessary limit on what can be accomplished in public schools.

Keep in mind. These are the same legislators who refused to make any commitment to education until the Wyoming Supreme Court ordered them to do so.

A strong future requires the state consider progressive options rather than tired strategies of selfish conservatism. Micheli wrote, “We must ask ourselves who we are and who we want to become.” We must also ask just who is the “we” we are talking about.

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