Wyoming governor: ‘Make hay’ and save amid near-$1B surplus

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Booming oil and gas revenue has put Wyoming back among states with big budget surpluses but Republican Gov. Mark Gordon cautioned lawmakers Wednesday to save, not splurge, out of concern that tough times will eventually return.

“As a Wyoming rancher, I know the value of a good hay year. Because they do not always come around, it is important that we make hay when the conditions are right,” Gordon told a joint session of the Wyoming Legislature in his annual state of the state speech.

Gordon often sprinkles his speeches with cowboy references. When Wyoming a year ago was still clawing back from a deficit that threatened to top $1 billion, he compared the state’s struggles with low oil prices and the COVID-19 pandemic to a hard cattle drive.

Now, Wyoming’s looking at a surplus approaching $1 billion, thanks to higher energy prices. Wyoming is a leading producer of oil and gas and the top U.S. producer of coal, an industry with fewer gyrations but in steady decline nonetheless.

While the biggest state, California, has turned from surplus to deficit, the least-populated state, Wyoming, joins several now flush. They include New Mexico, a major oil and gas producer looking at a $3.6 billion surplus.

North Dakota’s revenue outlook also has improved thanks to oil revenue, while others with stronger-than-expected revenue and lower spending have surpluses in the billions: South Carolina, $3.8 billion; Hawaii, $1.9 billion; Wisconsin, $6.6 billion; Massachusetts, $2.6 billion; Minnesota, $17.6 billion; and Texas, as much as $30 billion.

Some states including Massachusetts plan to give money back to taxpayers. In New Mexico, Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham proposes to tap surplus money to provide $750 individual rebates.

Grisham also proposes to hire more local police, pay for free meals at all public schools, expand tuition-free college, create a new medical school endowment at the University of New Mexico and make new investments in affordable housing.

While Gordon cautioned against big spending, he’s asking legislators who kicked off a two-month session Tuesday to set aside half of Wyoming’s surplus in state savings accounts. Wyoming has a two-year budget; he made the suggestion in a supplemental budget released in November.

But he also outlined a few spending priorities in his state of the state speech. They include more raises for state employees including snowplow drivers, troopers, nurses and social workers; maintaining funding for the state economic development agency, the Wyoming Business Council; and store water amid pressure to send more down the Colorado River drainage.

Even if Gordon wanted, the state’s overwhelmingly Republican statehouse would be unlikely to bulk up a budget he described as the leanest in a decade, with an eye toward the state’s boom-and-bust economy eventually sliding back to bust.

“And leaner times appear likely. Supply chains, inflation, tight labor markets and other economic uncertainties may conspire against us,” Gordon said. “The actions we take today have meaning.”

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Associated Press reporters from around the U.S. contributed to this report.

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