By Victoria Eavis
Via- Wyoming News Exchange
CASPER — Gov. Mark Gordon kicked off the 66th Legislature with an upbeat speech Monday, setting an optimistic tone as he told lawmakers that boosting pay for state workers was his top priority.
The gallery in the House of Representatives was full, photographers swarmed the proceedings and senators packed in with their House colleagues on the floor. As Gordon and First Lady Jennie Gordon were escorted in by legislative leadership, they received a lengthy applause.
“Despite tremendous challenges, Wyoming is strong and getting stronger. We are strong because of our character, resilient because of our nature, and optimistic because Wyoming people are doers,” Gordon said. “I believe there is an undeniable momentum in Wyoming these days.”
As is tradition, Gordon delivered the State of the State address at the start of the annual legislative session. His first words were dedicated to remembering Sen. Mike Enzi and state Sen. Leland Christensen. Enzi, one of the longest serving Wyoming senators, died last year following a bicycle accident. Christensen died recently from COVID-19 complications, after he contacted the virus while undergoing chemotherapy.
The governor went on to touch on a series of pressing issues: the state budget, energy, national security, federal COVID-19 mandates, the Biden administration, education, inflation, agriculture and suicide.
In a relatively unassuming budget, wage increases for state workers are the stand-out recommendation, and Gordon called them his “top priority.”
In his speech, Gordon restated his call for a market adjustment to state employee wages “to ensure the state is able to retain its workforce and to counter federal policies that are driving up inflation.”
The proposed boost in state wages is driven by the fact that Wyoming is struggling to attract and maintain qualified state workers. The state experienced a doubling in turnover rates at almost half of Wyoming’s executive branch agencies between 2010 and 2021, according to WyoFile.
The governor also emphasized the need to address Wyoming’s emergency medical system, bolster the state’s outdoor recreation economy, and invest in the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust, all of which are likely going to be addressed through budget allocations.
During the speech, Gordon renewed his call for an “all-of-the-above energy policy” that includes $100 million to use as matching funds on Wyoming energy projects.
“Innovation, not regulation, is our way forward to give our nation the energy it requires and simultaneously solve the world’s climate concerns,” he said.
Gordon is a proponent of using emerging technologies like carbon capture to maintain the state’s coal industry while dealing with the climate crisis. Often, Gordon tied his points on energy back to the Biden administration.
“Mr. Biden: Tear up your energy policy,” the governor said, mirroring President Ronald Reagan’s famous 1987 speech in West Berlin.
Gordon’s comments on national security, including a discussion of a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine, also tied back to energy.
“Bear in mind, what is happening in the Ukraine is as much about energy as it is about geopolitics and security,” Gordon said. “That’s why our nation’s nuclear arsenal remains essential.”
In his budget proposal to the Joint Appropriations Committee, Gordon recommended roughly $7 million be put toward running the state’s suicide hotline 24/7. The Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee axed that proposal and did not suggest any other new spending for suicide prevention.
“Suicide sadly remains an all too frequent event, especially for our veterans,” Gordon said. “I ask you to consider using American Rescue Plan dollars to do more in our fight against suicide.”
Wyoming has the highest suicide rate in the nation.
Despite the committee’s vote, lawmakers expressed an openness to funding more efforts to prevent suicide.
“I’m certainly open to suggestions to make use of money to suicide prevention if there’s sort of an evidence-based reason that it will work,” said Rep. Clark Stith, R-Rock Springs, and a member of the Appropriations Committee. “I don’t want to create the impression that we don’t care.”
The governor is months away from the GOP primary, and he sought to portray a feeling of optimism while also highlighting his conservative credentials.
At one point, Gordon addressed the practice of people kneeling during the National Anthem, particularly at sporting events, as a way of taking a stance against the racial inequalities in the U.S.
“I remind the world that we always stand for our national anthem in Wyoming,” he said.
While he acknowledged the hardships and issues of the moment, the speech was forward-looking. At one point, the governor said he believed Wyoming is seeing the first rays of “our sunrise.”
“As governor, I’m always asked why am I so optimistic? It’s simple. To paraphrase a wise man, what lies behind us are small matters compared to what lies ahead, and that depends on what lies within us,” he said.