Governor addresses financial crisis
COVID-19 still present in Wyoming, state stipends for businesses now available
June 11, 2020
Though Governor Mark Gordon continued to urge the public to remain cautious about the spread of COVID-19 on Thursday, the main focus of his weekly press conference was the pending financial crisis that has been caused by a catastrophic downturn in the energy industry and exacerbated by the pandemic.
Hospitalizations due to the virus were at their lowest point last week since tracking began in April. Though this is good news, the governor cautioned there is an “ebb and flow” to this number.
Meanwhile, the percentage of tests that come back positive for COVID-19 also continues to trend downwards, the governor said, and had reached 3.2%. “Again, this is very positive news,” he said.
The current health orders expire on June 15 and will be looked at ahead of time to determine what adjustments may be needed, said Gordon.
Meanwhile, much of the state’s attention will be on the pending financial crisis, which Gordon said he was pleased to see occur in an election year.
“Unlike other elections, where people talk about waste, fraud and abuse, we know that if we fired every single…state employee, we would not change the course we are on,” he said.
“We know that if we let all of our prisoners out of prison, we know that would not change this particular crisis we’re in.”
Gordon stated that, according to the CREG report, Wyoming is facing “the largest decline in revenue it has ever seen”, and that’s after the financial downturn of 2017, at which point it was thought things were the worst they could get.
A year ago, said the governor, we had more than 30 oil rigs in Wyoming; now, we have two. Coal production is in decline, he continued, stating he was “very sad to say that some mines are going to have to idle for a while.”
A freeze on state hiring was put in place in April to begin slowing spending and last week, the governor said he communicated to all agency directors that they must prepare for a 20% reduction in their budget. This will be a multi-phase approach, he said, and is likely to involve laying off state employees.
“There will be layoffs, there will be potentially furloughs and other things that occur. This isn’t easy,” Gordon said.
Though the CREG report was not based on a full year of data, Gordon cautioned that “we have to take what it says quite seriously”. Wyoming has been lucky in its ability to keep more of the economy open during the pandemic, he said, but we have still seen reductions and we have to make cuts.
“I’m going to do everything I can to steer us through this crisis with the minimum of impact,” he said.
However, the governor stressed that it’s important state leadership is direct and does not attempt to sugarcoat the problem. Right now, Gordon said, every Wyoming citizen get about ten times the amount of services that they pay for in taxes thanks to mineral revenue; because that revenue is declining, that level of service will do so too.
Gordon made a promise that “Not only will we do the cuts that are necessary but we’ll tell you what that’s going to mean to your community, to the people in your community, to the services that we provide.”
Gordon told citizens to watch out for initial cuts coming in the next month and plans to reduce even further to address the shortfall. He recalled telling the legislature in January that Wyoming has the opportunity to think about what the future looks like as mineral wealth continues to trend downward.
COVID-19 has eliminated that luxury, he said. We are out of time to consider options.
Everything that financially supports Wyoming is under attack right now, said the governor. Even the rainy day savings will only last us a year – the time to cut is now.
The financial outlook was more positive, however, for businesses across the state as Josh Dorrell of the Wyoming Business Council announced the launch of the state’s Business Interruption Stipend Program. The rules for this program were signed by the governor on June 2 and the program itself launched this week, making grants of up to $50,000 available for businesses with fewer than 50 employees.
A total of $50 million was set aside from the CARES Act funding that came to Wyoming for this purpose, which will be followed in July with two more programs for larger businesses and for those businesses that were forced to close due to state orders.
“I want to make it clear these are grant programs. That means they don’t have to be paid back,” said Dorrell of what he called the “large and impactful” set of programs that have been put together. He urged businesses, especially those that missed out on Paycheck Protection Program funding, to visit wyobizrelief.org.
Dorrell also clarified that applying for one of the three state programs does not mean a business is unable to apply for another – if you meet the eligibility requirements, he said, you can apply to more.
“Applying for one does not exlude you from another,” he stressed.