Subletter Examiner | Gordon strikes an optimistic tone with “State of the State”

CASPER — Gov. Mark Gordon kicked off the 66th Legislature with an upbeat speech Monday, setting an optimistic tone by telling lawmakers that raising wages for state employees was his top priority.

The House of Representatives gallery was full, photographers invaded the proceedings, and senators wrapped up with their House colleagues on the floor. As Gordon and First Lady Jennie Gordon were escorted by legislative leaders, they received a long applause.

“Despite enormous challenges, Wyoming is strong and growing stronger. We are strong because of our character, resilient because of our nature, and optimistic because the people of Wyoming are doers,” Gordon said. “I believe there’s 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 the memory of Senator Mike Enzi and State Senator Leland Christensen. Enzi, one of Wyoming’s longest-serving senators, died last year following a bicycle accident. Christensen recently died of complications from COVID-19, after contacting the virus while undergoing chemotherapy.

The governor then addressed 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 modest budget, wage increases for state employees are the most notable recommendation, and Gordon called it a “top priority.”

In his speech, Gordon reiterated his call for an adjustment in the state employee wage market “to ensure the state is able to retain its workforce and counter federal policies that are driving up the ‘inflation”.

The proposed increase in state wages is motivated by the fact that Wyoming is struggling to attract and retain skilled state workers. The state has seen a doubling of turnover rates in nearly half of Wyoming’s executive branch agencies between 2010 and 2021, according to WyoFile.

The governor also stressed the need to tackle Wyoming’s emergency medical system, strengthen the state’s outdoor recreation economy and invest in the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust, which will likely be all addressed by budget allocations.

During the speech, Gordon renewed his call for a “comprehensive energy policy” that includes $100 million to be used as matching funds for Wyoming energy projects.

“Innovation, not regulation, is our way forward to give our nation the energy it needs and simultaneously solve global climate problems,” he said.

Gordon is a proponent of using emerging technologies such as carbon capture to keep the state’s coal industry going while dealing with the climate crisis. Often Gordon has tied his points on energy 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, are also energy-related.

“Keep in mind that what’s happening in Ukraine is as much about energy as it is about geopolitics and security,” Gordon said. “That’s why our country’s nuclear arsenal remains essential.”

In his budget proposal to the Joint Appropriations Committee, Gordon recommended that approximately $7 million be allocated to operate the state’s 24/7 suicide hotline. Legislative Assembly’s Joint Appropriations vote rejected this proposal and suggested no further new spending for suicide prevention.

“Suicide unfortunately remains an all-too-common occurrence, especially for our veterans,” Gordon said. “I ask you to consider using US bailout dollars to do more in our fight against suicide.”

Wyoming has the highest suicide rate in the country.

Despite the committee’s vote, lawmakers expressed openness to funding more efforts to prevent suicide.

“I’m definitely open to suggestions to use money for suicide prevention if there’s some sort of evidence-based reason that it will work,” Rep. Clark Stith, R-Rock Springs, and member of the Credit Committee. “I don’t want to give the impression that we don’t care.”

The governor is months away from the GOP primary and he has sought to portray a sense of optimism while emphasizing his conservative credentials.

At one point, Gordon addressed the practice of people kneeling during the national anthem, especially at sporting events, as a way to take a stand against racial inequality in the United States.

“I remind the world that we always stand up for our national anthem in Wyoming,” he said.

Although he recognized the difficulties and problems of the moment, the speech was forward-looking. At one point, the governor said he thought Wyoming was seeing the first rays of “our sunrise.”

“As governor, people always ask me why am I so optimistic? It’s simple. To paraphrase a wise man, what lies behind us is nothing compared to what lies ahead, and it depends on what lies within us,” he said.

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