Gordon emphasizes post-COVID economic recovery, education funding in State of the State address

CHEYENNE – Gov. Mark Gordon emphasized better days lie ahead as Wyoming recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, while encouraging lawmakers, in his State of the State address Tuesday, to pursue ways to enhance the state’s economic recovery instead of producing “politically oriented legislation.” 

While the governor’s annual address is typically marked by festivities in a joint session of lawmakers in the House chamber, this year was different. Gordon delivered his speech virtually from the Historic Supreme Court Chamber, with just a few elected leaders attending in person.

Nearly a full year removed from Wyoming’s first confirmed case of COVID-19, Gordon said the “light at the end of the tunnel is getting brighter by the day,” with Wyoming’s case numbers and virus-related hospitalizations far below the state’s peaks of late November and early December.

“I want to thank (State Health Officer) Dr. (Alexia) Harrist and her team for adhering to the scientific approach they have taken over this past year when – believe me – it could have been much easier to follow politics,” Gordon said.

Gordon also touted the state’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, noting its comparatively low unemployment rate and that about 97 percent of Wyoming businesses are still operating through the pandemic.

However, the governor also expressed sadness regarding the 671 people in Wyoming who have died from COVID-19, asking those watching to join him in a moment of silence to remember them. Wyoming has the 35th highest per-capita death rate in the country, according to the New York Times.

“I ask myself each night as I pray: What more could we have done to save those souls who were taken from us by this hideous virus?” Gordon said. “Some have lost decades of love and happiness with their friends and family, and I’m sure by now, each of us can put a face to this tragedy.”

Gordon thanked health care professionals and providers across Wyoming for their crucial roles throughout the pandemic, with many of them now assisting in the state’s vaccination efforts.

However, while Wyoming’s case numbers have declined significantly in recent weeks, Gordon emphasized the state is “not quite out of the woods yet” with its pandemic recovery.

“Success will require action from individuals, businesses and our state government, and that’s what I believe this session is all about,” Gordon said. “I’m sure there will be temptations to get sidetracked with politically oriented legislation, but this year, we have to keep our eye on the ball, because we’re only going to have one chance to turn this welcome spring into a thriving summer and a bountiful future.”

Gordon also discussed the state budget cuts that he proposed last fall after implementing some initial cuts last summer, noting the combined reductions are the largest in Wyoming history.

“Many of these cuts devastated state government services and programs, including ones that serve some of our most vulnerable people,” Gordon said. “None of this was easy. Moreover, as I stated before, we may not be done yet.”

Gordon said he hopes to address mental health issues in Wyoming, which had the highest suicide rate in the country in 2019. Although some mental health services have been cut deeply “not by choice, but by necessity,” Gordon said state agencies are coordinating with local stakeholders to ensure at-risk individuals can stay in their communities.

With a new president in office, Gordon talked about the state’s energy industries during his address, heaping additional criticism on the Biden administration’s executive order indefinitely pausing new oil and gas leases on federal land.

“In just a few weeks, through a series of executive orders, cabinet appointments and policy announcements, we’re facing a clear and present threat to our long-term core industries,” Gordon said. “All decisions from D.C. must now pass a superficial climate litmus test that ignores jobs, costs, reliability and, in many cases, real climate solutions. In D.C., they claim to follow science, but they adopt policies that resemble science fiction.”

The “crazy” pursuit of 100 percent green energy, Gordon said, comes at the expense of carbon capture and sequestration technology, which the governor has repeatedly touted as a viable solution for coal-fired power plants.

“I say this with both confidence and conviction: To achieve meaningful climate goals and provide a resilient, affordable energy supply, fossil fuels, coupled with a commitment to improving the ways we utilize them, must remain a substantial supply option,” Gordon said.

In closing his address, Gordon addressed the future of K-12 education funding, calling it “the biggest elephant in the Capitol this year.”

“We’ve relied for years on a funding model that is no longer sustainable. The handwriting is on the wall. That can we kicked down the road every year – it’s broken,” Gordon said.

He urged the state’s residents to consider the challenge more broadly, emphasizing a bottom line that “we simply can’t wait until we’re out of money before taking action.”

“Will we be so self-centered that we spend ourselves into oblivion and leave them with a bill?” Gordon said. “We can no longer stick our heads in the sand. What we do today can mean that the Wyoming we love, that many of us grew up in, and that all of us admire, remains. Or, it can become a husk of itself if we take without putting back.”

“These next few years will be pivotal for Wyoming,” he continued. “And I intend to do my best to make sure our citizens are confident in their future, in their children’s future and in the economic opportunities that abound, and in that special something that makes this truly the greatest state in the nation.”