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No panic necessary

Feb 15, 2012 - By Steven R. Peck

In his State of the State address Monday to ring in the new session of the Wyoming Legislature in Cheyenne, Gov. Matt Mead did the expected -- the necessary -- and braced the state for an expected period of budgetary slowdown that we in Wyoming haven't had much experience with for the past decade or so.

It had to be done, and the governor did it. Now the Legislature will fill in the blanks that will leave us with a pared down budget for the next biennium.

But it also was encouraging to see and hear the governor explore a line of thinking separate from the simplistic welcome-to-hard-times routine that has become so commonplace among Wyoming's political leaders.

Instead, the second-year governor challenged lawmakers to find their budgetary footing in a spot between "anything goes" and "everything must go."

Cutting back to survive and cutting back to adjust are not the same things. So far, Wyoming looks to be in the latter position. As Mead pointed out emphatically, Wyoming is strong economically, much better than almost every other U.S. state. We are not retrenching, at least not yet. Instead, we are taking a breath.

"Some cuts have been made, but we should distinguish between cuts and reducing growth -- there is a real difference. Slowing growth, which is what my budget focuses on, is not a cut. "

It isn't always good to be the least-populated stated in the union, but in some ways it is ideal. For one thing, it gives us flexibility in spending practices and the opportunity to move fast if things change in ether direction. This is what the governor was driving at.

No one could dream of advocating a big-spending position on any issue this year, not with state revenues expected to dive anywhere from $100 million to $300 million. But the creative, careful budget writer looks for spending adjustments in areas that might have seen a surplus in recent years, or agencies that can tolerate a slower pace of hiring, or plans that could be postponed for a year or two without being derailed.

And, yes, there might well be an agency or policy initiative here and there that will require more money this biennium, not less.

Wyoming politicians love to say that the state "ought to be run like a business." There are many holes in that argument, but it is has some merit as well. Any sensible business person knows that consistency in budgeting is the best way to prepare both for slower times and for growth times. Unless the proverbial wolf is at the door -- which it certainly is not in Wyoming -- then there is no need to panic about the expected downturn in state revenue.

It is likely that the energy prices which have roused the great economic performance of the past decade will rise again. When they do, Wyoming will be better off if this year and next are used to slow down rather than lie down.

Gov. Mead's State of the State speech demonstrated a calm, realistic approach to the downturn, and he did a service to his state by addressing it in terms other than simply boom or bust.

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