Legislators Field Tough Questions at Albany County Town Hall Meeting
Education funding, budget shortfalls, taxes and possible revenue streams were the major topics of interest at the Albany County Town Hall meeting Thursday night.
Senator Chris Rothfuss, Representative Cathy Connolly ad Representative Charles Pelkey gathered on the second floor of the Night Heron Books and Coffeehouse to hear listen and learn about Albany County residents concerns for the future.
The democratic leaders gave the small crowd their perspective on the 2017 general legislative session. Each expressed frustration that the legislature did not accomplish what it set out to do, mainly to address the $370 million shortfall in education without making drastic cuts.
“The senate and the house did not agree and we did not get much done,” Rothfuss said.
Connolly said that aside from a few small fee bills that were passed, no new revenue streams passed in the house and senate.
Teachers in attendance expressed their concerns over the cuts, saying that they were “terrifying,” pointing out that they were aware of teachers across the state resigning and looking to teach elsewhere.
Paige Gustafson, an art teacher at Slade Elementary, asked the legislators how Albany County residents could let senators know that they need revenue, not cuts.
Rothfuss said part of this issue was that legislators believed that constituents did not want taxes increased under any circumstances.
“You can change their mind,” Rothfuss said. “Right now the voices that don’t want taxes increased are louder, even if they are fewer, and so that’s the message they’re hearing.”
“We have to let legislators know that we think it’s ok to raise the sales tax by one percent, they need to hear it,” she said. “We currently have the lowest taxes in the country in virtually every area.”
Taxes were also explored as an option to diversify and strengthen Wyoming’s economy.
First Baptist Church of Laramie Pastor Jeff Lundblad voiced concerns about the many people who would lose their jobs as the oil, coal and natural gas industries faded.
“These industries are dying and they’re not coming back,” Lundblad said. “All those people are losing their jobs, what are legislators doing to bring jobs to the state?”
Rothfuss replied that unfortunately far too little was being done and what was being done was underfunded. Rothfuss said the current tax structure in Wyoming makes workers not employed in the oil, coal and natural gas industries more of a liability that an asset.
“We only tax the oil, gas and coal industries,” Rothfuss said.
The legislators mentioned Governor Matt Mead’s ENDOW, or Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming, initiative as an attempt to diversify the economy. Connolly said while the initiative is a step in the right direction, it still focuses on exploring new mineral extraction options.
Connolly said citizens should attend public meetings intended to discuss ENDOW.
“You can affect the direction ENDOW takes,” Connolly said to attendees.
Rothfuss agreed and said ENDOW could focus on other areas, such as technology and if Wyomingites demanded it.
The legislators also talked about the importance of ‘working across the aisle’ to accomplish more during the legislative sessions. The lawmakers all said they sponsored and co-sponsored bills with Republican legislators, though not all the bills made it through the senate.
Cathy Connolly said her push for a study on the gender wage gap in Wyoming was co-sponsored by Republican Representative Marti Halverson did pass and that it was a great example of cooperation between different parties.