CASPER, Wyo –Candidates for contested seats in the Republican Primary for Wyoming’s State House of Representatives were featured at the second Politics in the Park event at the Washington Park Bandshell on Monday evening, July 13. The series is hosted every other Monday by the Republican Women of Natrona County.
Gregory Paul Flesvig is challenging House Speaker Steve Harshman, who has served 8 terms from District 37. Tom Walters has served 4 terms from District 38 and is being opposed by Michael Pedry. Patrick Sweeney, who has served 2 terms from District 58, is being opposed by Burton D. Schoenwolf, who was not in attendance. Kevin O’Hearn, Leah Juarez, and Dave Carpenter are running for the seat from District 59 previously held by Bunky Loucks, who is not running and who resigned his seat effective June 30, citing pressures on his business.
After introducing themselves, the candidates answered questions about their ideas for diversifying Wyoming’s tax base, supporting the oil and gas industry, helping businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and abolishing the death penalty.
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“Today’s tax base in the state of Wyoming is about 65% energy-related,” said Walters. He added that another 20% is legacy investments in minerals. “We have a recurrent $3 billion budget for the upcoming biennium, and we’re looking at maybe a third of that being reduced between the COVID crisis and the reduction in minerals.”
“We have one drilling rig working in state of Wyoming now,” Harshman said. “That’s the lowest I think since statehood.”
To rectify the situation, Flesvig said the state needed to be a buffer between the “overreach” of the federal government and the oil and gas industry. “We need to get out of the way of the private sector and let it do its job.” Speaker Harshman said he supported a bill that would create a severance tax exemption on new oil and gas drilling when the price of oil fell below $40 per barrel. “We could recoup that when we have $100-a-barrel oil.”
O’hearn spoke to the point as well: “We need to suck it up when it’s bad and give the [energy industry] a break, and incentivize them…. during this bust.”
Rep. Walters said that the permitting process for energy producers needed to be as expedient as possible at the state level. Juarez and Carpenter also voiced support for this position.
“Unfortunately the federal government owns like 60-65% of the minerals here in Wyoming, and that is a major burden.” Carpenter said. He said the the state needed to work with the Bureau of Land Management in reducing the time frame on permitting processes. “There’s some leases that have been sitting idle for over ten years that are just now finally getting approved,” he said.
Rep. Sweeney said improving Wyoming’s fiscal future would involve “looking at efficiencies, reduction in staffing and programs, and yes, even [in] education, to make all of this work.” But he added, “We will also have to look at revenue, because we will not be able to cut our way out of this.”
Rep. Walters said, “We could pay 2 cents more in sales tax and still be in the middle of the road nationwide in what you pay in sales tax.”
O’Hearn also added that a “road-usage charge,” which would help “trafficability” in Wyoming.
Attracting businesses and growing tourism were other strategies offered for diversifying Wyoming’s economy.
“California has one of the highest tax rates in the country, and yet people are moving their businesses to California every single day,” Rep. Walters said. “Why is that?” He added that Wyoming needed to do a better job advertising itself as a place to live, work and raise a family.
Speaker Harshman said expanding broadband connectivity was part of the answer. Flesvig agreed, and added that “steep regulations” were making it difficult for businesses to start. Carpenter said the intersection of I-25 and I-80 in Wyoming made it ideal for attracting manufacturing and bringing in new businesses.
The impact of statewide closures on businesses due to COVID-19 was also discussed.
Pedry said businesses themselves should decide whether to open. “We call that ‘freedom with responsibility.’” He said he didn’t believe any business owner wanted to “act recklessly with the life or health of anybody, but I also do not believe it is the role of government to decide if your business is important enough to stay open or not.”
Carpenter added that reforms in tort law could help businesses operate with fewer liability concerns during the pandemic. Juarez said due to the statewide closures in March, her business went eight weeks without income. “I want to make sure the next time […] something like this happens, that it doesn’t affect our income and our way of life and we can still put food on our tables.”
“All people are essential and all businesses are essential,” said O’Hearn. “I think we need to get everyone back to work sooner than later, and that will fix 90% of it.”
Candidates were asked finally what the most important lesson was that they’d learned in life.
- Carpenter: “It comes from my time in Alaska, and it’s the importance of hard work. Everything up there is more difficult… It’s just a rough place and it requires a lot of work.”
- O’Hearn: “You can’t do it alone. In the military I had my NCOs or the enlisted soldiers around me. I have my wife and 3 beautiful children back there, 3 grandkids, and I love them all very much. But I couldn’t have done it alone. I need all you people to support all of us up here with your thoughts and experience. “
- Juarez: “If you’re willing to put in the hard work anything is possible. You can be successful at anything you want to do but you have to be willing to put in the work”.
- Rep Sweeney: “Both my mother and father instilled in me hard work. Don’t give up, take on the challenge. Lastly, have some compassion in your work ethic and in life in general.”
- Michael Pedry: “To maintain integrity in the face of fear and let faith carry the day.”
- Tom Walters: “Treat people how you want to be treated.”
- Harshman: “About 90% of what we do in life is from the neck up… It’s that constant thing to stay in the fight, to do what’s right, to show kindness and compassion, and to keep working at it, and in the end it will work out.”
- Flesvig: “Humble yourself before God. I’m just thankful parents raised me the way [they] did.”