CASPER, Wyo — While out on his tractor baling hay, Wyoming House 38 Representative Tom Walters was happy to talk to Oil City News about room for growth in Wyoming’s agricultural industry, but wouldn’t say how many head of cattle he had.
“That’s kind of an old Western tradition,” he said. “It’s like asking how much is in your checking account.” Walters, who is running for his fifth term, said he’d like to see a return to Wyoming values in general.
“I think we need to get back to a Wyoming set of values in terms of our civility.” He said he’s seen decorum “slack” among legislators, lobbyists, and members of the public during his 8 years in state office.
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He thinks that’s related to the mud-slinging tenor of national politics. “People think that’s how we should behave, and it’s not how we should behave.”
Walters said that calls from some legislators to cap the state budget or pledge not to raise taxes are “irresponsible.” He said he wanted to “keep every door open” to keep Wyoming moving forward. He wants to see Wyoming continue to invest in infrastructure during boom times so that it is available during bust cycles. He has said he would support a 1-2% increase in the state sales tax.
He said it’s important to invest in infrastructure like roads and capital construction projects in the short-term, and was disappointed that several projects didn’t go through the legislature this year. “I see it as economic development; it puts people to work in Wyoming.” He added that the cost of construction due to inflation only increases year-by-year.
He has other approaches to expanding revenues in Wyoming.
“One of our biggest downfalls is we sell a lot of raw products out of the state that would have a lot higher value as a finished product.” He said attracting an oil refinery to the state would allow Wyoming to do a lot more than just export crude. He also said improvements in state agricultural inspection facilities could pave the way for selling processed beef across state lanes in the future, pending changes in federal legislation.
“The more we can do to finish those [resources] and create a higher-value product the better it will be for Wyoming,” Walters said.
Walters voted for the creation of the Wyoming Gaming Commission and sponsored legislation that would have regulated skill-based amusement games. The current legislation allows the games to operate until July of 2021. He said between now and then, the legislature will have to decide how to regulate the games or whether to ban them altogether.
“It’s a contentious debate, for sure. There’s a lot of little bar owners that say these games have revived their business. But there’s also a moral conflict: is this good or bad morally for the state of Wyoming? I’ve come down on the side of the business owner.” He added that limits on the amount a person can bet or win at these games are important factors for limiting problem gambling, and there a limits to the number of machines than an establishment can hace.
Of Wyoming’s non-binding bid to purchase Occidental Petroleum’s land and mineral holdings, Walters said, “There’s a lot of opportunity there, but the devil is in the details… It has to operate with a rate of return equal to what the money is doing in the stock market.” He added that whoever ends up owning the land will be a major player in Wyoming’s financial future.
Walters said he was proud to have co-sponsored a 2017 bill that granted firefighters easier access to workman’s compensation benefits when faced with medical conditions like cancer or cardiovascular disease. Previously, the onus was on the firefighters to prove the conditions were related to their job; the bill granted firefighters a presumption that the conditions were eligible for coverage.
Walters said that within a couple weeks of the bill’s passage, a Wyoming firefighter passed away and, because of the legislation, the family was able to immediately take advantage of the benefits.
“I got a very kind e-mail from that family,” he said. “After all the time and effort [legislating], all the time away from your job and family, when you see something you’ve done work that well and effect a family in such a positive manner, it makes it all worth it, for sure.”
He’s also proud to be accessible to his constituents. “When you call me, you get me. I don’t have a press secretary or multiple layers of staff that do the work. We do the work ourselves… That’s the beauty of Wyoming’s citizen legislature.”
Walters attended Kelly Walsh High School and earned a degree in animal science from the University of Wyoming.
Walters is facing challenger Michael Pedry for the seat in the Republican Primary to be decided August 18.