CASPER, Wyo — “We are blessed,” said Steve Harshman, Wyoming House Speaker and District 37 representative said of the relationship between the state’s electorate and its legislators.
“This level of government works and is responsive to the people. This is not like what you see and hear on TV. This is not Washington DC. We work together, debate ideas, vote and move on to the next problem to solve or issue to discuss.”
Harshman was first elected in 2002 has been Speaker since 2017. He is an educator at Natrona County High School and has been the school’s head football coach for 30 years. He is running against challenger Gregory Paul Flesvig in the Republican primary to be held August 18. Voting is currently open by mail-in ballot or in-person at the Natrona County Courthouse.
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Harshman wrote to Oil City News in an email that Wyoming is facing an unprecedented 1.5 billion budget shortfall ($1 billion in general fund and $500m in school funds) over the next two years, attributable mostly to the “structural decline of coal,” but also “the Saudi-Russian price war and COVID-19.”
Harshman said budget cuts were only part of the answer. “If some candidate tells you we can cut our way out of this…he/she doesn’t know better or doesn’t know the truth. We will have to cut and spend all our savings.”
He added that cuts to Wyoming’s biggest budget item would have an impact of ordinary citizens.
“40% of the state budget is in the Department of Health,” Harshman said. “Most of the goes to payments for providers for the elderly, the disabled and the poor, particularly poor mothers and children.”
He said, “Firing every state employee would not solve the deficit. We would have to eliminate mental health treatment, slash colleges, close the medium security prison, the boys and girls schools, state parks, the pioneer home and slash Medicaid payments to caretakers of our elderly, disabled, mothers and children as well as fire over 3000 teachers statewide.”
To raise revenue, Harshman is in agreement with other legislators that a sales tax increase was the “least offensive” form of new revenue. He said he’d also like to include in the bill an option to “turn off” the tax increase when boom times return to the mineral production industry.
To support the oil and gas industry, Speaker Harshman said at a political forum that 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.”
He told Oil City News he’d like to see the sales tax modernized and linked to the severance tax to incentivize the legacy industries to stay in Wyoming during the down times and buffer the state’s budget from boom-and-bust cycles.
Harshman added that Wyoming residents are currently among the least-taxed in the nation.
“We are 50th in residential, 49th in commercial property tax and we rank 44 out of 46 states with a sales tax,” Harshman said. “We are blessed.”
Harshman said he’d like see an amendment to Wyoming’s Constitution striking a requirement that 2/3 of the legislature vote to bring bills into consideration. Harshman co-sponsored a bill in the 2020 legislative session doing just that. It passed the Wyoming House but died in a Senate committee. Such a change would have to be approved by the electorate in a general election.
Harshman said one of his proudest legislative accomplishments has been the creation of the Hathaway scholarship: “It is a remarkable investment,” he said.
He said he was also pleased with his record on saving and investing:
“I authored the 4×10 plan that doubled our Permanent Mineral Trust Fund and then the 8×18 plan that doubled it again. Investment revenue is now 20% of our state’s revenue. That was huge,” Harshman said. “I am also pleased of the infrastructure investments that we have made and the role I played as Chairman of Appropriations and Speaker to make that happen. We have made investments in every community in our great state.”
When Oil City asked Harshman if there was any “fundamental shift” he’d like to see in the legislature, he said he wouldn’t want to see that happen.
“Our system is designed to be deliberative and steady,” he said. “The biggest thing is it takes teamwork; it takes everybody and it is a marvelous process that our founders gave to us… It is not perfect but it is good and will serve our state well into the future.”
Harshman said he was concerned about “outside influences creeping into our state, most of it motivated by money and trying to get nasty and gin up controversy. Most are from somewhere else and have some agenda.”
“I simply urge folks to call their Legislator if they have questions or concerns,” Harshman added, saying he could be reached at 307-262-8075