CASPER, Wyo. - In 1984 an ambitious young legislator from southwestern Wyoming made a startling statement. Ford Bussart was on everybody's short list as Democratic candidate for governor in 1986. The Democrats, though a distinct minority in Wyoming, had held the governorship for 12 years under Ed Herschler, and they saw Bussart as his likely natural successor.
Bussart, who had risen to prominence as a corruption-fighting
lawyer during the 1970s oil and gas boom, waved away what looked
like a great opportunity.
don't want to preside over a wasteland," he said
Folks thought Bussart had exaggerated.
Sure, the big boom was over, the price of oil had plunged and the
uranium industry was on the verge of total collapse. But few in
Wyoming thought things were that bad.
knew better. He said it would take "some pretty austere management
and a willingness to talk about things such as tax increases' to
tackle the coming 1980s bust. The odds were against that.
Republicans controlled the Legislature and would be reluctant to
impose new taxes. And nobody in Wyoming wanted to hear that times
were going to get worse.
something else: Calling Wyoming "The Cowboy State" was almost a
joke. Wyoming was an industrial island locked in economically,
politically and psychologically by the minerals industry and by the
insular attitude of its citizens. Bussart believed that neither he
nor anyone else could easily remake Wyoming into a state that could
compete in the modern world.
Up and down and going nowhere
third-generation Wyoming - my grandparents came here from Central
Europe to labor as blacksmiths and miners. I have worked as a
journalist, first in radio, and then for 20 years as a reporter out
of Rock Springs and finally as an editor in Casper for the Casper
Star-Tribune. So I've learned a fair amount about my home state:
that its climate is harsh; that its immense prairie strikes many as
just a long and boring expanse that must be crossed to reach the
splendors of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks; and that
its population is just 481,000, with the many small population
centers separated from each other by mountain
The great thing about Wyoming, I tell
outsiders, is that there aren't many people here. The bad thing, I
quickly add, is that there aren't many people here. That's a
schizophrenic view held not just by me but by many Wyomingites, and
it is reflected in the state's promotional rhetoric: Wyoming is
"God's country," a "great place to raise a family" and "like no
place on earth."
If we really believed these
slogans, and wanted to protect what we say we have, we probably
wouldn't be promoting Wyoming. But it doesn't matter. We've been
doing this kind of promotion for decades and it's yet to change the
state's economic situation or help it escape from rural
In an ideal world, Wyomingites would
come together to conquer our state's isolation. What happens
instead is that we go out of state for what we can't find within
When I lived in Rock Springs, we went
shopping and to the amusement parks in Salt Lake City. Those in
Cody and Sheridan gravitate to Billings, Mont. And Laramie (where
the university is located) and Cheyenne (the state capital) look
south to Denver.
These cities do more than suck
up Wyoming's retail and medical-care dollars. They colonize us
culturally. We watch their TV; we listen to their radio and we read
their daily newspapers. We go to them for good food and museums.
And we root for their teams. I remember a Colorado friend telling
me he had gone to a Denver Broncos football game on a weekend
before an election - to find Wyoming politicians outside the
stadium, pressing the flesh with their
I live in Casper, which might be
called "Deep Wyoming." Because Casper is nearly in the center of
this 98,000 square-mile state, it is more difficult for us to get
to Salt Lake or Denver or even Billings. But at about 50,000
people, Casper is still not big enough to provide the amenities
late-20th-century Americans expect.
It is true
that Wyoming has been called a small town with a long main street,
but that affectionate description implies cohesion and community.
There's no center here, especially as the state has progressively
weakened its public schools, its seven two-year colleges and its
single university by starving them financially.
I hear, of course, howls of anguish from throughout the West, as
places like Utah and Montana and Colorado and even Idaho experience
the New West boom, and residents see the things they love about the
West - quiet, few people, a rural feel -
I suppose I should be pleased to
still live in a state with small towns and cities that aren't
growing, and an economy based on mining and drilling. And if
Wyoming had consciously chosen to remain in the Old West, I would
at least respect the decision. But as a newsman, what really
bothers me isn't so much that Wyoming is stuck, but that we seem
unable to see ourselves straight. We in Wyoming still seem to run
our public lives based on a series of myths. The biggest myth is
contained in the state's official nickname, "The Cowboy State." The
reality is that all of agriculture - cows, sheep, wheat, sugar
beets and other crops - accounts for only about 2 percent of the
state's economy. By comparison, tourism, concentrated mostly in and
around Yellowstone, contributes 14 percent.
second myth is that Wyoming is somehow more American than the rest
of America; that it is "what America was' (another state slogan),
when America was great. It's a wonderful myth, reinforced by the
state's emptiness and unique landscape. Unfortunately, the main way
Wyoming resembles the good old days is in serving as a colony that
is run by the minerals and energy industries.
the trona fields of southwest Wyoming, the Japanese dominate, with
companies based in Australia, France, Korea and Belgium also
holding big shares of the action. (Trona is nearly pure soda ash,
used in making glass and detergents.)
Powder River Basin coalfields of northeast Wyoming, companies
controlled by British interests own the biggest
Finally, despite our gestures toward
change, what Bussart knew 13 years ago holds today: Wyoming is
locked in not just by foreign companies and their unholy alliance
with our cowboy legislators; we are also pinned down by our
hostility toward broad-based taxation, our hostility toward
sacrificing during boom times so that we can diversify away from
minerals and energy, and our hostility toward the new people and
ideas we would have to welcome if we really wanted to embrace
States all around us, except for South
Dakota and Nebraska, have managed to transform themselves, or have
been changed from the outside. But here I watch our citizens
accepting wages that average $85 per week less than the national
average, and accepting for their children underfunded educations as
well as a general lack of opportunity for all
Rather than choose Wyoming's way,
many residents, especially the young, choose the
Everything in Wyoming starts with the
state's tax structure, under which minerals account for about 50
percent of all revenue.
The tax money is
generated by a string of 17 coal strip mines in the Powder River
Basin, world-class trona deposits in southwestern Wyoming,
declining but still important oil production and, most recently,
large-scale natural gas development in southwestern and central
Wyoming. In addition, Wyoming has several very large coal-fired
power plants - the Jim Bridger Plant near Rock Springs, the Dave
Johnston plant at Glenrock and the Missouri Basin Power Project
plant near Wheatland.
The fact that minerals pay
a large chunk of the state's bills has given industry immense
power, allowing it to build mines, mills, and power plants almost
at will. The state also lets mining companies throw up communities
from scratch, if there are none around, or turn existing towns
upside down to house the needed work forces. This control has not
even of colonial status," says state Sen. Tom Kinnison, a
Republican who recently saw the mineral lobby kill attempts to
raise industry taxes for education. "I'm trying to think of the
word to describe it. We have these multinational companies and the
federal government owning Wyoming. We just pick up the pieces."
That can be expensive. There are busted mining
towns scattered across the state, like Superior, Winton, Stansbury
and Dines in southwest Wyoming. Superior was almost a city, with
5,000 people at its height. During the 1960s, when all the mines
were closing, it was common to see entire houses pulled out of
these towns and hauled into Rock Springs. Now there's nothing out
at Dines and Stansbury except foundations. Maybe 400 people still
live in Superior, amid abandoned houses. When the Union Pacific
left, it sold the town the water system for $1; Superior then could
get grant money to build a new water system. It's money some think
could have been better spent elsewhere.
Boomtowns gone bust have a long history here. The town of Midwest,
about 40 miles north of Casper, thrived in the 1920s and 1930s from
the rich Salt Creek oil field, which also made Casper prosper.
Midwest boasts of being the first place in the country to install
lights for high school football games. But the oil boom went bust
in Midwest by the 1960s, leaving the town with a deteriorated water
system. To save the town, the state spent millions building a
pipeline from Casper. Some argued at the time that it wasn't worth
the money, and that the state should have pulled the plug on the
town. But no one could do it.
developments drive home the depth of Wyoming's troubles. One is the
state statistics that show how alone we are in the Intermountain
Idaho, Montana and Colorado boomed in the
1990s with 6 percent-plus job growth; Wyoming sputtered with 1.3
percent growth in jobs. We ran that far behind, even though energy
in the 1990s came back from its 1980s depression. Even a new
mini-boom in the oil and gas fields of southwestern Wyoming, and a
huge new coal project planned in the Powder River Basin, don't
offer a lot of hope for change in the state's economic
The second development reveals another
aspect of Wyoming's singularity: In 1996, while newcomers were
overwhelming neighboring Colorado and Utah and Montana, 1,000
people left Wyoming. State statisticians said they failed to find
good-paying jobs, while those who stayed accepted an average weekly
paycheck in 1995 of $350, compared to $435
The news had one predictable result.
Current Republican Gov. Jim Geringer and the Republican-controlled
Legislature decided to give $40,000 (with another $40,000 pledged
by private sources) to an Atlanta consultant to discover what kind
of economic development Wyoming residents want and then draw up a
plan to accomplish it. This search has been tried before by more
committed and skilled governors than Geringer.
minerals and energy history started with the transcontinental
railroad, whose route was drawn in the 1860s to reach coal in
southwest Wyoming. At the same time, gold miners rushed to the
South Pass area. Then, in the mid-1920s, the Salt Creek-Teapot Dome
field near Casper began gushing millions of dollars' worth of oil.
It and smaller discoveries kept the state going through the Great
During World War II, Wyoming coal
production soared to power the nation's military machine. But
Wyoming didn't get lasting benefit from the wartime manufacturing
that occurred in other states. It got an iron-ore mine near Lander
but not the steel mill it supplied, which went to Utah. It didn't
get Los Alamos or Hanford or other defense facilities that anchored
many Western states after World War II ended. (Perhaps as a result,
in 1994, less than 5 percent of the state's jobs were in
manufacturing, compared to about 16 percent
Wyoming's dependence on coal hurt
the state in the 1950s, when railroads switched to diesel. At that
time, in my hometown of Rock Springs, if you had a coal mining job,
it was with the Union Pacific. It was the only economic game in
what was essentially a company town. With the coming of diesel, the
area plunged into a deep, long-lasting depression that prompted one
writer to describe it at the time as "a Western outpost of
Stan Hathaway gets the credit - and the
blame - for helping to pull Wyoming out of that depression.
Hathaway, a Republican, was first elected in 1966 and then
re-elected in 1970, running on a pro-development platform. It was a
time of crisis, much like today. Wyoming had only 332,416 people
and ranked 49th in population among the states.
A Wall Street Journal reporter in 1969 described how Hathaway
loaded up a plane with state officials and "Wyoming moose and elk
steaks' and flew to Los Angeles and New York "courting
industrialists." Economists at the University of Wyoming had been
saying the state should be developing specialized products and
putting more emphasis on manufacturing and non-energy-related
companies, but Hathaway and his cohorts weren't listening. The
state was pinning its hopes on oil and mineral activity, the
Almost as the article was
being printed, Pacific Power and Light Co. and Idaho Power Co. were
preparing to announce construction of the giant coal-fired Jim
Bridger Power Plant near Rock Springs - Hath-away's industrial
dream come true. Yet the city and state got more than they
bargained for, thanks to the energy crisis of the 1970s, which
spurred oil drilling and triggered a massive and memorable
The double-digit growth turned Rock
Springs, Gillette and Evanston upside down: Empty streets became
jammed, the mental health caseload in Rock Springs jumped 900
percent in five years, and Gillette's rural fabric was torn apart
by crime and social ills ranging from depression to divorce that
collectively came to be known as "the Gillette Syndrome."
Classroom space was so tight in Gillette that
some students attended classes in churches. In Rock Springs, drug
use swelled, and prostitutes worked a lucrative construction-worker
trade. The once-dormant town of Evanston hosted drilling rigs in
city backyards, while trailer parks sprouted in vacant fields and
As the boom gathered steam, residents
feared that events were spiraling out of their control. The
Democrats, always a minority in Wyoming, capitalized on those
fears, and Ed Herschler was elected in 1974 to tame the boom
Hathaway had worked so hard to create. Under the slogan, "growth on
our terms," Herschler, the Democrats and moderate Republicans
legislated Wyoming some control over the boom and also helped the
state grab a share of the industrial profits.
The state in 1975 adopted a tough industrial siting act -
systematically dismantled during the bust years of the late 1980s -
and hiked mineral severance taxes, which were funneled into a
Permanent Mineral Trust Fund. In 1996, that fund contained about
$1.3 billion; its interest helps operate state
Herschler was to be re-elected to an
unprecedented two more terms, despite a close call in 1979, when
allegations of boom-related crime and high-level state corruption
triggered investigations by a statewide grand jury. But he emerged
unscathed. No indictments touched him personally and after Dan
Rather and 60 Minutes left with a story on boom-driven crime,
Herschler hung on, serving for 12 years until 1986.
His timing was perfect; he and the boom left at
about the same time. Herschler may have seen the end coming, but he
didn't have to deal with the consequences.
is the perversity of mineral taxation that there's a lag time
between when production begins and revenue starts to flow. Even
after the Wyoming boom was well under way, the tax money wasn't
there to pay for streets and classrooms.
harmful, after a boom has gone bust, the taxes continue to flow,
giving the cities, towns and state the illusion that the good times
are still rolling. In the case of Herschler, he and the boom were
gone for two years before the tax money stopped.
Herschler's successor who had to deal with one of the deepest,
longest extractive busts in the state's history. After Bussart
decided not to seek the governorship, another Democrat, Mike
Sullivan, an oil and gas attorney from Casper, ran and
He was to spend the next eight years
proving that Bussart had been right, as the state staggered from
economic crisis to economic crisis.
occasional windfall or the discovery of stashed funds tucked away
in state accounts saved Wyoming from big tax hikes and financial
disaster. A new state accounting system yielded a bookkeeping
surprise of $91 million one year and a coal royalty settlement
brought in an unexpected $36 million in another. A $21 million
inheritance tax payment from the estate of a Jackson woman helped
make ends meet on yet another occasion. It's an indication of the
small scale of Wyoming that the death of one person can balance the
So both Sullivan and the
rural-dominated Republican Legislature were listening in 1987, when
"clean coal" sponsors came looking for a state handout. They
convinced Sullivan and the legislators that the projects would
create thousands of jobs if successful. But after millions were
spent, it became clear that the new technology failed to live up to
its advance. The clean coal program ultimately cost the state about
There were other schemes. Promoters
in central Wyoming's Fremont County, which withered when the bottom
fell out of the uranium market, wanted to store spent nuclear-fuel
rods in abandoned uranium-mine pits. The Wyoming Outdoor Council
led the charge against that idea and helped push Sullivan to oppose
it. Others suggested gutting regulatory and environmental
standards. Sullivan resisted. In the end, his only successes were
what he'd prevented from happening. "We could have gone over the
hill and panicked," he said.
Wyoming didn't really blame
Sullivan for failing to revive the state. He left almost as popular
as he came in. But in the 1994 gubernatorial election, the state
turned to aeronautical engineer and beet farmer Jim Geringer, a
Republican, and his cures for what ailed us: an even freer hand for
energy and minerals, and the lambasting of the federal government
as the root cause of Wyoming's problems.
Geringer's first efforts to resuscitate the economy focused on
getting increased revenues from energy and minerals without hiking
taxes. That happened when the price of natural gas went up last
winter, due largely, he acknowledged, to market demands. Geringer
says the state helped by marketing gas as an "ally of industry."
Another priority of his administration was
doing away with "burdensome regulation," the approach Sullivan
fought. Geringer is so pro-minerals that he's sometimes viewed as
anti-Wyoming. In 1997, the governor came under attack when he
backed Exxon in a tax dispute with a county.
Geringer also became a general in the War on the West. He has close
ties with Rep. Carolyn Paseneaux, the Wyoming point person for the
"custom-and-culture" crowd, and with Jim Magagna, his state and
federal lands "coordinator." Paseneaux, Magagna and Geringer want
the feds to give greater weight to developing minerals on public
land - which represents 48 percent of Wyoming - that they hope in
turn will pump up the state's economy.
Meanwhile, the Wyoming Supreme Court has ruled that the state's
unequal method of funding education is flawed. The lead attorney?
None other than Ford Bussart, who is not unhappy he chose "social
engineering through litigation rather than elective office." He
says that the Legislature has neglected education, slashing the
budget of the University of Wyoming during the bust years, and
starving local schools as well. Teacher salaries plummeted during
the 1980s, from sixth to 38th in the
"We're not spending
enough money to provide quality education to equip our kids to go
out and compete on a global basis," Bussart
Always an obvious source of revenue, the
minerals industry weighed in early. Corporations are already
overtaxed, says Marion Loomis, director and lobbyist for the
Wyoming Mining Association.
industry usually swamps any move to hike its taxes, thanks to its
rural allies and its own massive lobbying power. Wyoming,
incidentally, is the only state that has no lobbyist disclosure or
conflict of interest laws.
dutifully looked elsewhere, talking about a state sales tax, since
an income tax is banned by the state constitution. Last spring, a
special session adjourned with no lasting infusion of money for
education; legislators had to wind up their talks in a week because
the state's stock growers needed their hotel rooms for their
Bussart says he'll go back to the
Wyoming Supreme Court to put the screws to the
Trapped in a
"We've got to dance with
the one who brung us," is the way Geringer and other leaders
describe the state's situation, and state leaders admit there is no
independent way of knowing if industry is paying too much tax or
how much it can afford. The way out of the box is tax reform,
including corporate income taxes. Geringer has appointed a tax
reform commission, but recommendations won't come until 1999, at
the earliest (see page 14).
What lies ahead? The
odds are good that it will be more of the same, dictated by the
vagaries of oil, natural gas, coal and trona demand. The attitudes
and power structure that have dominated the state for several
decades remain intact.
education is the key to "digging ourselves out of the hole."
Through education, he says, "you get creativity and diversity and
there's no telling over the long term what kind of opportunities
may come to Wyoming. But people aren't going to stay and try to
create without an opportunity to be educated on a competitive
level, and that isn't happening."
"I had personally
dismissed this for years. But now I believe there's a basic
no-growth mentality that pervades our state," says Dick O'Gara, an
economist at Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne. The
people and companies who are here "have what they want and the hell
with everybody else."
Frank Prevedel is a Rock
Springs native and former legislator who has lived through "two
booms, two busts and mini-booms in between." His coal-mining family
settled in nearby Superior but left when the mines closed. He says:
"When politicians talk about "our way of life," that's a code word
for "let's protect the status quo." I think that permeates a great
many of our most powerful people. Whose way of life? The big
landowner? The mineral industry? It's the way of life that is not
encumbered by new growth, maybe new problems and new ideas."
It's an odd coalition that keeps Wyoming as it
is. The mineral companies don't want growth because they would have
to pay for it. Their rural allies oppose growth because it means
more people and change, which in turn would dilute rural influence.
And they are particularly powerful in part because of the rhythm of
their work. Ranchers can take off a few months in the winter, when
the Legislature meets; schoolteachers, professors, miners and many
Sure, Wyoming is a "good
place to raise a family." Crime is low. There is lots of outdoor
recreation. But it has none of the things that would let Wyoming's
children participate in the larger world: top-notch schools, a
first-rate university, a choice of economic
If nothing is done, and the
workforce exodus that began this year continues, Wyoming will
become more like the South Dakota of the Intermountain West, more
habitable by bison than people. Perhaps Wyoming folks should just
accept that that's the way it is and quit worrying about
diversification and amenities.
Or, on second
thought, Wyomingites can do what they've always done: sit back,
depend on minerals and wait for another boom.