On Oct. 6, 1999, Wyoming got another scolding from the outside. After attending a University of Wyoming-sponsored conference titled "Leadership and the Future of Wyoming," Washington Post columnist David Broder chided Wyoming for its paucity of jobs, continuing dependence on oil and gas revenue, and lack of leadership.
Wyoming officials responded
by calling the column shallow and inaccurate, but Broder touched a
raw nerve when he commented that Wyoming "has a governor and
congressional delegation notable only for their anonymity."
It's understandable that Wyoming resents outside
"experts' disparaging their elected officials. But now, even
insiders can no longer keep quiet. At the University of Wyoming
conference, which was part of the Milward Simpson Distinguished
Lecture Series, Al Simpson, who was a national figure when he
represented Wyoming in the United States Senate, stood up in the
audience and said, "The only real leader in Wyoming today is Philip
Dubois has been the president of the
University of Wyoming since April of 1997. Thus far, he's been
noted for his handling of the grisly Matthew Shepard murder, his
attentiveness to legislative affairs and his grassroots effort to
improve academic rigor at Laramie.
Watt, whose pro-commodity policies as President Reagan's secretary
of the Interior put conservationists in a panic, told the
conference audience that he "sees hard times ahead for Wyoming."
It remains a mystery that a state so enthralled
with independence and egalitarianism so patently advocates public
policy that favors neither.
The millions the
state spends each year in low-interest agricultural loans have not
led to successful small-time ranching. At an average of 3,791
acres, Wyoming's ranches are eight times the national average in
size. The industry pays less than 2 percent of the state's property
taxes, contributes 5 percent of gross state product and provides
only 6 percent of the employment.
multinational oil companies that haven't left Wyoming are also
getting bigger. So severe is the regional contraction that the
Rocky Mountain Oil and Gas Association folded up shop last May.
Wyoming leads the nation in coal production, an industry rife with
consolidation. In the past year, Arch Minerals merged with Ashland
Coal and ARCO coal; Kennecott Energy now belongs to the
London-based Rio Tinto; Peabody Coal was bought by Lehman Merchant
Banking Partners; and Cyprus/Amax Coal sold its interests to the
German mining conglomerate RAG International
All companies have operations in Wyoming,
but such amalgamation rarely means new
Wyoming already suffers from a brain-drain
and horrendous job turnover, although not in mining. In 1997, it
had 242,000 job hires and 231,000 exits.
Right now, Wyoming manages seven community
colleges and one under-funded university, and its economic policy
gives millions each year in tax breaks to energy companies and a
marginal agricultural economy.
But it is voices
like Watt and Simpson, both of whom are insiders looking in, that
may spur change. Economic historian David Landes once wrote that,
when it comes to fighting poverty, "what counts is work, thrift,
honesty, patience, tenacity." Wyoming has those in spades; what the
state needs is leaders.