It's too early to panic, but there's a rumor that Wyoming, with a population that's only a quarter of metropolitan Portland, Ore., might buy Portland's basketball team, the Trail Blazers, using the $2 million that daily aggregates into the Cowboy State's swelling reserves.
Portland should cringe at the outrageous notion of losing the Blazers because of the financial woes of the team's owner — one of the richest men on earth — yet there's far more to cringe about. While Oregonians still can't figure out their state's unintelligible budget process or come close to funding its schools, Wyoming residents sit pretty on wealth accumulating from natural gas and mineral royalties. The rate of return is a whopping $65 million per month over what it costs Wyoming to deliver state services.
It doesn't seem fair. But what happens with geography and geology has little to do with fairness. It's all about location and timing. And historically, timing has been tough for Wyoming, many of whose residents are descendants of real trail blazers, pioneers who stopped short of their Oregon dream of fertile soil and enormous forests. Traveling West, some pioneers stopped in Wyoming to raise families in godforsaken prairie-sod houses on the wind-worn plains.
Today, however, Wyoming's economic focus is on eliminating the last of its taxes — the sales tax — which signals just how rich the state is. Here are a few of Wyoming's options:
Give the temporary excess money back to residents. This is the Alaska model and a version of Oregon's "kicker" except that Wyoming's money is all new money into the economy. The upside is the quick boost to local businesses. The downside is that, like a gas well, once turned on, such flows become a dependency and such entitlements are nearly impossible to turn off.
A second option is to focus on the future through funding education at all levels. Just as the University of Texas once did with its resource wealth, Wyoming could promote innovation by investing in and promoting new technologies. Wyoming already plans to pay whatever it takes to induce the best professors to move to its University of Wyoming at Laramie, and will also guarantee free tuition through college in perpetuity for all residents.
Wyoming's third option (my suggestion because it's so dramatic) should inspire rural people everywhere: Buy the Portland Trail Blazers basketball team.
The trails to Oregon passed through Wyoming; therefore, Wyoming could keep the Trailblazer name to show respect for Western history. But the state could lease the team back to Portland under a mutually understood lease agreement. Wyoming would retain the basketball team in Wyoming just long enough for a small-town tour of a few games a year, and here's a real kicker: The Cowboy State could require the Trail Blazers to tour rural Oregon, too.
For pioneers buried in Wyoming soil, it must be hard not to laugh from the grave at the irony of Oregon's present woes. With superb and diverse resources from fish, fertile farmland, forests and cheap energy, Oregonians seem to simultaneously swagger and stumble, usually over themselves. But while Oregonians wring their hands and search state, county and city pockets to find cash for basketball, schools and further tax cuts, they shouldn't turn on Wyoming for its dumb luck, and Wyomingites ought not to gloat.
At the same time Wyoming rakes in the money, the state watches the health of the landscape decline, with waterways polluted and migratory corridors fractured by thousands of drilling rigs. Ranchers who have no control over subsurface resource rights see roads and gas wells and pumping stations crisscrossing their land. The conflict between the oil and gas industry and ranchers may take a lifetime to resolve.
Yet the prospect of navigating the future by funding innovation and education unifies people in Wyoming. Education is the one investment not worth fighting over. Residents seem to like to fight in Wyoming over water or one thing or another, but the battles are not about children and rarely about education.
Like Wyoming, it is Oregon's time to invest in the only avenue it can rely upon for the future. Coal and natural gas once gone, are gone forever, while education pays dividends into the future. Maybe that's why the latest word from the Cowboy State is that the Trail Blazers are safe at home after all. Wyoming residents seem to have sharpened their pencils and concluded that some investments just aren't worth the cost.
John Haines is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He lives in Portland, Oregon, where he is the director of Mercy Corps Northwest, a disaster relief service.
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