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‘Massive’ hit looms; Wyoming lawmakers eye special sessions

April 16, 2020 GMT

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Wyoming lawmakers prepared Thursday to convene multiple special legislative sessions in the months ahead to allocate emergency federal funding and otherwise address what Gov. Mark Gordon warned will be an economic shock.

“We know it’s going to be significant. Massive is the way I’d tend to look at it,” Gordon told the Legislature’s Management Council in a video conference meeting Thursday.

The Wyoming Legislature hasn’t met in a special session since 2004. But the allocation of $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus-related assistance under the federal CARES Act will require one.

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Specific legislative priorities for Gordon and lawmakers include boosting unemployment compensation and suspending evictions and foreclosures.

Committee members discussed a special session as short as one day, followed by a longer and more involved session sometime this summer.

They expected the first installment on the $1.25 billion as soon as Thursday and the rest within a couple weeks.

A short special session in the weeks ahead could address immediate matters related to the funding “not unlike an airdrop of foodstuffs to a starving relief effort,” Senate President Drew Perkins, a Republican from Casper, told the committee.

“That doesn’t mean we won’t be back in June or some point,” Perkins said.

Lawmakers meanwhile expected U.S. Treasury Department guidance on how they could appropriate CARES Act funds. The money may not, however, go directly toward Wyoming’s burgeoning problem of falling state revenue.

As much as half and sometimes more of the state’s revenue comes from coal, oil and natural gas extraction, all of which in have already been hit hard by weak demand and low prices in recent years.

Now, a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia and the coronavirus have driven oil prices to lows unseen in almost two decades. State-ordered business shutdowns and isolation measures add to Wyoming’s economic pain with the normally busy summer tourism season just around the corner.

The result: Wyoming revenue could drop between $556 million and $2.8 billion by the middle of 2022, state officials projected in an April 10 memo to lawmakers.

The mid-range scenario, a $1.7 billion revenue hit, would result from a revenue decline similar to a 2016 drop that prompted Gov. Matt Mead to cut $240 million in spending but would be much worse by lasting longer, the Legislature’s budget and fiscal administrator, Don Richards, told the committee Thursday.

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“The impacts, even under the optimistic scenario, are quite frankly staggering,” Richards said.

Gordon announced Wednesday he was ordering all agencies to align spending with revenue. He has told department heads to freeze hiring, halt general fund contracts over $100,000 and review spending on facilities maintenance, he said.

“We know the economy we left in February is not the economy we’re going to inherit in May, June or July,” Gordon told the Management Council.

It was the powerful committee’s first meeting by video conference. Gordon spoke from his office in the Capitol while lawmakers participated from their homes.

The Legislative Service Office provided the committee members with electronic background images, including photos of meeting rooms in the newly renovated Capitol, to obscure their home surroundings.

For a special session, a handful of legislative leaders could meet in person in Cheyenne while the rest of the House and Senate met by video conference, Legislative Service Office Director Matt Obrecht told the committee.

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Follow Mead Gruver at https://twitter.com/meadgruver