ARCHIVED  February 1, 1998

Wyo. eco-devo reforms in, deregulation of utilities out

For many Wyoming legislators, the upcoming special
and budget session was to be devoted to "E" issues — education, economic development, ethics and electric utility deregulation.
Education, ethics and economic development are still on tap, but it looks like electric utility-deregulation legislation will be on the back burner, so to speak, for another year.
The Legislature˜s Joint Minerals, Business and Economic Development Interim Committee short-circuited the utility deregulation bill last month, opting instead to wait to see how deregulation shakes out nationally.
Electric utility deregulation is being championed by large industrial users but opposed by small electric co-ops, ranchers and unions. The committee was in its ninth draft when it voted against recommending a bill this session, though the bill still could be submitted by an individual legislator.
The same committee, however, gave an enthusiastic thumbs up to Wyoming˜s latest effort to get its economy moving again — what many are calling a bold new step to completely re-tool the state˜s economic development apparatus, put it in the hands of the private sector, give it more money and then give it tough performance standards to see if it works.
The initiative — putting state economic development in the hands of a semi-private, quasi-public Wyoming Business Council — is the brainchild of a joint public-private study funded jointly by the state and private businesses last year. The Wyoming Steering Committee for Business Development worked with Howard Benson˜s National Community Development Services of Atlanta in proposing that the state run its economic-development agency like a business.
Among its key proposals are creating a 15-member council of business executives, hiring at-will employees, decentralizing the effort and establishing benchmarks and performance standards.
Since then, a rival but in some respects similar plan has surfaced from the Wyoming Public Policy Forum, a bipartisan but heavily Democratic group led by Jackson attorney Robert Schuster, a former Democratic congressional candidate. It also recommends privatization through a
privately funded Economic Development Corp. that would assume many of the functions of the Commerce Department˜s Division of Economic and Community Development.
Schuster˜s plan also includes tax reform, creation of a statewide chamber of commerce and an emphasis on education. Chances are, some of his proposal also will surface during the session, possibly as amendments to the Steering Committee plan.
Since the Steering Committee plan was unfurled late last year, it has garnered strong public support from the governor and the state˜s business and economic-development community, and the best guess is that it will emerge in some form from this year˜s short session.
Not that it˜s a slam dunk. There has been public concern about the constitutionality of putting state and federal funds into the hands of a semi-private group, concern over stripping state employees of their job protections by creating at-will employees, and so-far-unsuccessful efforts to broaden the council˜s membership to include organized labor, education and other representatives.
Privately, some legislators and economic developers grumble that the latest proposal isn˜t as innovative or "private" as it seems, because the appointed Business Council will still be an "instrument of the state" reliant on the Legislature for its funding and continued existence.
And some grumble that the initiative may be too bold, in that it replaces the Commerce Department with a completely new structure, when all that is needed is more commitment and an infusion of more money and some new people into the process.
But even the private grumblers quickly add that maybe a bold new step is needed because what Wyoming has been doing for the past few years clearly hasn˜t been working.
So between the extremes of unabashed enthusiasm and passive acceptance, there seems to be widespread feeling that Wyoming˜s latest economic-development initiative ought to at least have its chance.
As for ethics and education, those two issues will be important this session as well, though final decisions on either may come later.
Ethics legislation has faltered many times in recent sessions, leaving Wyoming in the unenviable position of being one of the only states without a codified code of ethics for officials and employees. But ethics legislation has a better chance of passage this session because a hammer hangs over legislators — State Auditor Dave Ferrari is leading a citizen initiative to get a proposed ethics law on the 1998 general-election ballot.
Meanwhile, education finance reform is the reason the Legislature will begin its session a week early on Feb. 9. Lawmakers are still wrestling with finding a better way to meet a Wyoming Supreme Court mandate to ensure that every Wyoming child receives an equal basic education.
Education committees were frantically trying to refine the school finance bill as the session approached, and some legislators are beginning to wonder whether they˜ be able to write a definitive version by the planned March 13th adjournment. But it may not matter, because the issue is almost certainly going to be back in court anyway.
So certain, in fact, that Attorney General Bill Hill is asking the Legislature for another $1 million to continue defending the state˜s school-finance plan in court.

For many Wyoming legislators, the upcoming special
and budget session was to be devoted to "E" issues — education, economic development, ethics and electric utility deregulation.
Education, ethics and economic development are still on tap, but it looks like electric utility-deregulation legislation will be on the back burner, so to speak, for another year.
The Legislature˜s Joint Minerals, Business and Economic Development Interim Committee short-circuited the utility deregulation bill last month, opting instead to wait to see how deregulation shakes out nationally.
Electric utility deregulation is being championed by large industrial users but opposed by small electric co-ops, ranchers…

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