How Do You Solve a Problem Like Wyoming?

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Not a day seems to go by in the Montana Legislature’s 61st session without a ‘Wyoming this’ or a ‘Wyoming that’.

A natural neighborly competition perhaps, but the frequency of Wyoming references suggests Montanan politicians on both sides of the aisle think there’s something worth imitating to the south.

When Republicans talk about energy development, it’s Wyoming they cite, and the fact that it exports more coal than Montana every year — about 355 million tons more in fact, despite the fact that Montana has the nation’s largest coal reserves. Some say it’s because they think Wyoming has a less overbearing regulatory system than Montana.

“I think it does have something to do with Montana’s constitution and as a result of the constitution we have more environmental review and we have the Board of Environmental Review, which Wyoming does not,” said Sen. Jerry Black of Shelby. Black is the Republican chair of the Senate energy committee.

Not that it’s just the Republicans. Montana’s Democrats are hardly immune to Wyoming’s allure as a point of comparison either.

In his State of the State address, Democratic Governor Brian Schweitzer said that Montana’s oil and natural gas taxes would be less than Wyoming’s even with his proposed increase.

“Why? Why? The why is because I’ve heard all these people say we ought to be more like Wyoming, and I thought maybe we ought,” Schweitzer said, with more than a bit of tongue in cheek.

Hence, the governor said, his proposal to fund teachers’ raises with higher energy taxes. And his contention that Republicans’ failure to rally around his proposed tax belies the shallowness of their Wyoming comparisons.

“I have pages and pages of Republican lawmakers saying our economic development needs to be more like Wyoming’s,” Schweitzer said, brandishing a list of Republican statements in favor of tying energy development to education funding — like in Wyoming.

Still, when the governor met last week with Australian developers hoping to build a coal-to-liquid-fuel plant, Wyoming came up without a Republican lawmaker in sight. Schweitzer said the new technology could make Montana more competitive with … yes, Wyoming. The new technology might make Montana’s coal suddenly worth as much as $200 a ton, he said — now compare that to the paltry $10-a-ton coal Wyoming’s harvesting.

Democratic Sen. Ron Erickson, of Missoula, also recently looked across the border when pitching his carbon-dioxide storage bill to the Senate energy committee: “We’re a bit late,” Erickson said. “Wyoming is ahead of us. The bill that I am bringing you today is basically modeled after model standards that Wyoming has already used.”

The comparison didn’t quite have the intended effect, though, as Erickson’s bill is likely dead for the session.

“It seems to come and go,” Erickson said of Wyoming love. “Because when we actually offer — as in my carbon sequestration bill — the idea of Wyoming as a model, suddenly they’re running from it, but if it’s about how much coal we mine than they’re all about Wyoming.”

Republicans say, though, it’s always there, a convenient parallel mandated by geography as much as any politics of energy development.

“It’s a natural comparison because the artificial state line intersects the coal fields in southeastern Montana and northeastern Wyoming,” said Sen. John Esp, R-Big Timber. “The coal doesn’t know about state lines but the investors and developers certainly know there’s a difference in the tax structures.”

But Wyoming doesn’t only come up in conversations about energy issues.

During a hearing earlier in the session for a bill seeking to protect recreation providers from being sued over accidents related to the “inherent risk” of an activity, lawmakers were told by the bill’s sponsor that Wyoming already had such a bill.

And what does that mean for Montana? So far it means the bill’s passed the House by a 60-39 vote and is still waiting for a reading in the Senate.

Wyoming came up again in a House committee recently when testimony was heard about a Republican bill to exempt military pensions from taxation. Then, Larry Blakesley, a retired Navy captain, testified: “I could save myself $7,800 dollars if I moved to Wyoming.”

Not that this means anybody actually thinks Wyoming is better off or — gasp — better than Montana. It’s just that it’s there, on the other side of Yellowstone National Park, to the south, with a lot of hunters and mountains and wind and coal — like, well, Montana.

Not so fast, says the governor.

“We’re bigger, and more beautiful, we have cleaner water, more tourists, we have copper, they don’t, we have gold, they don’t, we have platinum and palladium … the good news for Wyomingans is they can visit and it’s a short drive,” Schweitzer said.

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