Natural Gas Prices Plunge, Hurting Wyoming's Budget

Wyoming's decade-long economic boom has been driven by the extraction of coal and natural gas. But now there's a glut of natural gas and prices have plummeted. That is stalling the local economy and slicing state tax revenues.

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After more than doubling its state budget over the last decade, it's time for Wyoming to cut back. During the state budget session that begins there today legislators will attempt to trim budgets by at least 8 percent over the next three years.

As Wyoming Public Radio's Bob Beck reports, they're doing this at a time when the state has more than a billion dollars in a reserve account.

BOB BECK, BYLINE: First, some quick background, Wyoming's tax revenue mostly comes from oil, natural gas and coal. The state does not have a state income tax. Because of high energy prices, Wyoming has spent millions of new dollars on education and construction.

But recently, the price of natural gas has plummeted, and with it state revenues. For every dollar gas prices drop, Wyoming can lose up to $120 million. Gas prices have fallen almost $2 from a fall projection, and forecasts suggest that the revenue drop could last for a few years.

STATE SENATOR PHIL NICHOLAS: I'm a person that believes that you don't wait for your problems to get worse. You begin to address them as soon as you can see that you have a problem.

BECK: That's Republican State Senator Phil Nicholas who co-chairs the Joint Appropriations Committee. Nicholas notes that the state had over a decade of massive energy wealth...

NICHOLAS: So, as our revenues increased, our expenditures almost escalated, if you will, along with the available revenues.

BECK: He and the Republican-led legislature firmly believe that the best approach for dealing with the projected shortfall is to begin the process of cutting back on those budgets.

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SANDY: Peak Wellness. This is Sandy.

BECK: This is Peak Wellness Center in Laramie, a mental health facility that caters to a high number of low-income people. The agency underwent a 10 percent state funding cut the last time gas prices dropped and never saw that funding restored.

Tina Mansfield oversees adult outpatient treatment and those who come to the center via the county drug and alcohol treatment program. She fears that budget cuts, coupled with inevitable fee increases, would make it very difficult for people with serious problems to get help.

TINA MANSFIELD: We have people who are in mental devastation, emotional devastation, without resources. We're already in the very, very high rankings for suicide, so we want to take that really seriously, that's loss of life.

BECK: Lawmakers have already cut over 9 percent from the state Medicaid program. And that will likely lead to reductions in what clinics, hospitals and doctors get paid. Mansfield believes that means fewer private providers will take on low income patients and more emphasis will be placed on centers like Peak Wellness. The director of Mental Health Center, Carol Sprayberry, adds that they are already seeing more clients with fewer staff.

CAROL SPRAYBERRY: We're seeing a lot more substance abuse. We're seeing relationship problems. We're seeing people with financial issues.

BECK: First-term Republican Governor Matt Mead says all cuts are difficult, but he does not think they have any other choice.

GOVERNOR MATT MEAD: We don't want to get in a position where we cannot pay our bills. And so, I think we need to prepare - maybe prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

BECK: As for taxes, the governor says the state should try and live within its means first.

MEAD: When you have budget surpluses and you're also talking about raising taxes, I don't think that's a very good message.

BECK: Because remember, Wyoming is making these cuts at a time when the state has roughly $1.5 billion in the bank waiting for a rainy day.

For NPR, I'm Bob Beck in Laramie.

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