Wyofile by Daniel Bendtsen

The Wyoming Tourism Board’s budget is set to nearly double for the next biennium even as most other state agency spending remains more-or-less flat, an anomaly that legislative budget writers didn’t recognize until after passing the draft plan out of committee.

Last week, lawmakers failed in their attempts to reallocate some of the roughly $19 million windfall.

An increase in Wyoming lodging tax rates and favorable tourism seasons in the last two years have swollen revenue streams dedicated to the Wyoming Tourism Board.

In response, the Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee prepared a biennial budget, based on Gov. Mark Gordon’s recommendation, that would give the WTB $41.9 million for the next two years.

Gov. Mark Gordon in the Wyoming State Capitol in February 2022. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

That figure represents a significant bump for the entity, which was created by a budget footnote in 2003 to be the leading proponent of Wyoming’s tourism and hospitality industry. In 2020, the Legislature appropriated just $26.5 million to the board for the current biennium, later trimming that figure down to $23.1 million in the 2021 supplemental budget.

Lawmakers now are at odds over the wisdom of such a budget increase.

When the budget bill came to the House and Senate floors Wednesday for amendments, the JAC’s co-chairmen urged their respective chambers to lower the Wyoming Tourism Board’s appropriation, saying they made a mistake.

“We didn’t understand the tourism budget, and we passed a budget that we didn’t understand,” co-chair Rep. Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne), said.

Nicholas and Sen. Drew Perkins (R-Casper) tried to persuade their colleagues to pare the $19 million budget increase down to $12.5 million. Their attempts ultimately failed to sway either chamber.

Wait-and-see approach

The Legislature has not adequately vetted the Wyoming Tourism Board’s spending proposal, Nicholas argued.

The largest specific project in the budget is an allocation of $8.8 million for “brand exposure through advertising and outreach.”

Rep. Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne) in the Wyoming State Capitol in February 2022. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

Amendments Nicholas and Perkins proposed would’ve cut that allocation in half.

Perkins would prefer to allocate a more modest increase for the upcoming year and then re-assess tourism spending after new advertising campaigns are implemented. The Legislature would then have the chance to make “mid-course corrections” if necessary, he said.

“This account is new, and there’s more money that’s come into this account than anybody originally thought,” he said. “Let’s see how this works a little bit before we shoot this whole wad in this run.”

The House narrowly rejected that proposal on a 28-31 vote. The Senate killed the proposal on a 14-15 vote.

Investments and payoffs

The boom in tax revenue for tourism was spurred by a new 5% lodging tax the Legislature passed in 2020.

Two-thirds of the tax revenue is designated for the state government to promote tourism. Lawmakers passed the tax with the goal of ending the Wyoming Tourism Board’s reliance on the general fund.

In backing the latest spending proposal, Sen. Mike Gireau (D-Jackson) said the Wyoming Tourism Board will be aggressive in driving tourism to all communities across the state that want it.

“We want to drill down and tell the stories of [smaller] communities and not just do global advertising for the great iconic places that we used to advertise all the time,” he said. “We want to do some real high-level advertising that gets to the heart of each and every community that wants it to build their own tourism story.”

Sen. Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) said tourism has moved from the state’s third-largest industry to its second-largest during his time in the Legislature, specifically because of the investments the state has dedicated to promoting the industry.

“We’ve invested, and it’s paid off,” he said.

After the House and Senate rejected tourism cuts on Wednesday, legislators returned with proposed amendments Friday that would move $500,000 out of the Wyoming Tourism Board’s purview and instead fund the Wyoming State Fair.

The House and Senate shot those down as well.

Rep. Aaron Clausen (R-Douglas) said it is unfair for the Wyoming Tourism Board to have a monopoly on lodging tax revenues. In his community, where the Wyoming State Fair takes place, he said, it’s not tourists paying the bulk of the lodging tax.

Pickup trucks head west on Highway 59 away from the Powder River Basin energy fields and toward Douglas as evening light takes hold of the Laramie Mountains in January 2020. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

“It’s not a huge tourist area,” he said. “We do have some tourism, but it’s a big oil and gas area. That’s what the hotels and restaurants are full from, and this just takes some of these funds and builds [the fair account].”

The Senate killed that proposal on a 12-18 roll call vote. The House likewise rejected the amendment on a voice vote.

The proposed budget for the Wyoming Tourism Board included footnotes that earmark almost one-third of the organization’s funding for specific projects. Along with the $8.8 million allocated for “brand exposure,” $1.5 million is restricted for renovations at the Quebec 01 site, a former missile-launch facility constructed in 1962 that the state has maintained as a historic site since 2017. Another $2 million is set to go to the outdoor recreation office at the Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources.

Both Legislative chambers have also advanced a provision proposed by JAC to use $2 million from the Wyoming Tourism Reserve and Projects Account for exhibits and other amenities at the Wyoming Capitol. The budget bill also gives the state parks department $300,000 from tourism reserves for “interagency support and collaborations related to outdoor recreation and tourism.”

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.