WYOMING — Gov. Mark Gordon’s open call for ideas on how to spend more than $1 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act — a measure all three Wyoming Congressional delegates opposed — has so far garnered more than 100 proposals that collectively surpass $3 billion.
The proposals range from affordable housing projects and childcare access expansion to workforce retraining, suicide prevention and carbon capture technology for coal-fired power plants.
State agency directors — key players in Gordon’s “survive, drive and thrive strike team” — outlined several goals for how to invest the federal dollars during a public webinar Friday, as well as some proposals. Any Wyoming resident or group can submit a proposal.
Several speakers noted that many of the proposals are rooted in systemically underfunded health and human services needs laid bare by the pandemic, as well as civic and economic innovations.
“One thing that the COVID pandemic really taught us, or showed us, is something which many of us already knew, was the fragility of the human services and healthcare systems,” Wyoming Department of Family Services Director Korin Schmidt said. “We don’t always invest in our nonprofit sector, especially on the health and human services side, in ways that we may invest in other parts of our industries.”
In addition to suicide prevention and mental health services, the governor’s call for ARPA investment proposals garnered a $90 million proposal for “hospital and long-term care facility upgrades and renovations … senior centers across Wyoming and remodels necessary to adequately care for ‘hard to place’ clients, including youth, at congregate care facilities,” according to the governor’s “Drive and Thrive” website.
Another proposal calls for $100 million to “fund housing for Wyoming’s workforce, homeless citizens, low-to-moderate income rental housing, and moderate-income home ownership.”
“When this act passed Congress, the governor did not want to just look at the act and how it required money to be spent,” Gordon’s Policy Director Renny MacKay said during the Dec. 3 webinar. “He wanted folks to think as big as possible and as boldly as possible about what would be best to do to help Wyoming thrive.”
Despite the abundance of proposals for ARPA spending, there’s still wariness over the stimulus programs, federal spending policy and the size of federal government influence in Wyoming. The federal stimulus programs are spending money that belongs to future generations, MacKay said.
“I think we all have to wait and see what strings are attached to the federal programs,” MacKay told WyoFile. “That has certainly led to some long conversations about whether or not to apply or accept funds already.”
From ‘survive’ to ‘thrive’
Wyoming has so far received $534 million in ARPA funds and is scheduled to receive another $534 million in 2022. The state has until 2026 to appropriate the money.
Even as Gordon deployed $1.25 billion in CARES Act funding to help schools, healthcare providers and businesses cope with the pandemic and its economic shock, he and the Legislature made sizable budget cuts in 2020 that Gordon warned “will impact families across the state, will affect the services we provide and will have an effect on dollars that flow into the private sector.”
Those cuts were the result of significant projected revenue shortfalls. Gordon has said the state should avoid increasing spending even though revenue forecasts have since improved.
Though recent cuts have created voids that state and nonprofit agencies hope to at least partially backfill, priorities for federal stimulus funds should not require continuing support from state revenues, MacKay said. The federal stimulus dollars, as well as money flowing to Wyoming through the infrastructure bill, MacKay added, represent broad opportunities for one-time investments in strengthening Wyoming communities and state programs as they prepare for a changing economy.
“You can’t start a program that’s going to need money in three years,” MacKay said. “So we’re really looking to try to leverage these [federal stimulus dollars] to have the biggest impact as possible, knowing that they’re one-time in nature.”
The same concept was applied to spending Wyoming’s $1.25 billion in CARES Act funding, MacKay said. The state has appropriated all of the CARES Act funding as of September.
The governor’s “Drive and Thrive” website lists 10 general goals for ARPA spending and includes synopses of proposals received so far. The governor will continue to accept proposals throughout the next year, MacKay said. However, Gordon will present his first phase of ARPA spending priorities to the Legislature later this month.
One proposal suggests allocating $150 million to continue a Wyoming Business Council-led buildout of broadband capacity. That’s a particular challenge given Wyoming’s large geography and sparse population.
“Wyoming as a whole, other than Casper and Cheyenne, is technically difficult for any business to make a go of with [existing] broadband,” Gillette-based Visionary Broadband CEO Brian Worthen told WyoFile. “Anybody that’s not adjacent to a larger community is typically left out in the cold.”
It’s difficult for broadband providers to create an economically viable business plan to build out networks in places like Crook and Big Horn counties for their low population, and places like Sublette County because it’s so spread out, Worthen said.
“And so there’s this huge inequity because everybody in Wyoming loves their space and space is contrary to broadband adoption,” Worthen said.
Yet the Wyoming Business Council has made strides in leveraging state and federal funds to help providers install more capacity in rural communities, according to Worthen.
“Now [ARPA and the infrastructure bill] introduces the ability to say yes, there is a provider in town providing decent service but is not reliable and therefore grant money should be used to build a second option,” Worthen said. “That’s the opportunity; there’s going to be a door open for other providers to come in, introduce a second option, which means more competition, faster speeds, lower price.”
Wyoming allocated $50 million in CARES Act funding to the Connect Wyoming broadband effort. The state can continue to make strides in adding broadband with ARPA funds, Wyoming Business Council CEO Josh Dorrell said, and it’s a good example of how one-time federal stimulus dollars can help bolster Wyoming’s economy. Reliable broadband capacity is a key to surviving the changing economy for Wyoming’s businesses, residents and programs, Dorrell said.
“Right now, we’re trying to understand the need and where that money should go to make the biggest difference,” Dorrell said.
Although cities and counties received their own portions of federal CARES Act and ARPA stimulus dollars, the state’s portion of ARPA funds can help offset future capital expenses by investing in municipal infrastructure, Wyoming Association of Municipalities Member Services Manager Justin Schilling said.
Those community-level investments are key to expanding and attracting new, diverse businesses, he added.
“We need to not put economic diversification on the backburner again,” Schilling told WyoFile. “I think that’s something that, hopefully, we can do better than past generations.”
There’s pent-up need among Wyoming communities due to shifting fossil-fuel markets and past state budget cuts, he added. But investments with federal stimulus dollars must be strategic, Schilling said, because some of the dollars are prescribed for specific programs.
For example, Wyoming will receive $63 million for water infrastructure, and the program prioritizes underserved communities. It doesn’t make sense for a community to use ARPA funds for needs that are prioritized under the federal infrastructure stimulus program, Schilling said, so it will require smart planning to ensure Wyoming makes the best use of the one-time federal stimulus programs.
“We’ve told people to kind of play it slow until we’ve got better guidance and things come more into focus,” Schilling said.
The various federal stimulus programs will go a long way to update and expand municipal drinking water and wastewater systems, Schilling said, as well as broadband and various local public services.
“We really have to continue to push very hard, especially in a time like this when there’s this historic amount of money to be invested in the future of the state,” Schilling said.