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HD 55 candidates debate energy, economic issues

Oct 9, 2012 - By Katie Roenigk, Staff Writer

The three candidates running to represent Riverton in Wyoming's House District 55 seat displayed their differences last week during a public debate at Central Wyoming College.

The most obvious contrast was between Democratic contender Sherry Shelley and the Republican incumbent David Miller, who answered a question about the Legislature's role in economic development with emphasis on distinctly separate topics.

"I would really love to see our state diversify its economy dramatically," said Shelley, who was first to answer. "I think we'd be looking at fewer budget cuts and panic situations now."

She mentioned the agricultural sector, including ranches and small farms, as well as Wyoming's tourism industry and outdoor activities that can draw people to the state.

"Recreation I think is an area that has been sort of dabbled with but maybe not exploited to the degree it could be," Shelley said. "And there are a number of other ways our economy could be diversified that could be very beneficial."

Libertarian candidate Bethany Baldes agreed that the state should find ways to diversify its economy in order to diminish the impacts of the "boom and bust" cycle that tends to come with a strong energy industry. But Miller responded with an enthusiastic, "Thank God for the booms," adding that a move away from minerals is a move toward a state income tax.

"Right now everyone relies on taxes minerals pay," Miller said. "If you want to diversify, be an advocate of getting away from mineral taxation and doing a state income tax. I myself am not for a state income tax. But if you truly want to diversify the economy, that's the way to do it."

He pointed out that taxes on minerals pay for educational and social services as well as roads and recreational opportunities, adding that the state could do work to ensure the tax money is used fairly to benefit all citizens.

"It needs to be clean and above board and equally accessible," Miller said.

He spoke about minerals again when asked about issues that are important to the Riverton community. Baldes had chosen to focus on local jobs, mentioning her husband, who currently works in a North Dakota oilfield.

"We need to bring our jobs home -- open up places in the oil field that we can in the state," Baldes said, again cautioning against an economic boom.

"We want it to be slow and responsible so people in Wyoming can benefit from those jobs and we have enough people to fill those jobs. (That way) we can build the infrastructure we need so when the boom is gone we can still survive as a state and haven't lost all of those people (who) go to other states and have other jobs."

Miller also identified jobs as a prevalent issue for Riverton residents. He said there would be more employment opportunities in Wyoming if energy production companies were given more access to minerals in the state. In Fremont County, for example, Miller said 90 percent of the land is owned by a government entity, and that fact has prompted some businesses to move elsewhere.

"The boom has kind of moved out of Wyoming ... to jurisdictions with no public lands," Miller said. "That's probably $50 million in revenue used to educate our kids and build facilities at Central Wyoming College and other community colleges."

He asked who would be taxed if energy companies weren't present in Wyoming, hypothetically suggesting that teachers or outdoor enthusiasts bear the burden instead.

"That's not going to generate any taxes," Miller said. "We tax minerals, and minerals support is why we have this outstanding quality of life in Wyoming."

Shelley did not mention energy when discussing local issues important to her potential constituents. Instead, she said she would like to work in the legislature to send more funding to counties and towns for infrastructure improvements.

She also spoke about workplace safety as an issue that "touches everyone in this state."

"We have a terrible record of workplace accidents and deaths in this state," Shelley said. "If others can improve that record, we should be able to."

Lastly, she touched on a need for jobs that pay better living wages, pointing to the number of local children to qualify for free and reduced lunches at Riverton schools.

"That's an indicator of the level of, frankly, poverty that many of our residents live with," Shelley said. "I think that really deserves some serious attention."

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