Our state’s populism began in 1889 when a group of men gathered in Cheyenne to write the Wyoming Constitution.
These 31 Republicans and 18 Democrats were mostly businessmen and lawyers. Frugal and wary of creating a bureaucracy with too much power or money, they still didn’t believe in no government. They distrusted the free market as much as they distrusted bureaucrats – or legislators for that matter. In their roles as guardians, they inadvertently laid the foundation for a welfare state.
First, they heeded the words of John Wesley Powell, who had just a month previous, advised the North Dakota constitutional convention, to “hold the waters in the hands of the people.” Wyoming banished the free market from the irrigation business. It also set up a state-run bureaucracy tasked with regulating water.
Private interests didn’t fare too well with disposal of land granted to states for educational purposes, either. Unlike states like Nevada that sold the schools sections granted to them by the federal government, Wyoming retained ownership of 83 percent of its original land grant of more than 4.3 million acres. This, however, meant creating a land commission to oversee the state’s interests.
The assault on laissez-faire continued. With populist aplomb, the conventioneers put “brass collars” on corporate power including that of the state’s biggest employer, the Union Pacific Railroad. They prohibited children and women from working in coal mines. In order to enforce these regulations, they created the office of mine inspector.
In an era where employers got almost unlimited leeway on a worker’s terms of employment, the conventioneers limited a miner’s hours to eight hours. They put the same hourly restrictions on state employees, the first state in the nation to do so. The conventioneers prevented corporate goons from harassing striking workers and did away with limiting the amount of damages an injured worker could collect from an employer.
They underwrote education, making it “as nearly free as possible.”
Here’s what Wyoming’s founding fathers didn’t do: figure out a way to pay for it.
Except for a 20-year window of prosperity, roughly 1900 to 1920, budget sessions in Cheyenne were exercises in scraping by and, above all, getting the federal government to fund services Wyoming citizens wanted but wouldn’t pay for. The writers of the Wyoming constitution killed a suggested per ton tax on coal and, until 1969, legislators subsequently squashed attempts to tax minerals.
Imagine then, the Legislature’s delight when, in 1921, the first Federal Mineral royalty check for $748,455 arrived at the state treasury. The salons used almost all of it for basic services: highways, teacher pay, and the University of Wyoming. Over the years, Wyoming has received in excess of $25 billion in federal mineral royalties.
When the energy boom of the seventies hit Wyoming, we followed the tried and true formula: little of it went to fund our future; instead we used the money to pay the cost of running government.
Unlike Alaska, this largesse didn’t come in the form of an annual check, but rather a subsidy: funding schools (once a funding prerogative of local school districts), roads, and astonishingly low property taxes. The Wyoming Taxpayers Association revealed that in 2016, a three-person Wyoming family received $32,100 worth of services and paid only $3,050 in taxes.
According to Governing Magazine, Wyoming has the highest percentage of full-time government employees (4660) per thousand residents of any state in the union. Wyoming also employs the most correction workers per capita and the second highest number of highway workers. We are also first in the nation for relying on the federal government funding for our general education budget, 20.4 percent, and second in the nation for federal monies as a percentage of our highway budget, a whopping 67.3 percent.
With this history, how do we “limit government,” and crow that we’re fiscal conservatives who won’t raise taxes even at gunpoint?
We can start by embracing a realistic history.
“The perceived antigovernment stance of the western states is a staple assumption of western history and political studies,” Amy Bridges, a professor at UC, San Diego.
And its bunkum, concludes Bridges.
“Although delegates were wary of state legislatures, and denied them many powers, at the Gilded Age conventions (this includes Wyoming), delegates affirmed and expanded the prerogatives and authority of state government. They created new institutions for managing their economies and wrote property law for settlement and growth. They also greatly expanded bills of rights, creating positive rights, which mandated activity by state government.”
The result, said Bridges, was that undoubtedly the sentiment of the country favored “more government, not less, and more elected officials, not fewer.”
By: Samuel Western for 82801
This article, republished with permission, was first published July 31 by The Casper Star Tribune. Samuel Western lives in Sheridan and writes about economic history, among other topics. He manages a Facebook page called New Wyoming Narratives and periodically teaches at the University of Wyoming.