Wyoming Business Council asks for $3.5 million for study

RIVERTON — The Wyoming Business Council asked the state Wednesday morning for $3.5 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to invite a study team from Harvard to analyze Wyoming's economy.

The ask was part of a larger $10 million request by WBC to the Wyoming Legislature Joint Appropriations Committee, to focus on "targeted industry development."

That would include development of the energy industry, which is ever changing.

WBC president Josh Dorrell said the Harvard group would develop a team within the governor's office and agencies to "develop those industries."

"You've come across some studies (by) the Harvard Kennedy School of Business, I believe?" clarified State Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander, during the Wednesday meeting. Larsen also noted that the Harvard panel provides economic plans to nation-states but hasn't done a state in the Union before. However, when asked, they said "they would entertain doing it for Wyoming."

Dorrell said yes, that was the agency slated to do the study if the Legislature approves it, and they are ready to begin the two- to six-year project "today" because WBC had "done everything up to the point of signing the agreement and sending the money."

State Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, asked "why Harvard? Why can't the University of Wyoming" conduct the study so the funds remain in the state.

Dorrell cited Harvard's "experience" and "the work they've done in developing nations around the world."

Larsen said this decision marks a crossroads for the state, and a study like this could help legislators consider "what our part is, and help develop what that policy might be."

Dorrell asked for another $10 million for his agency to increase funding through ARPA to the WBC Business-Ready Community program, for gap funding to finish out current projects that may be stalled by inflation.

Unlike the focused economic study and development ask, this ARPA request is backed by Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon's proposed plan for ARPA appropriations.

The projects in question "were approved at a time when costs were X," said Dorrell, noting that inflation and other elements place those projects "at risk of not being completed."

Hicks said the precedent of committing the state to perform a "bailout" after agency overages gave him "a little bit of heartburn."

Gordon's ARPA plan also requests $15 million of the state's anticipated $1.7 billion cut to go to WBC to improve broadband access to unserved and underserved areas across the state. In Fremont County, the Wind River Indian Reservation is the least-connected region for broadband.

Installation and operation would be contracted to private companies.

WBC also is listed as one beneficiary of a possible $5 million allocation, also to the governor's office, the Wyoming Energy Authority and the University of Wyoming Center for Business and Economic Analysis. That pot would fund a "growth diagnostics, comprehensive economic diversification strategy," reads Gordon's ARPA plan at drivethrive.wyo.gov, that would provide an "investment thesis" for the state.