- Associated Press - Thursday, October 1, 2015

CASPER, Wyo. (AP) - The current downturn in the state’s energy industry underscores the need for using taxpayer funds to recruit and grow businesses in Wyoming, an economic development official said.

“With the economic circumstances that we face, economic development is as important as it has ever been,” Wyoming Business Council CEO Shawn Reese told the Legislature’s Economic Development Subcommittee on Wednesday. “And I think this is the time when we redouble our efforts.”

The seven-member committee is in its second year of a review of the state’s role in providing assistance for economic development programs.

The Business Ready Community Program, which takes up more than half of the Business Council’s total standard budget, is under the most scrutiny, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle reported (https://bit.ly/1he6Cao).

The program provides loans and grants for infrastructure projects, such as water and sewer hookups or helping set up a business park, that are used to lure companies to relocate here or expand their existing operations.

Since the program was created in 2004, the state has awarded about $318 million to 315 projects throughout the state.

Reese told the lawmakers that these projects have directly created or are projected to create at least 4,288 jobs.

Most lawmakers have generally been supportive of the Business Ready Community Program and have consistently approved requests to add funds to the program. But there have been some concerns through the years about its effectiveness and fairness.

Sen. Bruce Burns, R-Sheridan, who co-chairs the subcommittee, said he’s not sure if the Business Council’s work is living up its original goal of diversifying the state’s economy.

Reese responded by saying that many of the economic development projects have targeted non-energy industries, such as the data center projects in Laramie County and other parts of the state.

“I would argue diversification is woven through the entire approach,” he said.

Reese added that the Business Council is working on a new method to evaluate the return on investment from each program that it runs. He said this will give policymakers and taxpayers a more objective look at how beneficial the projects have been.

Other lawmakers questioned whether some industries and parts of the state are benefiting more from the government assistance than others.

Laramie County, for example, has received more Business Ready Community funds than any other county in the state.

But Business Council officials pointed out that Laramie County doesn’t even rank among the six top counties for funding on a per capita basis. They also said the proximity to major interstate highways, the effectiveness of local economic development groups and population sizes are some of the main factors that drive where a project will be.

Reese also responded to concerns that providing a grant or loan that helps one company could hurt another company.

“We are very sensitive to this topic,” he said. “(Our goal) is to do no harm.”

Maureen Bader with the Wyoming Liberty Group said these types of government assistance programs are harming the economy by discouraging true free-market competition.

“The more subsidies the government provides to private businesses, the more the market’s profit-and-loss signals are weakened, and the more that America’s tradition of entrepreneurship and risk taking by the private sector is undermined,” Bader told the committee.

The Economic Development Subcommittee is expected to issue a report by Oct. 30 outlining any proposed legislative changes for the Business Council. Those recommendations will be forwarded to the Joint Appropriations Committee and the Joint Minerals, Business and Economic Development Interim Committee to consider prior to the 2016 legislative session.

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Information from: Wyoming Tribune Eagle, https://www.wyomingnews.com

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