Michael Von Flatern
By Krista Rinehart, CSG National Leadership Center Coordinator
When Michael Von Flatern was inspired to run for office in 2004, the issues facing Wyoming were much different than today.
He remembers a difference of opinion with the incumbent on social and local issues, such as the expansion of a community college, as the driving force behind his decision to run. Today, his interests are driven by those pressing issues similar to other states—“holding the line on the size and cost of government.”
Along those lines, he cites an imbalanced tax structure and a crumbling state infrastructure as two of the bigger issues facing Wyoming.
Given his career as a pilot and owner of a private charter air service, transportation issues sit prominently on this senator’s radar screen.
If he were a teacher, he’d give the state “a B- and falling” for its infrastructure. In fact, he says a lot of work remains for Wyoming’s transportation system and infrastructure.
“We have a major national artery that runs through our state—Interstate 80—and the 560,000 residents of Wyoming are expected to maintain and improve that road,” Von Flatern said. “This disproportionately drains our resources and leaves us struggling to maintain other roads.”
This struggle to keep up with the miles of road crisscrossing a large state that is sparsely populated explains why Wyoming was eager to accept funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which Von Flatern credits with having a huge impact on the state economy.
“We spent well over $127 million on roads and bridges that are directly attributable to the (Recovery Act) funding,” said Von Flatern. “We also were the first state to implement those projects and to have enough shovel-ready projects to encumber the funds.”
Looking ahead, Von Flatern recognizes that Wyoming—like other states—can’t rely on large injections of federal dollars to maintain its roads and infrastructure.
“This state, along with others, needs to generate more revenue from those that use the resources,” said Von Flatern. “This means taking a serious look at local revenue generation, either through raising fuel tax, money from the general fund that is not based on usage or charging for miles driven or tolling.”
But he believes Wyoming can’t stop there. In order to create a solid financial foundation on which to build a new future after the recent economic downturn, Wyoming needs to examine its tax base, Von Flatern said.
“We need a more balanced taxing structure,” he said. “Wyoming will always have inequitable funding and taxing issues. We only have a two-legged stool in regards to revenue—mineral and sales tax.”
This uneven tax base is especially evident now, he said, with the natural gas industry. When Von Flatern took office in 2005, Wyoming was flush with income resulting from high natural gas prices. That has changed and with it, state revenue projects have dropped.
“We rely on 65 percent of our state funding from minerals and as the price of commodities rise and fall, so does the budget of this state,” said Von Flatern. “The price of natural gas is falling and now predicted, for the next biennium, to be less than our earlier revenue projections. So, just one commodity has the effect of putting us $50 million in the hole for the coming biennium.”
Wyoming has some wiggle room to shift budget savings and/or dip into its mineral trust fund, so Van Flatern insists, “Wyoming is far from broke!”
At the same time, he sees this as an important time for the state to reassess its budget and revenue streams.
“I am not advocating for more taxes,” Von Flatern said, “just to stop the erosion of revenue through tax exemptions. In recent years, we have added six more exemptions to the sales tax.”
As Von Flatern participates in budget discussion this legislative session, he seeks to pattern his leadership after the model of former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson.
“His no nonsense approach to the federal budget problems has impressed me,” says Von Flatern. “He puts the country first and politics last.”
In his attempts to lead Wyoming to a stable financial future that will enable it to meet the needs of its residents, Von Flatern seeks to put Wyoming first.