The forum at the University of Wyoming was titled "Leadership and the Future of Wyoming." The notables on the panel spoke first: Pete Simpson, a university lecturer and heir to the first family of Wyoming politics, a man whose father and brother, Milward and Alan, had both been Republican senators; Kathy Karpan, former secretary of state and Democratic candidate for governor, now serving in the U.S. Interior Department; James Watt, Ronald Reagan's controversial secretary of the interior; and Robert Schuster, Jackson lawyer, university trustee and member of the Democratic National Committee.
And now it was time for Stephanie Olsen, a communications major and member of the class of 2000, whose campus resume clearly marked her as a leader among her peers. "With leaders like Sen. [Alan] Simpson and Dick Cheney [the former House member and secretary of defense, and University of Wyoming graduate], we have nothing to be ashamed of," she said. "But this is a time when we need visionary leaders. Wyoming has been a boom and bust state," its fortune tied to the markets for oil and gas, coal and cattle. "We need leaders ready to take a risk to bring Wyoming into the next millennium."
And then this poised, articulate young woman spoke the sentences that made this more than an academic discussion: "I don't see the opportunities for myself in Wyoming. I am looking outside."
She is far from alone. About two-thirds of the graduates of the state's only university leave Wyoming. "We're exporting our youth," Watt said, "investing our tax dollars to subsidize Colorado and Idaho." The population -- slightly under a half-million -- is stagnant, but it is aging, and the steady exodus of college graduates means the median education level is declining. The state that 20 years ago produced Cabinet members and nationally known legislators has a governor and congressional delegation notable only for their anonymity.
Wyoming is, in the words of one Cheyenne businessman, "the hole in the doughnut" of Mountain State prosperity. Utah, Montana and Colorado, for example, have had booming economies, in part because their recent governors, Republicans Mike Leavitt and Marc Racicot and Democrat Roy Romer, respectively, have been exceptional leaders.
Pete Simpson said that when he ran (unsuccessfully) for governor a decade ago against an engaging Democrat, Mike Sullivan, now ambassador to Dublin, he went to see the then-governor of Utah, Norman Bangerter, and asked if there were any secrets to Utah's economic success. "Three," Bangerter replied: "Utah State, the University of Utah and BYU [Brigham Young University]."
In the information age, faculty research and a steady supply of well-trained graduates are key economic development tools. But, Schuster said, faculty salaries at the University of Wyoming have declined in the past decade from third among public universities to 47th, deferred maintenance on its handsome sandstone buildings has reached $40 million and all the while state deficits totaled $615 million.
Central to the problem, all the panelists agreed, is a tax system keyed to the mining, oil and gas industries -- with high severance taxes, low sales and property levies and no income tax. The millionaires who have built their mansions in magnificent Jackson Hole are contributing almost nothing to support state services.
But beyond that is a cultural divide -- a resistance among the farm and ranch families that dominate state government to economic development. This point was made most forcefully, not by the Democrats on the panel but by Watt, a conservative Republican who said his efforts to enlist bankers and businessmen in creating pools of investment capital for start-up businesses were met with indifference or hostility by local chambers of commerce. "I see hard times ahead," he said.
Karpan put it even more starkly -- and personally. "My dad was a coal miner," she said, "but he brought home a good paycheck. Now, by every measurement, our standard of living is declining. I worry about Wyoming becoming an Appalachian kind of state."
Schuster conceded that many in Wyoming fear that economic development could bring the same pollution and traffic jams Denver and Salt Lake City are fighting. But that is a remote possibility, he said, and a diversion from the stark challenge raised by the fact that "between 1990 and 1996, a quarter of our people between ages 25 and 34 left the state."
Stephanie Olsen said she certainly doesn't want to join them: "I think we can grow and still have the same solid values I want for my family. But if I'm not a farmer or a miner, what do I do with my education?"
Wyoming is small on the national scale, but its economic situation and its palpable political angst are vivid reminders that "a rising tide" of national prosperity does not "lift all boats" and that states which lack in leadership can easily founder.