CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — A bill that started out as an effort to direct a state loan to a New Jersey pharmaceutical company and later morphed into an ambitious new state business loan program cleared the Wyoming Senate on Tuesday.
The Senate voted 26-4 to send the measure sponsored by Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody, to the House for its consideration.
Coe's bill started out as a carefully tailored effort to approve $25 million in state loans to Lannett Co., a New Jersey pharmaceutical firm that's weighing a possible expansion of its Cody lab.
The company makes painkillers and other drugs at the lab. Coe has said it intends to decide this spring whether to go forward with a possible expansion that could raise employment in Cody from 110 workers to as many as 400 in coming years.
The bill was heavily amended in the Senate after critics voiced concern that the original version would violate a state constitutional prohibition against specific legislation intended to benefit a single entity. As amended, the measure calls for establishing a loan program under which state officials including the treasurer and the governor would vet large business loan applications.
"Really what Senate File 97 has in it now, it opens it up to any applicant, city, town, county, joint powers board, to apply for the money," Coe said.
"It's the fair way to do it. It's the right way to do this," he said, adding the measure provides a mechanism in statute to deal with larger projects.
The bill calls for creating a revolving investment fund, as allowed under an article of the state constitution. Funds in the large project account would be used exclusively for economic development projects once state officials certified that they met criteria specifying minimum levels of private investment and how to secure the state's investment.
Coe said bill would address Wyoming's need to diversify its economy, a topic he said lawmakers have been kicking around for decades.
He noted state government has thrown its weight behind a recent series of projects in southeastern Wyoming. Early this month, the State Loan and Investment Board approved $13 million in grants to help Magpul Industries move its manufacturing operations to Wyoming. The Colorado company makes ammunition magazines for guns.
In 2012, Microsoft agreed to invest up to $112 million to build a new data center near Cheyenne in a deal that saw the state pledge more than $10 million in grants and incentives to land the project.
Gov. Matt Mead said last week that discussions about investing in infrastructure associated with large business projects are especially relevant now.
"Wyoming has been successful in its efforts to attract and retain companies and is starting to see even more interest from private businesses looking to expand or relocate," Mead said. "Many of the projects are large scale. The state must position itself to work at the speed of business."
He said he's interested in seeing the final version of the bill if it passes.
Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, spoke against the bill. "I don't think that really government has much business trying to do this type of activity," he said.
Case said the bill came to the Senate as special interest legislation that violated several elements of the state constitution. He said it was amended skillfully but that the process meant the public never got a chance to comment on the bill's real subject matter.