THE BUZZ: Budgeting in a Bust Cycle

By on February 9, 2016

Lawmakers focus on painful cuts and balances this legislative session.

JACKSON HOLE, WYO – State lawmakers began the 63rd Wyoming Legislature this week. The short session (20 scheduled days) focuses primarily on budget-related decisions but in years past legislators have used the assembly to introduce bills outside of the scope of finance. Non-budget related bills have an uphill battle to enactment—a two-thirds majority is required rather than the standard 51 percent.

This session will likely be occupied mostly with hammering out a new budget as the state faces a $477.7 million projected drop in revenue. Cuts are expected to run deep, especially in school construction and operation, certain Department of Health programs, and across-the-board reductions to money doled out to cities, towns and counties.

Teton County School District No. 1 leaders have been keeping a close eye on the Joint Appropriations Committee (JAC) for weeks now. The JAC, comprised of 10 Republican state legislators and two Democrats, made its recommendation for funding school facilities this week, proposing funding for the district’s new elementary school in Hog Island be postponed for now.

Three years ago, Governor Matt Mead warned that new school construction must be scaled back after the state spent $400 million in 2012. A projected shortfall of $219 million toward capital construction of schools besieges the state. The governor did not include Hog Island in his short list of 18 new schools he would be OK with funding (out of a total of 42 seeking state funds). The district hopes to break ground on the $31 million Hog Island school in February 2017. If funding from the state is not available, trustees have the option of delaying construction or seek municipal bonds—a process that would be decided by voters in May or November—to pay for the school. After cuts, the JAC has originally proposed spending $1.5 billion for the two-year funding cycle on school operations.

Other proposed budget cuts include $6.5 million slashed from the Wyoming Business Council program. WBC grants and loans have provided money for the old Wilson Schoolhouse, a new parking lot at Teton Village, Snow King expansion, Vertical Harvest, and many more local projects.

A $61 million slice from general funds for WYDOT is also on the books; although the state highway department receives most of its funding from federal sources and state fuel taxes.

Some agencies reduced their budget request before the ax fell. The Wyoming Public Safety Communications Commission trimmed nearly $3 million from the WyoLink budget. WyoLink is a communications system used by public safety officials across the state, including Teton County Emergency Management.

In the early going

Already a few decisions have been made in advance of the 2016 Budget Session. For the second straight year, Mead’s bid to expand Medicaid fell on deaf ears. The JAC voted last month to strip Medicaid coverage to an estimated 20,000 low-income residents from the state Health Department budget. The JAC also recommended dipping into the $1.8 billion rainy day fund—the largest surplus holding of any state—for a $310 million loan against reserves.

The JAC also advanced a bill that would provide $90 million allocated for cities, towns and counties. That’s $85 million short of what local governments have traditionally received but on target for what Town of Jackson administrator Bob McLaurin was thinking and hoping Teton County and Jackson would see from Cheyenne.

A handful of smaller cuts have also been proposed to rein in spending. The JAC proposed a 2.5 percent reduction in spending on agency vehicles—expected to save the state about $400,000.  A 10 percent cut in travel expenses will also save about $8.4 million for Wyoming.

A legislative panel shot down an early draft bill late last year designed to ease overcrowding in the state prison system. Wyoming Department of Corrections sought to allow the early release of nonviolent inmates provided they were fitted with monitoring ankle bracelets.

Some lawmakers viewed the bill as too soft on crime while others noted the potential positive aspects of prisoner reform. Sen. Leland Christensen, R-Alta, WY, chairman of the Joint Judiciary Committee which defeated the bill, said he liked the concept of early release with monitoring if only to allow the state to save money on building additional prisons. The Department of Correction master plan calls for 144 new beds in 2020, targeted for a correction institution in Torrington. That would cost an estimated $5 million a year to operate.

Bills of note

Rep. James Byrd, D-Cheyenne, will once again try to raise the minimum wage in Wyoming. House Bill 4 would increase the state’s minimum wage from $5.15 (the lowest of any state in the country) to $9.50 an hour. Opponents of the bill claim it’s a “job killer” and unnecessary as the federal minimum wage—$7.25 an hour—usually trumps pay rates for Wyoming workers. Byrd has said $7.25 is not a livable wage for most Wyomingites. A similar bill never made it out of committee in 2014, shot down 51-9 after just 10 minutes of deliberation. Byrd’s minimum wage bill last year met with similar results.

Local Rep. Andy Schwartz, D-Jackson, has a bill making its way through the process that will allow Snow King to create its own district, enabling the resort to levy and collect sales and property taxes within its borders.

Rep. Ruth Ann Petroff has sponsored three bills so far. The most-watched is her attempt to tweak state statute, allowing the formation of a regional housing authority with additional county commissioners as a governing board. Town councilors recently voted to hold off on future decisions regarding the reformation of the Teton County Housing Authority in anticipation of the success or failure of Petroff’s bill, among other reasons.

A bill to change mountain lions from trophy game status to predator would allow trapping as a means of harvesting the animal. House Bill 12, introduced by Newcastle representative Hans Hunt, has met with early resistance from local groups including Wyoming Untrapped president Lisa Robertson. She blasted the measure as an indiscriminate tool that can catch most anything other than a lion. She also urged that new regulations should wait on more definitive data from Wyoming Game and Fish on whether mountain lion populations have grown to the point that they are to blame for a sharp reduction in state mule deer numbers.

For the fourth consecutive year, lawmakers will put forth a Repeal Gun Free Zones Act. The measure to allow concealed weapons in places like government assemblies including town council or county commission meetings has met with strong resistance from local school districts and the University of Wyoming. House Bill 86 reads much like its unsuccessful predecessors with the notable exception now of schools and universities.

Acknowledging a budget session may not be the right place for his anti-discrimination bill, Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, has decided against sponsoring it again this term. Last year’s try passed the Senate but was defeated in the House. With the economic downturn and a poor outlook for oil, gas and coal plaguing the state, Rothfuss said he’ll wait until next year’s general session to bring back the bill.

Session kickoff

Kicking off the Budget Session, Mead closed his State of the State address to the 90-member legislative body with words of encouragement.“What we do now will either build or stagnate Wyoming,” he said. “Let’s step up, with courage and build Wyoming, take care of our citizens and provide a conservative yet positive path forward.”

 

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