By Daniel Bendtsen
Via Wyoming News Exchange
LARAMIE — The Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee is wrapping up its review of the supplemental budget bill, would fund an additional $20 million for University of Wyoming projects.
The committee did downsize a number of the funding requests UW and Gov. Mark Gordon asked for.
In the fall, UW had originally asked for about $19.4 million in supplemental budget funding.
Former Gov. Matt Mead recommended the Legislature fund nearly all of that request.
Entering the supplemental budget discussions, UW made as its top priority a request for $10 million in one-time state funding to create the President’s Endowed Scholarship endowment.
Administrators hope the scholarships will encourage more Wyoming high school graduates and community college transfer students to stay in Wyoming for their education.
However, JAC members are offering just $2.5 million for that program in the budget bill.
The offer of $2.5 million came from representatives from the House, which is generally considered more willing to fund agencies’ request. The House proposal to cut the scholarship program to a quarter of UW’s goal seemed to take some Senate members by surprise.
“Actually, we were working on that one and we were really close to where (the House was). That’s interesting,” said Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, who co-chairs JAC.
In anticipation of hiring a new dean for the College of Agriculture this year, UW also asked for $5 million to boost programming in that college.
Half of that funding would have gone to equine studies program. JAC stripped away those funds, with some legislators citing their desire to not have programmatic overlap with the robust equine studies programs offered at community colleges in the state.
Legislators on JAC were willing to give the College of Agriculture the rest of the $2.5 million, but only with a lot of caveats.
The committee approved a 170-word footnote proposed by Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, that mandates the funding be used on a detailed list of initiatives aimed at revitalizing the college’s rangeland management program.
“I’ve had some discussions with UW for two years now, particularly on the range program, and they have gotten better, but I really think we went from being one of the best in the nation to nearly being non-accredited as a range program, and I think this is kind of to bring that focus back,” Sommers said.
Sommers said a range focus at UW also has other benefits for Wyoming.
“(Students) go out and fill positions in our federal land agencies, and I would much rather see those be University of Wyoming graduates than CSU graduates or from other places,” Sommors said.
Legislators also approved another footnote brought by Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, who wanted to mandate certain programmatic work aside from range issues.
Legislators moved forward with those footnotes, despite Legislative Service Office staff noting such a mandate might “not be appropriate” because Wyoming statutes endow the Board of Trustees with the authority to establish programming.
“Of course you’d have to have somebody to sue to say it’s not appropriate,” Bebout said.
The JAC also approved, as requested, $1 million in one-time funding and $1 million in ongoing funds to help fund the Science Initiative and other initiatives related to UW’s five-year strategic plan.
Bebout tried and failed to get that Science Initiative funding to be moved to fund UW’s Tier 1 engineering work.
He said it would be more important to invest now in that project since the Engineering Education and Research Building is scheduled to go live this year.
Nichols said the programmatic funding for the Science Initiative building — which just broke ground in November — is needed to ensure matching grant funding is available by the time the building opens.
“Our effort now is to get those faculty and grants out there and funded — which, by the way, is a year process when you go out for federal funding, so that we are ready to go by the time that building opens,” Nichols said. “We don’t want to have a 1-2 year lag when we have this beautiful new Science Initiative building open. We want all 32 of those labs to be full and we want them to be full with funded research.”
JAC’s bill also provides for $1 million for UW to construct a new well to help irrigate the Jacoby Golf Course, as well as a $1 million more annually in programmatic support for student-athletes.
Shortly after taking office, Gordon requested the Legislature appropriate $10 million to the School of Energy Resources “for the purpose of constructing a 5-megawatt equivalent pilot project utilizing advanced coal-based generation technology that captures at least 75 percent of carbon emissions.”
JAC reduced the proposed funding to $5 million, with a requirement for matching grant funding to be sought.
Gordon’s proposal was news to Mark Northram, director of the School of Energy Resources.
“I was not consulted before the governor wrote the letter. I was not aware of this,” he told the Board of Trustees’ budget committee on Wednesday.
He said it will be more appropriate for the School of Energy Resources, rather than the governor’s office, to handle those funds.
Northram said his school benefits from the oversight of the Energy Resource Council and said the new governor “likely doesn’t have the people in place to be able to move quickly on this.”
UW also made a late request last week for $5 million in additional funding for the School of Energy Resources to engage in more research and development.
Northram told legislators that funds would help secure investments from major players like Saudi Aramco. Northram said UW leaders will soon go to Saudi Arabia to seek millions of dollars in research funding at the High Bay Research Facility from the Arab kingdom.
“When you get an invitation from this group, and they’re willing to support your visas, it means they’re serious about it,” Northram said.
Mead asked the Legislature to appropriate another $2.5 million in pay raises for UW staff.
Instead, the JAC amended that to give every employee making less than $80,000 at UW a roughly 2.1 percent pay raise. All employees making more than $80,000, however, will be given a $1,600 raise.
At the behest of Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, the bill also would also provide $500,000 out of general funds for he “immediate design-build for a covered practice rodeo facility with covered stalls and practice pens and panels for animal handling.”
Kinskey described UW’s rodeo facilities as lacking.
“It’s tough to recruit rodeo athletes when they don’t even have a place to store the animals,” he said.