Coal, land, workers and education: 2020 budget session wrapped

The 65th Wyoming Legislature adjourned for the year late Thursday night following a 24-day frenzy of lawmaking that stands to have significant impact on energy production, workers protections, the utility system, education funding and the potential purchase of millions of acres of land and mineral rights. 

Much of the 2020 session was spent crafting the state’s two-year budget, which the Legislature submitted to the governor on Tuesday. The perennial bill to fund state construction projects died after House and Senate leaders were unable to compromise, denying new building and an economic boost to communities around the state. 

In a press conference on Friday afternoon, Gov. Mark Gordon said he was frustrated by the failure to fund even a limited list of critical projects he highlighted to lawmakers during the debate. “I worry a little bit that egos got in the way of being thoughtful about the projects that were really necessary going forward,” he said. 

The Legislature responded with a number of new laws to a spate of 2019 energy sector bankruptcies that hit workers and local and state governments in Wyoming coal country. The bills included a measure to strengthen counties’ standing in bankruptcy fights and another to get the Wyoming Attorney General’s office more involved in those disputes on counties’ behalf. For workers, lawmakers passed a measure giving the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services authorization to investigate unpaid wage claims and pursue lost wages with legal action. The law also protects workers from retaliation for filing claims.

After years of failed attempts, the Legislature also passed a bill requiring energy companies to begin paying ad valorem mineral taxes to county governments monthly. Eighteen-month backlogs between mineral extractions and paid taxes have allowed energy companies — most prominently coal companies in 2019 — to enter bankruptcy with unpaid tax debts in the tens of millions.

Those bankruptcies finally spurred the Legislature to act, but the bill still met headwinds. The legislation was heavily amended and faced opposition in the Senate. Senate Revenue Committee Chairman Cale Case (R-Lander) eased the measure’s passage with an amendment that adjusted a payment schedule and alleviated mineral companies’ fears of a sudden increase in tax payments. 

The Legislature made Wyoming “the first state in our nation to require carbon sequestration,” Gordon said during his closing remarks to lawmakers. “This is an important step.” 

He was referring to the successful passage of his initiative to impose a low-carbon mandate on electrical utilities operating in the state with the goal of forcing the companies to install carbon capture technologies on Wyoming coal plants. 

The Wyoming Public Service Commission will now begin a rule-making process to implement the new law. Even with amendments made to the bill, opponents remain convinced it will increase costs for Wyoming residential and business electricity consumers. The bill allows utilities to recuperate investments in the expensive carbon capture technologies by hiking rates.

The carbon capture bill was just one of a slew of coal and energy industry friendly measures implemented by the Legislature this year. Tax breaks for oil, gas, uranium and coal exported through Mexico and Canada all passed the Legislature and await Gordon’s signature. The budget also contained millions of dollars for new coal research. 

In the education realm, lawmakers passed a bill creating a legislative committee to review public schooling’s costs and qualities. The House rejected a Senate measure to create a committee loaded with representatives from Wyoming’s business community for an outside look and a plan for “modernizing” the state’s education system. 

Advocates for public education funding called the committee a Trojan Horse aimed at reducing costs and pushing business priorities into public schools. Committee proponents argued it could help the state’s schools better prepare students for the modern economy and questioned opponents’ resistance to outside examination of one of the biggest uses of government dollars.

The two bodies compromised, for now, by calling for professional consultants to study how the state’s schooling aligns with national best practices. The heated debate over education funding is likely to continue into the interim period. 

Gordon will continue to explore buying 1 million surface and 4 million mineral acres from the struggling energy giant Occidental Petroleum. Chamber leaders found common ground in their desires to see the proposal advance and compromised on differing visions for how that will unfold. A chief point of disagreement was whether to use the Legislature’s rainy day fund — an account that today is slowly being drained as revenues from the energy industry disappear. 

The House and Senate agreed to allow $150 million to be withdrawn from the fund. Original legislation suggested by the governor’s office would have allowed a considerably larger sum to come from the account. The bill also allows the executive branch to explore bonding for a portion of the purchase. 

Gordon will have to seek further legislative approval before finalizing any potential deal with Occidental.

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