House, Senate approve separate budgets, some criticize decisions

CHEYENNE — Two weeks into Wyoming's five-week legislative session, members of the House and Senate advanced separate versions of the state's roughly $3 billion budget for the 2021-22 biennium Friday night.

The two budget bills were passed out of the chambers on third reading, and differences between the two will be hashed out over the remaining three weeks of the session.

Yet before Friday's vote in the Senate, several lawmakers, including a committee chairman, as well as the longest-tenured member of the Legislature, delivered outspoken critiques of the budget and the broader discussions surrounding it. With the state facing a structural revenue deficit of roughly $200 million over the upcoming biennium, they argued not enough was being done to address those impending shortfalls.

Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, who chairs the Senate Revenue Committee, said it appears to him as though the Legislature wasn't willing to seriously tackle any solutions to either create new revenue streams or make serious spending cuts.

"We could've cut three to four times as much as we did," said Case, who voted against the budget bill.

House Minority Floor Leader Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, echoed Case's frustrations, though he emphasized the critical need for the state to create new revenue streams.

"The revenue discussion has to be the more serious discussion," Rothfuss said.

He expressed disappointment that the theme of every legislative session he's been in has focused on doing more with less, adding the budget for the upcoming biennium was just "same old, same old."

"The cuts we make hurt our ability to perform," Rothfuss said. "We're getting to the point where we are failing to invest in the state of Wyoming enough to succeed in the future."

Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, who has served in the Legislature since 1979, also said he would vote against the measure. Scott said while he understood using the state's reserves was necessary, he argued it had been done to an "excessive" degree in this budget.

Despite the criticisms from several prominent senators, Senate File 1 was advanced on third reading by a 22-6 vote Friday night.

The final bill also included some changes to an amendment approved Wednesday on second reading. Sponsored by Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, and the other four senators on the Joint Appropriations Committee, the original amendment affected several parts of the budget, though its most substantial impacts were on school construction funding, including a $19.2 million cut for a new school construction project in Albany County.

An amendment Friday that narrowly won approval undid some of those cuts. Proposed by Rothfuss, the new amendment reinserted the funding for that school and nearly $20 million in the school capital construction account.

In the House, the third reading won approval without as much contentious discussion. While a few budget amendments were discussed at length through Friday afternoon, the final House budget bill was much more in line with the original budget proposal than the Senate version.

In an interview Friday morning before the chamber's final vote, House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper, said he was pleased with the way his fellow representatives had moved through the budget process.

"We've really stuck with the (Joint Appropriations Committee) budget, and they've really defended it and educated the body really well," Harshman said. "Between the governor's budget and the Joint Appropriations Committee budget, Wyoming is in a good spot."

Senate President Drew Perkins, R-Casper, also seemed confident a compromise would be reached for the final budget bill.

"It's been that way forever," Perkins said. "The House and Senate have always had significantly different opinions about what they want to do in certain parts of the budget."

Perkins noted the total budget with federal funds and other external dollars amounts to a "$7 billion exercise."

"In the grand scheme of things, we're arguing about 5% of the budget," he added.

Following the votes Friday in both chambers, the two budget bills will go to a conference committee next week for the lawmakers to begin working to a compromise.

Following Friday's votes in both chambers, the competing versions of the bills will go to a conference committee next week for the two chambers to hash out their disagreements over the nearly $3 billion budget.