Lawmakers take first steps to amend biennial budget

CHEYENNE — Lawmakers got their first chance to propose changes to the state's roughly $3.2 billion budget for the 2021-22 biennium Wednesday, but there is a long road ahead before any final decisions are made on such amendments.

A total of 91 amendments were filed overnight Tuesday - a dizzying number of proposals for lawmakers to wrap their heads around in the span of a few hours.

While many amendments came from individual lawmakers, some of the proposals came from the Joint Appropriations Committee. Over the past couple months, the 12-member group has heard from every state agency and approved the budget bill that was on every lawmaker's desk the first day of the session.

Yet during discussion on the Senate floor Wednesday morning, the chamber's Minority Floor Leader criticized how much trust is required in the budgeting process. Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, said he couldn't support an amendment sponsored by Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, and the other four senators on the Appropriations Committee.

The amendment decreased funding in the school foundation program by $31.6 million, while also carving out the $19.2 million necessary for an external cost adjustment for inflation within the K-12 education fund.

"Everyone in here was elected to come down here and vote on this budget and vote on these amendments and know what's going into them," Rothfuss said. "Obviously, we all trust each other ... but that doesn't abrogate my responsibility to know what I'm voting on."

Rothfuss warned his colleagues "if we go down this road, expect this in the future."

"Expect to not know what's in the budget, despite the fact we're here for 24 days to talk about the budget, and almost all of that takes place in the next couple of hours," Rothfuss said.

The minority party leader was then rebutted by Bebout, co-chairman of the JAC.

"This is not an effort by five of us (on the JAC) to try to run something through that we think has not been totally debated and talked about," said Bebout, noting the Joint Appropriations Committee has been meeting in the Capitol since December.

After the debate, the Senate approved the amendment offered by Bebout and the other members of the committee.

The morning session in the Senate also generated debate over how the state was implementing departmental cuts. Another amendment proposed by the five JAC senators would cut funding for 34 government positions across several departments.

Bebout said the cuts only applied to certain positions that had been vacant for at least three months. But other senators argued that using the three-month threshold was an arbitrary way to consider where to make those cuts.

Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, said it can take far longer than three months to fill some openings, especially with such an oversaturated job market in many parts of the state.

Nethercott argued that by cutting positions based on how long they've been open, departments are forced to hold onto employees who should be let go out of fear of losing that position entirely.

"The timing of all of this gets gamed," Nethercott said. "So we're not having authentic hiring processes because of this practice to just eliminate open positions, regardless of the merit or critical-thinking analysis behind the decision to eliminate the position.

"We've got to reduce positions," she continued. "I support that, but it needs to be done surgically and thoughtfully, as opposed to this blunt instrument."

Despite arguments from her and Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper, the amendment was then adopted by a majority of the Senate.

It's important to note Wednesday's debate was only for the second reading of the state's budget. Moving forward, the budget will still require a third reading in each chamber, and select members of the House and Senate will then convene for a joint conference committee to hash out the differences between the two versions of the budget bill.

A few of the key budget amendments debated Wednesday included:

Funding for a new school in LCSD1: A budget amendment from Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, that would've eliminated the $27 million appropriated for the design and construction of a new elementary school in Laramie County School District 1 was rejected by a majority of senators.

Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, spoke against the amendment, noting the enrollment increases in LCSD1 and the need to address the district's infrastructure needs. The amendment would've eliminated funding for a few other new school construction projects across the state, as well.

Public defender funding: All five budget amendments related to the State Public Defender's Office failed, though the intent of the amendments varied. Two of them aimed to create a separate Guardian ad Litem Office, which is currently within the Public Defender's Office.

Meanwhile, a few others would have either increased or decreased the office's funding, but they failed to win approval. With the office facing a heavy caseload and a Supreme Court case awaiting a decision, Public Defender Diane Lozano has said the funding levels in the governor's budget proposal would ease some of those staffing issues.

Laramie County Community College funding: LCCC may win some additional funding if a proposal from Sen. R.J. Kost, R-Powell, stays in the budget. The amendment, which won approval Wednesday evening, would give $3.5 million to the Wyoming Community College Commission to be distributed evenly to the state's seven community colleges.

Another part of the budget amendment would appropriate an additional $316,650 directly to LCCC. The final part of the amendment provided a total of $10 million to the State Treasurer's Office to provide equal matching funds to each community college district.

After being worked on second reading, the state budget will require a third reading in each chamber. Select members of the House and Senate will then convene for a joint conference committee to hash out the differences between the two versions of the budget bill.