Lawmakers vote to include nonprofits in second round of grant programs

CHEYENNE — After nonprofits were deemed ineligible for the first of a series of grant programs set up by the Wyoming Legislature last month, a group of lawmakers advanced a motion Wednesday to make them eligible for the remaining programs.

Nonprofits were initially excluded from the federally funded programs, which have been set up by the Wyoming Business Council. But some lawmakers said Wednesday it was never their intent to exclude the state’s 5,000-plus nonprofits from qualifying for the grants.

Several members of the Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Interim Committee expressed frustration with the exclusion of nonprofits from the first grant program, which launched Monday and offers stipends of up to $50,000 to Wyoming-based businesses with 50 employees or fewer.

The bill that set up the programs took a winding path through the Legislature, but ultimately made no explicit mention of whether nonprofits were eligible. During the meeting, Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, noted an amendment to explicitly exclude nonprofits from eligibility had failed in the Senate during the two-day May special session.

“The clear intention of the Legislature was to keep with the customary practice and the legal interpretation of those definitions that it could be for profit or for nonprofits,” Nethercott said.

The apparent miscommunication between the Legislature and the Wyoming Business Council left nonprofits ineligible for the first program, which has a pot of $50 million. But lawmakers decided Monday to do everything they can to make them eligible for the remaining two grant programs, which are earmarked to receive most of the funds – $275 million in total.

Members of the committee approved a motion to directly recommend inclusion of nonprofits in a letter to the Wyoming Business Council, and they advanced a bill that would explicitly extend eligibility to them if the Legislature convenes for another special session. The Wyoming Nonprofit Network also plans to meet with the Business Council on Thursday to discuss options.

The COVID-19 pandemic and its economic effects have left many Wyoming nonprofits in dire situations. Laramie County Senior Services, for example, may lose all of its funding from the city of Cheyenne for the upcoming fiscal year.

Wyoming Business Council CEO Josh Dorrell, in a news conference last week, said the first grant program aimed to first help businesses excluded from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, and the council wanted to “keep it clean” for the first program.

“I don’t really think of it as an exclusion from the entire program,” Dorrell said. “I think of it as this particular first portion was intended to help those small businesses that were hurting.”

Dorrell added nonprofits would be considered for the second and third grant programs. Given his statement, combined with the committee’s move Wednesday, nonprofits seem likely to be made eligible for the remaining grant funds.

But for the first program, which has already received more than 2,000 applications since opening Monday, it was too late to change the rules – much to the frustration of Nethercott and several other lawmakers.

“Here we are now trying to determine if we have the time to (include nonprofits), what that looks like and is there any money left,” Nethercott said. “Can we trust (the Business Council) to get it done when clearly the effort was strong-armed the other way?”

Others on the committee, however, noted the Legislature could have adopted language to explicitly include nonprofits in the initial program during the special session in May.

“Part of this is our fault,” Rep. Dan Furphy, R-Laramie, said. “We did not make it clear enough that nonprofits were part of this ... so I don’t blame it all on the Wyoming Business Council.”

The remaining grant programs, and the rules and eligibility requirements for them, are expected to be rolled out sometime in early July.