Legislators’ UW budget close to Gordon’s after mark-up

LARAMIE — After spending a week marking-up the state’s budget last week, the Joint Appropriations Committee’s budget for the University of Wyoming looks pretty similar to the one Gov. Mark Gordon recommended in December.

Ahead of the 2021-2022 budget session, UW’s Board of Trustees had asked for its annual block grant to be increased by $15 million.

Instead, legislators on the JAC voted to craft a budget bill that would give $175.2 million to UW for each of the next two years — just enough to continue the services already funded by the Legislature’s block grant.

In UW’s budget request, the university said that $30 million would’ve been used to help hire College of Business professors to ensure its programs remain accredited, increase blockchain programming, boost the stature of the College of Agriculture, and pay for operations at the Science Initiative and Engineering Education and Research building.

Aside from the general block grant, UW Acting President Neil Theobald’s marquee budget proposal had been to ask the Legislature for an extra  $10 million, to be matched by private donations, to establish a $20 million pool for increasing the number of UW professors.

Gordon had recommended only providing $5 million for those endowments. The JAC sided with Gordon, but with a few more strings attached. Under the budget mark-up, 80% of that $5 million would have to be used for College of Agriculture, which was cut disproportionately during UW’s budget cuts of 2016. The other $1 million would need to be used for professorships that are part of UW’s Science Initiative and the Tier 1 Engineering Initiative.

The only addition JAC added to UW’s block grant would fund a clinical assistant professor in veterinary pathology and a diagnostic and disease investigation technician; those two positions would cost $419,000 for the biennium.

Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, said those positions are needed in the State Veterinary Laboratory to “get it up to snuff and meet the needs of producers in Wyoming.”

Sommers’ proposal would force UW to have those positions in place by September “before the livestock sale rush hits.”

“And if they’re not in place, the money goes away,” he said.

While they went along with Gordon’s recommendation to increase the UW School of Energy Resources’s operational budget by $1.3 million, legislators did do a good amount of tinkering with the budgeting for new SER projects.

One of the biggest items up for discussion was a monstrous project planned by UW: The construction of a pilot power-plant producing 25-50MW by burning coal using “flameless pressurized oxy-combustion.”

UW has already been tentatively granted $100 million from the U.S. Department of Energy for the project, which aims to produce emissions of only water and carbon dioxide.

The university had requested $23.3 million in matching funds from Legislature for that project. Gordon had opted to deny any funding.

While Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, had wanted to restore the full $23.3 million requested by UW, the House membership opted for a compromise: Adding language to the budget bill that would provide $12 million in state funding only if the Department of Energy does put up at least $48 million.

If the $12 million is not spent, the money would revert to the Wyoming Energy Authority and could only be spent with the approval of Gordon and the Energy Resources Council, which oversees SER.

House members said that, if that latter scenario were to happen, the unexpended funds could help fund the Energy Commercialization Program that Gordon had proposed establishing in a Jan. 13 letter to legislators.

Gordon had recommended denial of the funding for the power plant because, in part, he said Wyoming’s initiatives to find new uses of coal have “too many disparate efforts pulling in too many directions dissipating our progress collectively,” he said in his letter.

Instead, Gordon recommended appropriating $25 million into a new account to allow him to “provide a focused, singular approach to advancing research through collaboration between the Legislature, my office, the University of Wyoming and counties that are supportive of these investments.”

“A more coordinated and organized approach on our part will better advance this important areas of research,” Gordon wrote in his Jan. 13 letter. “We must act now to protect our coal resources and encourage technologies to respond to changing policies and the marketplace. Wyoming is at the forefront of the nation on policies related to carbon capture, utilization, and storage.”

The JAC effectively ignored that funding request last week.

“We have already some money that could possibly go into this sort of work as we are working through the SER budgets,” said Rep. Tom Walters, R-Casper.

Based on a Sommers proposal, JAC voted to budget an additional $7 million for $7.9 million-worth of carbon engineering research projects that were requested by the university. The committee also voted to deny funding for another $4.4 million.

Kinskey had wanted to provide the full amount for the carbon engineering projects that was requested, while Rep. Andy Schwartz, D-Jackson, had wanted to reduce the carbon engineering funding to $5 million.

“I appreciate the intent of trying to sustain our coal industry and find alternative uses for coal and to create jobs in Wyoming, but I am not convinced that long-term that this is the best use of our moneys in terms of promoting Wyoming’s economy,” Schwartz said. “The coal industry is not going to support the state and what are we going to do as an alternative?”

There was a stronger divide between the House and Senate concerning other funding UW had asked for.

With House members outnumbering their Senate colleagues 7-5 on JAC, House members were able to prevent Senators $1 million from removing from the budget bill that UW asked for to increase its Tier 1 engineering programming.

In turn, House members voted to reduce new endowment funding for Center of Innovation for Flow Through Porous Media to $3 million from the $5 million that had been recommended by Gordon. Senate members on the JAC sided with Gordon on that vote.

Kinskey tried, but failed, to convince his fellow JAC members to cut out $2.5 million that’s budgeted for an endowment for the College of Law.

The legislative session begins Feb. 10.