Legislators want more details on UW budget requests

LARAMIE — Discussion of the University of Wyoming’s budget request for the 2012-2022 biennium accounted for most of the Joint Appropriation Committee’s work on Wednesday, with legislators ultimately telling UW officials they want more information about how an increase to the block grant would be spent.

Gov. Mark Gordon recommended in November that the Legislature deny most of the $65.8 million funding increase that UW had requested for the upcoming biennium.

Included in the funding request was $30 million that UW had asked for to boost its general operations.

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.

Gordon recommended a complete denial of that request, and JAC co-chairman Rep. Bob Nicholas, R-Cheyenne, said on Wednesday that UW’s request will be much more competitive if university officials provide more specificity about how that $30 million would be spent.

“I think you notice a reticence from the Legislature to kick back ($15) million from the $40 million that was cut,” he said. “I think we need specifics and the benefits that will be derived and what you’ll use it for as opposed to just kind of a general ballpark, softball pitch — and what we’ll be missing if we don’t do it. At the end of the day, we have to make an economic analysis of the pros and the cons and where to best put the limited dollars that we have. … The better educated you can get us about what you’re going to do with those dollars, the more accurate and informed decision we can make.”

Acting President Neil Theobald said an increase in block grant funding was important to be able to reverse some of the loss of faculty and other programmatic support that waned after budget cuts that began in 2016.

Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander, said the idea of trying to bring back pre-2017 funding levels ignores the Legislature’s ongoing funding challenges.

“When you reduced $40 million a couple years ago, that was largely due to the state’s position, and the state’s position hasn’t changed,” Larsen said. “There really hasn’t been anything to rectify our position to allow us to rectify (UW’s) position.”

However, there wasn’t any discussion from legislators at Wednesday meeting about the possibility of any additional budgets cuts.

As UW officials walked through their budget request, legislators debated the merits of each project and at least entertained the possibility of funding some projects that Gordon had rejected.

A few other programs rejected by Gordon even earned the vocal endorsement from a few legislators on JAC.

One proposal Gordon recommended not funding is $3 million for UW to use to raise private dollars to create a $12 million endowment to advance some of the College of Education programmatic changes as part of the on-going Trustees’ Education Initiative.

“When we get to mark-up, I will be promoting it,” said Rep. Andy Schwartz, D-Jackson.

As with the $30 million request for general operations, legislators also wanted more specific information about some other funding requests, like the tens of millions of dollars for various research programs aimed at helping Wyoming’s economy that were proposed by the School of Energy Resources.

“We need to have somebody educate us on the specifics of each one of these projects,” Nicholas said. “It’s an incredible lift and we’re basically going on good faith. … All we have is (SER Director Mark Northam) sitting here for 15 minutes on each project, and you’ve listed about 15 projects. How do we know who the business partners are? How do we know what the likelihood of success is?”

Nicholas’s counterpart from the Senate expressed a similar sentiment.

“We’ve got to convince our other 88 members and then be able to go home to our constituents and tell them that we’re once again spending millions and millions of dollars at the University of Wyoming,” said JAC co-chairman Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton. “Anything you can do … helps with that endeavor. And if you provide nothing, we’re going to make a decision and move on because I don’t think we’ve got the information to make the best decision that we could.”

Northam expressed confidence he’d be able to satisfactory answer the legislators’ questions.

One of the larger SER funding requests rejected by Gordon was $18.7 million as a cost share for a $100 million grant from the Department of Energy for the design and construction Flameless Pressurized Oxy-combustion technology at the UW Central Energy plant.

While that project wasn’t high on the trustees’ priority lists, Northam said that project is the most important to his organization.

“This is our best opportunity for keeping coal in the heat and power market for the foreseeable future,” he said. “It’s a combustion platform that can use a flexible range of fuels and it emits a pure stream of CO2 and water out the back end. It eliminates a lot of the need for bolting on expensive carbon capture facilities in order to manage the carbon dioxide emissions from a typically power plant.”

Northam said it’s still not known whether UW would be able to provide the funding to keep that project alive if the Legislature doesn’t make an appropriation.

The endowment requests for SER that Gordon is not supporting include:

  • $18.7 million as a cost share for a $100 million grant from the Department of Energy for the design and construction Flameless Pressurized Oxy-combustion technology at the UW Central Energy plant.
  • $2 million for development of a “pre-commercial technology solution” for coal in Gillette
  • $2 million for a combustion test facility at UW

Gordon did back $8.8 million for UW’s proposed carbon engineering efforts, including:

  • $1.7 million to demonstrate “the performance of a coal-derived asphalt paving material on a suitable road location,”
  • $1.2 million for “batch commercial manufacture of a developed dry methane reforming catalyst for converting CO2 in the presence of natural gas into valuable petrochemical products.”
  • $1.8 million in funding for carbon engineering for “undertaking pilot plant testing of UW-patented thermo-chemical processing of coal to establish the parametric engineering databook in preparation for undertaking a prefeasibility engineering study.”
  • $1.2 million is requested for “pre-commercial manufacture of construction materials derived from Wyoming (Power River Basin) coal and construction of a full-size building for demonstration purpose.”
  • $1.1 million for “pre-commercial manufacture and testing of carbon fiber and related material derived from Wyoming (Power River Basin) coal in automotive application lightweight composite materials and for use in electrical energy storage products with commercial entities.
  • $1.1 million has been requested for the “conduct of agricultural field trials of a coal-based soil amendment product augmented with Wyoming-sourced nutrient material.” Field testing of that soil amendment is planned to be conducted in collaboration with the Wyoming Sugar Beet Association and private farmers.
  • $700,000 is being requested to “scale-up manufacture and field testing of polymeric and coating materials derived from Wyoming (Power River Basin) coal, in concert with a commercial chemical supply company.”