By Ramsey Scott
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Via Wyoming News Exchange
CHEYENNE — Gov. Matt Mead laid out his last supplemental budget request Monday to members of the Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee.
While the subsequent discussion ping-ponged between multiple items in the governor’s request, much of the focus from lawmakers was on state employee raises and Mead’s call for the Legislature to find a sustainable funding model for the state’s K-12 education system.
Mead’s budget request of $148 million represents 15 percent of the increase in revenue predicted by the October Consensus Revenue Estimating Group (CREG) report over previous estimates. Included in Mead’s ask are $12.1 million for state employee raises, $30 million for the creation of a emergency fund for future governors to use for unforeseen expenses like costly wildfire efforts, and $19 million toward the external cost adjustment for K-12 schools. Members of the JAC didn’t fight the idea that state employees were due a raise. But some questioned whether it would be directed in a way that would have the most impact.
The $12.1 million for raises is meant to be split, with $3.7 million going to raising the pay schedules for all state employees and $8.4 million for merit-based pay raises.
Several lawmakers wanted to know if the way Mead envisioned a pay increase would be effective in reducing turnover in those positions that are lower on the pay scale. Currently, Wyoming is experiencing more than 18 percent turnover for its employees, according to Mead, and much of that is being seen in positions like custodians or drivers where employees are able to find a much higher pay in the private market.
“(State employees) haven’t seen a raise in a long period of time, and I think it’s time maybe to consider that,” Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, said during the meeting. “If you look at the salaries around the state, from my perspective, when I talk to people and look at the competition from other states, on the high end (of the scale), I think we’re doing well. Where I think we struggle is on the low end.”
Mead said splitting the money between raising the pay scale, which will help raise everyone’s salary, and merit-based pay increases would help address those on the lower end of the pay scale. His budget request has also directed the University of Wyoming to focus on those classified positions on campus like maintenance staff, which was needed in part to ensure investment in new buildings isn’t wasted due to lack of care.
“(Maintenance staff and others) didn’t see some of the raise professors did,” Mead said. “They haven’t gotten the raises. And when you lose those (employees), and you build all these nice facilities over there, you put in jeopardy that huge investment we’ve made.”
Mead said he wanted to reduce the amount of money Wyoming moved from general operating funds into K-12 funding to focus attention on the structural deficit the state has when it comes to funding schools. In his request, Mead moved $87 million of the $187 million in the School Foundation Program Account back into the state’s rainy-day fund, the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account.
“It’s important to clear up where money is coming from and what’s funding what,” Mead said. “If we continue to siphon off funds that traditionally fund government operations and put them in education, then we’re going to say we have a gap in the government operations side.”
While the state is focused on efficiency efforts, a structural deficit of between $300 million to $500 million in education can’t be solved by cutting costs or efficiencies alone, Mead said. And continuing to take from general operating funds to fill gaps in K-12 education funding will eventually lead to major state agencies like the Department of Health facing a budget crisis.
Changes like pooling multiple school districts’ buying power to purchase items like computers and textbooks in bulk could help lower overall costs. But to solve the issue, Mead said there had to be a deeper look at finding revenues to keep schools well funded beyond borrowing from finding other state services.
While Mead’s budget requests were built off the October CREG report, some lawmakers are expecting the January CREG to show about $100 million to $150 million less in state revenues. Mead said while he could only develop his budget requests on the most recent information that was available, he pointed out that his budget requests still left about $300 million in funding on the table that he hoped would eventually be put back into the state’s rainy-day fund.
“If that CREG does come back and it has that significant drop, there’s still room in there to fund my budget as proposed,” Mead said.
Members of the JAC will spend a large part of their five-day meeting schedule this week hearing from state agencies about requests in Mead’s supplemental budget. Any decision on supplemental spending will be made by the Legislature during the general session, which starts Jan. 8.