Senate, House sharply divided over budget again


By Andrew Graham, WyoFile.com

For the second year in a row, the House and Senate differ by around $80 million on the state’s budget, after senators made cuts to their version and representatives added money to theirs.

The gulf is again widest on education, with the chambers jousting this year over an “external cost adjustment” to match education funding to the pace of inflation and costs increases.

But the budgets also differ in other areas, both small and large, from cuts to a tribal liaison program to a Senate move to sell one of Wyoming’s two state planes.

The measures are HB1 – General government appropriations and SF1 – General government appropriations.

The Joint Appropriations Committee writes the proposed budget, but the measure is drawn up as two “mirror bills,” then submitted to each chamber where members make amendments. Differences are reconciled during negotiations by a conference committee or committees appointed by leadership. Those negotiations can drag out to the last day of the session.

Wyoming’s two-year budget for state government — education funding aside — is currently $2.85 billion and lawmakers now propose to surpass $3 billion.

To meet the cost of Wyoming’s public schools, including $18 million for the external cost adjustment, the JAC’s supplemental budget put Wyoming’s public schools budget at about $1.76 billion for the 2019-2020 period.

Education and general government taken together, the JAC recommended that Wyoming spend a total of $4.76 billion.

The proposed budget equates to roughly $4,100 per citizen, per year, when using estimated population figures from the 2017 census.

As of Friday, the House and the Senate were roughly $52.3 million apart on the general government aspects of the budget, according to an estimate by the Legislative Service Office. The Senate cut around $22.8 million from the levels the JAC recommended. The House spent nearly $30 million above the recommendation, half of that for new computers, software, personnel and other costs associated with a potential corporate income tax.

In education, the difference is now at $28 million

Some education advocates say the state is close to a lawsuit over education funding because school spending has dropped nearly to unconstitutional levels. While the House looks to muscle through more money, the Senate is playing chicken with school districts through cuts. Several senators last week voiced a willingness to go to court.

After halving the external cost adjustment earlier in the week, the Senate considered two amendments to SF1 to put money back into it and ultimately rejected both. The first amendment, brought by Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie), would have restored $9 million the Senate cut out of the $18 million total cost adjustment approved by the JAC. The external cost adjustment has been endorsed by the Senate Education Committee and both former Gov. Matt Mead and Gov. Mark Gordon.

“There is really only one outcome if we pass an ECA that’s below that level,” Rothfuss said, “and that is a losing lawsuit.”

But several senators dismissed Rothfuss’ worries about a lawsuit. Longtime Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper) argued that lawmakers were elected and voters would remove them if the state disliked how they treated education.

“I don’t think there’s any appropriation that is constitutional or unconstitutional other than the appropriation made by the Legislature,” Scott said.

Sen. Dave Kinskey (R-Sheridan) said the potential for litigation is not as sure as Rothfuss maintained.

“No lawsuit has been filed yet. And I’ll tell you why,” Kinskey said. “The position is just not that clear, not that firm. I remember this old lawyer in Sheridan. He used to tell me that any reasonable settlement is better than taking a chance on what a judge or a jury might do.

“Nine million dollars is within what’s reasonable in terms of a cost of living adjustment. I urge a strong no vote,” Kinskey said.

Rothfuss’ amendment failed 8-22. A subsequent amendment brought by Sen. Jeff Wasserburger (R-Gillette) to add $4.5 million back in failed on a closer vote, 11-19.

Hours after the Senate had finished its budget, the House put more money into education Thursday. 

On Thursday night House Appropriations Chairman Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne) brought a late amendment to raise the House proposed increase to $37 million. The amendment increased a proposed pay raise for professional staff at schools from 2.1 percent to 3.97 percent. The 2.1 percent raise was added by the House on Tuesday and matched raises slated for other state employees.

Thursday night’s amendment brings teachers’ raises above those of other state employees. However, education funding is administered as a block grant, giving school districts leeway to use the money for things other than raises.

House leadership brought the amendment late during debate over the budget that kept the chamber working until after 10 p.m on Thursday. At the time, its proponents couldn’t confidently estimate the cost of the increase to the external cost adjustment, raising skepticism from some House members.

“I just want a dollar figure,” said Rep. Bill Pownall (R-Gillette).

Though the House has backed Speaker of the House Steve Harshman’s (R-Casper) efforts to stem the Senate’s education cuts and raise funding for schools, the late amendment was nearly a bridge too far.

Through this session and the last one, Harshman and his leadership team have usually been able to whip 44-45 votes for their initiatives — lumping the House’s nine Democrats in with 36 Republicans. Opposition has come from 15-16 members most committed to restricting and cutting state spending.

Thursday’s education spending increase passed with 35 votes.

Fifteen House members voted against the budget itself.

In the Senate, Sens. Cale Case (R-Lander) and Tom James (R-Green River) joined Democratic Sens. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) and Liisa Anselmi-Dalton (D-Rock Springs) to vote against the budget.

The House also amended HB1 to include $5 million for law enforcement agencies to pay for school resource officers — law enforcement to protect schools. Though the money is on the general government side of spending, some school districts have paid for the officers themselves.

Spending is just a piece of what the budget does. Moving money between Wyoming’s various accounts also shows the priorities of lawmakers.

Both House and Senate versions of the budget move $50 million out of the School Foundation Program account, which pays for education. But they’re sending it to two different places.

The House is putting the money in a reserve account to back up education.

Senators created a new account, called the School Structural Deficit Reserve Account. Unlike the reserve account the House is using, and despite the new account’s name, the Structural Deficit Reserve Account wouldn’t automatically support education funding. It would require action from lawmakers to spend it.

A proposed corporate income tax designed to tap large corporations doing business in Wyoming in the retail and hospitality arenas comes with a price tag of about $15 million. The Wyoming Department of Revenue estimated it would incur a one-time cost of $10 million to purchase software. It will need another $5 million to meet continuing costs for personnel and other administrative and operating expenses, according to Dan Noble, the head of the DOR.

The House amended HB1 to cover those DOR costs, but the Senate did not. The Senate has not yet considered the proposed corporate income tax, House Bill 220 – National Retail Fairness Act. If senators pass the bill and choose to pay for the tax’s collection, senators can adopt the House’s position, Senate President Drew Perkins (R-Casper) said Friday.  

There are numerous budget notes that issue directives that are loosely budget related, or that use appropriations to spur new state initiatives.

The Senate voted to sell one of the state’s two airplanes, a goal conservative House members have had for years. The Senate would sell the plane and direct the proceeds to contracting air service for state employees.

In the House, Rep. Sara Burlingame (D-Cheyenne) convinced her colleagues to adopt  an amendment to give $500,000 to the Department of Health, to be allotted as grants to food banks.

Both House and Senate voted to allot $1 million to the University of Wyoming to help with athletic recruitment. The $1 million is in addition to $8 million that was already in the biennial budget to entice athletes to perform for UW.

The House budget also creates a large task force to consider the future of Wyoming post-secondary education as it relates to economic development initiatives. Called Wyoming’s Tomorrow Task Force, the group consists of two lawmakers from each chamber along with representatives from UW, Wyoming’s community colleges, the Department of Education and two representatives from “business and industry.”

Also at the University, senators chose to shift $2 million from an appropriation for UW’s Science Initiative and directed it instead to the School of Engineering. Later, the Senate also directed an additional $2 million from UW’s general appropriation to the engineering school. Last year Lawmakers allotted $85 million toward building the Science Initiative, where construction is already under way. This year, UW had asked for an additional $2 million for academic programming to go with the new building.

Other budget items show the Legislature shifting away from previous priorities. For the last several years, lawmakers have quibbled over whether to fully fund tribal liaisons in the governor’s office. The positions are state employees who maintain communication between Wyoming’s two sovereign tribal governments and the state.

Since last year, the state has paid for just one tribal liaison, though there are two tribal governments, the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone.

This year, the Joint Appropriations Committee voted to fully fund the two positions at the urging of Rep. Lloyd Larsen (R-Lander), a House Appropriations member and chairman of the Select Committee on Tribal Relations. But the Senate halved the funding with a budget amendment.

The House left it in.

Senate Select Committee on Tribal Relations Chairman Cale Case (R-Lander) later urged senators to replace the money. He accused the Legislature of “micromanagement” over “a very small amount of money.”

“Every day that goes by without these tribal liaisons is a worse day on the reservation,” Case said. His amendment to replace the funding failed with only five senators voting in favor.