Senate plays chicken with school districts over funding

By Andrew Graham,

An education budget cut in the Senate budget bill could leave the Legislature vulnerable to  school district lawsuits, education advocates said Wednesday.

On Tuesday evening the Senate voted to halve the external cost adjustment section of the budget bill that allotted $18 million to schools to keep education funding at pace with inflation and other cost increases . The Legislature passed an external cost adjustment in 2016, but some say recent adjustments have been underfunded while cuts and inflation have worn away at school funding levels.

Education advocates argue that the Legislature is now barely funding the minimum of what consultants mandated by the Wyoming Supreme Court say they should. If they drop any lower the Legislature will be in legal trouble, the education lobbyists said.

In 2017, lawmakers ordered consultants to study the education funding model three years earlier than normal. A new consulting firm concluded that the Legislature was funding education $90 million short of what it should to meet the state constitution’s mandate to provide an adequate education on a fair and equal basis to all Wyoming children. Lawmakers rejected the study as flawed.

“I think it puts us below the constitutional floor,” said Ken Decaria, a former senator and current director of government relations for the Wyoming School Boards Association. “That’s problematic,” he said.  

The system for setting school funding levels is derived from a series of rulings by the Wyoming Supreme Court in the 1990s. For years following those rulings, the Legislature funded education at levels well above what the consultants recommended, but after two years of funding cuts, that cushion is gone, said Senate Minority Leader Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie). In recent years, the Legislature has short-changed external cost adjustments, and they have not kept up with inflation and market pressures on teacher salaries, Rothfuss said. The Legislature eliminated an external cost adjustment slated for the 2017-2018 school year.

Rothfuss, who serves on the Joint Education Committee, said this year the committee had set the external cost adjustment amount as low as it could in concordance with the education consultants.

“In my view if we cut $1 we’d be unconstitutional and vulnerable to a lawsuit and it would be the quickest lawsuit ever,” Rothfuss said.

The amount had been added into the budget by the full Joint Appropriations Committee. Former Gov. Matt Mead had recommended the external cost adjustment in his supplemental budget proposal to lawmakers. In his first State of the State address to lawmakers, Gov. Mark Gordon supported the external cost adjustment passed by the Joint Education and Joint Appropriations committees.

The state is midway through a two-year budget. Lawmakers this year are negotiating a “supplementary” budget; not the full scale of education or general government funding that it approves in the constitutionally mandated budget sessions held in even-numbered years.

The Senate’s $9 million cut continues the House versus Senate education funding battle of last year. The House has an advantage on the Joint Appropriations Committee, with seven voting members to the Senate’s five. Though the cost adjustment was approved by the Joint Appropriations Committee, senators on the committee opposed it.

A majority in the Senate argues that K-12 schools are overfunded, particularly in comparison to surrounding states. Senate Appropriations Chairman Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) is a champion of that view. He is not concerned about a lawsuit, he said, the spectre of which has hung over the Legislature for the last few years.

“Anybody could sue anytime,” Bebout told WyoFile on Wednesday. The Legislature still has wiggle room on school funding because it has put class sizes smaller than education consultants said they needed to be, Bebout said.

There are risks in lawsuits for both sides, Bebout argued. If school districts sue, “then we get back to the debate of why do we spend $17,000,” per pupil, an amount higher than neighboring states, he said.  

While the Senate cut the external cost adjustment, the House added $5 million to it.

An amendment from House Appropriations Chairman Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne) — which came after the Senate amendment passed last night — raised a salary increase for educators.

The budget bill offers a 2.1 percent salary increase for other state employees. Nicholas’ amendment raised teacher salary increases from a 1.41 percent increase to 2.1 percent, adding $5 million to the external cost adjustment.

“It treats our K-12 employees the same as the rest of the public employees in the state,” said Kathy Vetter, president of the Wyoming Education Association, which advocates for teachers.

Bebout noted the House’s change, and said he anticipated the difference will end up being negotiated in a conference committee — where the two chambers send representatives to iron out differences in legislation towards the end of the session.

The Senate took significant steps to cut the budget passed by the Joint Appropriations Committee last night. After both chambers’ first round of amending the budget, the Senate’s version spends nearly $25 million less than the House’s.

Lawmakers will likely pass more amendments to the budget bill on Thursday, when the bill comes up for its final reading in both chambers.

Each session, the budget bill and supplemental budget bill are handled differently than other legislation. The JAC approves the proposed legislation, but rather than introducing the bill in the House, the measure is drawn up as two “mirror bills,” then submitted to each chamber. Under normal procedure, bills must be heard in three consecutive readings on three consecutive days. The budget bills instead are heard on first and second reading on two consecutive days, but third reading is postponed a day. Legislators use the intervening day to draw up further amendments to the bills.

People tracking the bills, HB1 – General government appropriations-2 and SF1 – General government appropriations, can see the amendments proposed in each chamber by clicking on the Amendments tab on the LSO website page posting each version of the bill.


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