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After A Legislative Session Of Budget Cuts, What Happens Next?

Bob Beck

The Wyoming Legislature just wrapped up a session where $430 million was cut from the existing budget to make up for major losses of revenue connected with COVID-19.Cuts to education were avoided when the House and Senate couldn't reach a deal on a school finance bill. Lawmakers also rejected possible revenue increases to offset those cuts. Some like Jackson Rep. Mike Yin worries there are more cuts to come.

"Yes, I'm very concerned." Yin wonders what additional reductions could look like. "I mean if you make cuts that come after that, you're gonna be cutting into the bone," said Yin.

This session the legislature agreed to cut millions from the Department of Health, higher education and across state government. Casper Rep. Steve Harshman said they had little choice.

"Well, I think the issue we're dealing with is coal. I just want to kind of remind everybody again, we're down over 200 million tons a year. So it's $400 million a year in revenue to the state, not to mention all the jobs and the economic activity. So that's what we're facing," noted Harshman.

Credit Bob Beck

Oil and natural gas also had a rough 2020. Some had hoped taxes would be passed to help offset some of those cuts, but Majority Floor Leader Albert Sommers said there was little interest in revenue bills. He didn't even bring up simple things like a tobacco tax or a gas tax up due to the lack of interest. So without that revenue where is the state heading?

"You can always cut more, the question is where are you going to cut?"Sommers is hopeful that won't happen.

"We'll know more by next January, kind of after the economy settles and we see, kind of, where oil settles out," said Sommers. "We'll have a better idea of where we're at, but it's a struggle getting revenue."

What Sommers is referencing is the fact that oil and gas prices are doing very well right now and it's possible that the state might see a much improved economic outlook next year. And there's something else, while the legislature was cutting budgets, the federal government passed a bill giving Wyoming over a billion dollars in American Rescue Plan money.

Senate Majority Leader Ogden Driskill said the legislature will meet in July to disperse that money, but he admits that could offset cuts.

"I think you'll see some money go into health care. I think you'll see some mental health type things, some of that funding is in there and we're looking at it now," said Driskill. "And so, I do think you'll see, we're going to spend money that's given to us. Some people like it, some don't."

Many were elected to come to Cheyenne and cut state government and so the federal government has thrown a curveball at those plans. Driskill added that the federal government probably delayed the need for any taxes too. The other thing Driskill pointed out is that despite the negativity surrounding 2020, he's seeing some positive things across the state.

"Wyoming's really starting to grow on its own in some certain areas. I don't think a lot of people see it, but I see it in our towns. There's construction in almost every town going on now," observed Driskill. "And I think we're on the path to a temporary recovery, but a recovery and consequently, with the federal help that's there. I think we've got some time to see Wyoming grow into it. And that doesn't mean we won't look at revenue in the future, but I'm not positive, it's necessary immediately."

Casper Rep. Steve Harshman was part of legislation to try and help coal last a little longer, but he noted that growth in small manufacturing and technology also appears to be part of Wyoming's future.

"I think our future's bright and we're gonna have areas of our state are going to really grow. But how do we bring all this along and think about what we're gonna be in the future? We were a state before coal, and we're gonna be a state after coal," said Harshman.

Did Wyoming dodge another bullet with the help of federal aid? Only time will tell.

Bob Beck retired from Wyoming Public Media after serving as News Director of Wyoming Public Radio for 34 years. During his time as News Director WPR has won over 100 national, regional and state news awards.
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