Wyoming lawmakers set to begin budget work
The Wyoming Legislature is shifting into budget mode as it begins work on its $2.8 billion budget. The budget is about $200 million less than the one it approved two years ago, but it also benefits from the federal American Rescue Plan or ARPA money that state lawmakers have used to strategically replace some cuts and invest for the future.
Over the last couple of years, some of the budget discussions were contentious. Last year it was tough because of the major losses in revenue the state faced. Senate Revenue Committee Chairman Cale Case noted that it's been a bumpy ride for a while.
"The loss that we've seen in mineral revenues since 2014, and it's over a billion dollars, [is] roughly equivalent to the amount of this ARPA funding. So file that away in your mind and think that we're trying to figure out what to do with this funding, but we have lost that much mineral revenue in the past six to eight years," said Case.
Which made people cranky. But Case doubts there will be much consternation this year. Jackson Sen. Mike Gireau is a member of the Joint Appropriations Committee (JAC). He said improved energy prices coupled with the ARPA money made putting this year's budget together much more enjoyable.
"A lot of the cuts that were made last year have been restored, especially in the Department of Health and Family Services. So this budget was fairly neutral," said Gireau. "The highlights, of course, are the market adjustment for the employees. I think we were a little short on what we did for schools. I think a teacher pay (increase) needs to be in the (school funding) model. It's not."
Static salaries have led many state employees to seek jobs elsewhere, so the JAC accepted the governor's recommendation to raise salaries for government, community college and University of Wyoming employees, including those at Wyoming Public Media. But the committee only approved part of a request to raise the salaries for those who work in the K-12 system. Some lawmakers are expected to propose amendments to change that.
The committee also rejected a $7 million request to fund the suicide prevention hotline. Representatives from Governor Mark Gordon's office urged the appropriations committee to consider adding that money back on the floor. Gillette Sen. Jeff Wasserburger said additional mental health money, in general, is needed.
"Wyoming's track record on mental health has not been very good. And in fact, I understand we're back to number one in suicides in our state, even though over time the legislature has tried to address that, and so, I do believe that we need to try to do something more," said Wasserburger.
House Appropriations Committee member Andy Schwartz from Jackson said the committee did restore some cuts that deal with people in need.
"We got some money for Wyoming home services, for instance, which is providing services to senior citizens still living in their homes. I think we can do more for the citizens to keep them out of nursing homes because it's not good for them and it's not good for the state's finances," said Schwartz.
But there's an area he would like to see prioritized.
"I don't think we can ever spend enough money to help juveniles at risk because when they become productive members of society, they help Wyoming," added Schwartz.
And there are amendments to do just that. At the recommendation of the governor, the committee is setting aside some money for the future. Jackson Sen. Mike Gireau expects that to generate some discussion.
"We took a lot of that money and put it into savings, which was a fairly conservative approach. You know, funding the Wildlife Trust Fund, putting some money in the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund and the Common School Fund were conservative moves of spending money into savings that we had converted those federal dollars," said Gireau.
In conjunction with that, the Appropriations Committee has sponsored a separate measure that would ask the public to support a constitutional amendment that would allow the legislature to take earnings out of the permanent mineral trust fund and place them into an investment account. The hope is that it will generate revenue for the future to make up for losses from the energy industry. That proposal is currently in the House. Senate Revenue Chairman Cale Case likes the idea.
"I like generating the dough. Earnings has become a very important part of our portfolio. We're evolving into a little bit of trust fund babies. I don't always like that," said Case. "But honestly until we have meaningful tax reform, we're not going to be able to pay our way as we go. And tax reform is falling flat in this session."
While there will be discussions, increased revenues and federal dollars have made things better. Jackson Rep. Andy Schwartz said he could come up with a hundred things they could have funded, but generally, he's happy. The House and Senate will consider budget amendments in the coming week.