Education Bills Have Different Missions

Feb 10, 2017

Senate President Eli Bebout makes a point.
Credit Bob Beck

A downturn in the energy economy has caused a crisis in Wyoming education funding. K-12 funding is projected to see a $400 million shortfall at the end of the current two-year budget cycle.

That deficit will grow if lawmakers can’t find a way to address the shortfall, but the House and Senate are taking different approaches towards solving the problem. During an interview Senate Education Chairman Hank Coe of Cody repeated a sentence that’s become a cliché this session.

“I don’t think we can cut our way out of this problem or tax our way out.” 

Coe is serving his 29th year in the Senate and was among those who voted to create the current school funding model. He also was a big supporter of adding money into education when economic times were good. These days Coe is singing a different tune and said they have no other choice but to cut K-12 education funding. But he’s not overly thrilled with the task. 

“I want to maintain the quality of education that I think we’ve funded well over the years and get the most bang for our buck, so yeah it’s a little painful for me. “

Senator Jeff Wasserburger of Gillette is a long time teacher and current school administrator. He also worked to create the initial school funding model. Wasserburger recently noted that test scores and graduation rates have all been going up. He added that it’s brutal to have to remove funding at a time when education in the state is as good as its ever been.

"We will leave this session with something and it will be something that will move us forward, but if we do nothing it will be a big disservice to the state."

“It’s like this thoroughbred horse that we have created that’s just about ready to win the Kentucky Derby and then right before the finish line we are going to pull back on the reins so hard that it flips over backwards.”

Senator Bill Landen of Casper is the sponsor of the recently approved Senate bill that is hoping to remove roughly 60 million dollars from education funding up front. It freezes special education and transportations costs and some other reductions. It also creates a committee that will go into the school funding model and recalibrate it. That is a fancy way of saying that they will tweak the funding model so that districts get less money. 

“We’ve got to try to do some things that stay as far away from the classroom as we can and that in general is what we’ve been trying to do,” said Landen

But Senator Chris Rothfuss worries that if lawmakers go into the funding model to look for savings that they will in fact impact the classroom. 

“That if we go into recalibration during a budget downturn that we may eviscerate the model and we may not like what we come up with,” said Rothfuss.

The Senate is not allowed to propose revenue raising measures, Senate President Eli Bebout said that’s fine with him. Bebout added that tax increases don’t interest him in the least.

“I don’t think the answer is to run taxes and raise taxes right now. Let’s take a real serious look at reductions and how we can do better with less.”

This is despite the fact that educators have been calling for tax increases to address the shortfall. 

The House is approaching the deficit differently. They have passed out a comprehensive bill that also has some freezes and budget cuts, but as Green River Representative John Freeman points out, it tackles the deficit more broadly.

“One of the things that I like about it is that there’s some revenue in there and there’s refocusing of funding streams, so that education will have some money to fill the financial hole that we find ourselves in,” said Freeman.

The House bill would raise a temporary half cent sales tax as soon as the budget reserve account dips below $500 million. That’s about a billion dollars from now. 

That turned out to be a compromise after the House deleted all revenue from the bill and turned around and restored the half penny hike after a closed door caucus. Some Senators predict that the House and Senate bills will probably be melded together. But Speaker of the House Steve Harshman makes it clear that he believes the House Bill is superior legislation.

“The one thing we have given them is something that they have not given us and that is a comprehensive solution. We solved the problem, they push it off on future legislators.”

Behind the scenes some are wondering if the Senate will kill the House bill and the House will defeat the Senate measure. Senate President Eli Bebout admitted that’s a legitimate concern. But he doubts that will happen.

“We will leave this session with something and it will be something that will move us forward, but if we do nothing it will be a big disservice to the state.”

But Gillette Senator Jeff Wasserburger gently disagrees. He pointed out that even if legislation fails, they still have time to take more input and handle the shortfall properly.

“I think everybody needs to take a deep breath, slow down, and realize that we are completely funded for this year and for next year. This is strictly talking about the biennium in 2019 and 2020,” said Wasserburger.

The reason the current funding model was developed in the first place was due to the fact that the state lost a lawsuit over equity in school funding. Wasserburger said if lawmakers don’t take their time, they may lose another school funding lawsuit.