Falling natural gas prices mean the state could have a serious revenue shortfall for the coming fiscal year. As a result, Gov. Matt Mead asked all state agencies to prepare for 8-percent budget cuts. Some agencies say they’ll be able to operate fine with less money, but others are worried. And while a few lawmakers are suggesting alternatives to budget cuts, political experts say it’s unlikely their proposals will be adopted. Wyoming Public Radio’s Willow Belden reports.
WILLOW BELDEN: Each year, Campbell County Memorial Hospital gets money from the state to train its workers. They bring in experts to run special sessions, and they send employees out-of-state to learn about the newest technologies and practices. The hospital’s Baerbel Merrill says dozens of employees participate each year and benefit a lot.
BAERBEL MERRILL: As the medical technology changes and new studies become available, it allows the staff to get the latest practice guidelines. But also, staff that is trained with up to date guidelines in their subject matter stay with an institution.
BELDEN: Merrill says the upshot is that patients get better care. But now, funding for the trainings is in jeopardy. It’s one of the things the Department of Workforce Services would have to cut, under the governor’s budget plan.
Other agencies are also facing difficult cuts. The University of Wyoming has imposed a hiring freeze and could eliminate up to 125 positions. Community colleges would reduce their class offerings. Commercial airline service to remote areas would likely be curtailed. And Game and Fish would have to scale back monitoring of wildlife diseases.
All of this is the result of falling natural gas prices. For every dollar that gas prices go down, the state loses about 100 million dollars in tax revenues. Of course, gas prices could go back up again soon. But the governor wants to prepare for the worst.
MATT MEAD: I heard a report recently that said we may see gas below zero dollars – and that people will be paying people to take gas off their hands this summer. And so I’m trying to be as proactive as possible with the agencies, saying, ‘Let’s look at 8 percent.’ … This is as pre-planning as you can get on this, but I think it’s the right way to go.
BELDEN: The cuts would save the state 75 million dollars. But some lawmakers say there are other – perhaps better – ways to deal with a revenue shortfall. Rep. Mary Throne of Cheyenne is one of them.
MARY THRONE: Over the last few years, we created what’s commonly called the rainy day account. … And so we’ve been rolling surplus dollars into that so that we have a cash account. … We should at least talk about using that money.
BELDEN: The rainy day fund has one-point-five billion dollars in it, which could easily close a budget gap of a few hundred million – at least for the short term. Throne says the state could also channel less money into the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund, which is the state’s long-term savings account.
THRONE: And I think all of those options have to be on the table. … And I feel like by only talking about budget cuts, and not talking about the savings, we’re not having a complete discussion.
BELDEN: Throne says if she’s re-elected, she’ll try to get lawmakers to discuss all those options. But political scientists like Jim King at the University of Wyoming say it’s unlikely the discussion will lead anywhere, because the legislature has a history of being fiscally cautious.
JIM KING: There’s the old joke of ‘Lord give us another boom and we won’t waste this one.’ And I think the last few years the legislature has tried to see that the gains from the natural gas development of the last few years are going to have a much more long-term impact. And so they do want to be very careful. But I think there’s just a general, if you will, small government part of the Wyoming culture that is reflected in the approach the legislators take.
BELDEN: And the majority of legislators, as well as the governor, don’t want to look at alternatives to budget cuts.
MEAD: Some people say, ‘Don’t cut; let’s dip into savings.’ Well if I knew this was a six-month deal, that might be one thing. But if you dip in now and this is a five-year problem, you won’t be able to sustain that.
BELDEN: Legislative committees and the governor are currently considering proposed budget cuts that agencies have submitted. And lawmakers will take another look at the state’s revenue in October. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Willow Belden.