Lawmakers Talk Budget Cuts With An Eye On Education

Dec 16, 2016

Members of the Appropriations committee discuss prison issues with Senator Stephan Pappas.
Credit Bob Beck

 


It’s been a rough year for state officials. A greater than expected revenue decline last spring forced lawmakers to cut $67 million out of existing budgets, and the governor was forced to follow-up with an additional $250 million. While revenues are starting to show some moderate improvement, lawmakers will soon be debating the wisdom of even more cuts, especially as a revenue shortfall for education looms.

During a meeting before the Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee this week, Governor Matt Mead reiterated a stance that he’s taken for several months. He does not favor any additional budget cuts out of the state’s general fund.

“I do not think that we need to cut further. The budget is balanced, we haven’t felt the full effect, and in fact as we look historically to the 2009-2010 biennium we see that we that we are not only relatively flat to that budget, but in fact we are reduced in terms of dollars and in terms of positions.”

The appropriations committee has the final say when it comes to budget matters. During hearings this week, members expressed concern that the Department of Health undertook cuts that are impacting communities. Other agencies are also on the margins and some lawmakers are pondering ways to restore some money. Sheridan Senator Bruce Burns said  despite the governor’s wishes, there will be additional cuts and it won’t be pleasant. 

“You’ve got people whose lives depend on some of the money we’re spending here.  It’s not pleasant at all in any sense.”

Incoming Speaker of the House Steve Harshman said the majority of cuts this year came from constitutionally mandated agencies like Health, the University of Wyoming and others. Harshman added that in the next round they may need to look and programs that have been added on over the last several years.

“When you look at those things, you have to pull back on some of those.”

Laramie Democrat Cathy Connolly is also a member of the JAC. She is distressed by the budget cut talk. She said some of the cuts that were made this year went way too far.

“We saw as far as I’m concerned some pretty draconian cuts in the department of health programs that honestly kick issues down the road that are not supporting some of our most vulnerable populations.”

Connolly has similar concerns about some cuts in the Department of Family Services. She said cuts have reduced funding for a number of community programs. 

“Our individuals with developmental disabilities, with behavioral health, suicide prevention, all of those kinds of programs are being cut.”

One of the reasons many lawmakers are discussing more cuts is because of education. With the coal industry on the decline, forecasters say that Wyoming is looking at a 700 million dollar shortfall for education over the next two years. While K-12 education did see cuts this time, some lawmakers and the governor think that is a place to see even more savings. Connolly pointed out that there is money available if the state changes its savings policy.

“Right now what we do is funnel money directly into coffee cans for savings, maybe we need to kind of capture that money before it goes into savings and decide whether that’s an appropriate thing to do at this point in time. I mean the reality is that it is raining.”

While not committing to anything, Representative Harshman admitted that options like that could be helpful in the short term as they wait for the economy to turn around.

Worland Representative Michael Greear said when it comes to education, all ideas need to be on the table. 

“There is no way we can cut ourselves out of the problem with the schools, there is no way we could tax ourselves out of the problem with the schools, there will have to be a combination of that, plus diverting the funds as you just asked.”

Incoming Speaker of the House Steve Harshman agreed that they need a thoughtful approach. 

Somewhere in the middle reality will surface and we’ll break that up into smaller pieces and go to work on them.”

But he said whatever they do they need to find a solution quickly, because they don’t have enough savings to balance the state budget four years from now.