This week Governor Matt Mead told the legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee that he is proposing cutting 60 million dollars out of the current state budget and he wants to eliminate a number of vacant government positions. He also wants to build the legislative savings account up to $3 billion, raise gas taxes by ten cents a gallon and he opposes expanding Medicaid services in the state. Wyoming Public Radio’s Bob Beck reports that legislators have mixed reactions about the governor’s key proposals.
BOB BECK: As Governor Matt Mead spoke to the legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee he admitted that some of the cuts could be painful, but he said they were necessary because Wyoming is getting less energy revenue and the state budget has doubled over the last ten years.
A quick history, at the end of the 90’s the Wyoming legislature was facing a budget shortfall of roughly 100 million dollars. But thanks to the coalbed methane boom and overall gas development…the state saw revenues increase dramatically and the legislature now has a bank account of around two billion dollars that is being saved for the next bust. But with all that money came a lot of spending. Appropriations Committee member Sue Wallis says lawmakers went a little over the top…
SUE WALLIS: We were rolling in the doe from the energy industry and when there is money there the inclination is to spend it.
TONY ROSS: Yeah, state government has grown over that period of time, but so has everything else. I don’t think it’s just a bunch of drunken sailor’s spending money.
BECK: That is Senator Tony Ross of Cheyenne who will become the Senate President in January. He was in the House of Representatives during the 90’s and noted that the state fell behind in basic construction and was unable to fund a number of necessary services. When the fiscal situation improved, he says some of the money went to update buildings and roads that were neglected over time. And the legislature added some programs. For instance the state made it possible to expand developmental disability and mental health services, among other things.
Speaker of the House Ed Buchanan also says the spending was justified and he is confident that the growth has leveled off.
ED BUCHANAN: We did spend in a lot of places that needed appropriation. You know we did a lot of great things over the past ten years and so naturally you are going to see a little budget creep. But conversely, when times get a little leaner, we will rein it back a little bit and live within our means like we always have.
BECK: But how far should they cut? Buchanan is not positive that proposed six percent cuts are needed. He says things can change quickly though, so he thinks the governor’s proposal is a good starting point for legislators. Incoming House Appropriations Chairman Steve Harshman says it’s less about cuts and more about limiting increases. But Cheyenne Democrat and the incoming House Minority Floor Leader Mary Throne says it’s crazy to talk about cuts when the state has so much money in the bank. She also strongly opposes the governor’s plan to build up the legislative savings account to 3-billion dollars.
MARY THRONE: We don’t need to just amass huge sums of money without discussion. No one’s ever given me a white paper or any sort of analysis as to why that’s necessary. We collect taxpayer money to provide necessary government services. It’s not like we will need the 3 billion dollars at once.
BECK: Throne also claims that had the legislature put income from the permanent mineral trust fund into the state’s general fund, no cuts would be needed. And then there is the Medicaid expansion. For decades Wyoming has looked at ways to reduce Medicaid spending. But an analysis by the state Department of Health shows that if the state expands Medicaid services, Wyoming would conservatively save 50 million dollars. That’s because the federal government would start paying for services that Wyoming currently provides. Over the years, few people have been more concerned about state spending than former Senate Appropriations Chairman John Schiffer. He told a hearing this week that the state cannot afford the 50 million dollars it will have to spend if it doesn’t take the federal money…
JOHN SCHIFFER: We’re gonna spend 50 million dollars for a lesser product. An additional 50 million. Now you wouldn’t do that in business, you wouldn’t do that in your own household, but as legislators we will do it. And that doesn’t make sense to me.
BECK: Cheyenne Representative Ken Esquibel agrees.
KEN ESQUIBEL: I think if there’s any opportunity to supplant general fund money that we are currently using in other programs with federal money…that we should not be walking away from that we should be running to it.
BECK: One last point. The governor has also suggested reallocating some of his proposed budget cuts to use on other spending. Encampment Republican Jeb Steward says that happened when the state made ten percent cuts a few years ago and he claims that actually led to few reductions. In fact he thinks some of that money may have been used to enhance other areas of state government. He says if you are going to reduce the budget… reduce the budget.
JEB STEWARD: With these cuts we create these false revenues that is available for appropriation that contributes…again…to that growth in government.
BECK: Needless to say there will be a lot of discussion when the full legislature gets its hands on the proposed budget in coming weeks. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Bob Beck.