Legislature Prepares For Budget Battle

Feb 12, 2016

Senate President Phil Nicholas
Credit Wyoming Legislature

After a week of relative calm, the Wyoming legislative session is about to get a little more heated. Falling energy prices has led to a decline of over 500 million dollars in state revenue.

On Monday, the Wyoming legislature will look at crafting the next two year budget with a series of bills that address topics ranging from general government operations to building projects.  

For the last couple of months the legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee has been making headlines as they’ve rejected Medicaid Expansion, cut teacher pay, cut millions across the board, and reduced spending for a number of low income and elderly programs. This while approving matching money for UW athletics and building projects. Senate Minority Leader Chris Rothfuss is unimpressed with their work.

“And I don’t think they are judicious cuts, I don’t think think they are well thought through, we are cutting programs that are effectively investments in the state that will lead to more cost in the future. Those are never the type of cuts you want to make. ”

Back in December, Rothfuss thought the state had enough in savings to avoid most budget cuts. That’s why he’s been dismayed by across the board cuts that will force some state agencies to reduce millions from their existing budgets.

“The Joint Appropriations Committee decided they wanted to do their own across the board one percent cuts and they just hacked through that, they want one percent additional cuts next year, two percent the year after that, and there’s not a rational basis for that when we still have one point eight billion dollars in the checking account and we need to operate a state in the years to come.”

The budget needs to be a vision, not a random cutting spree.

“The budget needs to be a vision, not a random cutting spree,” said House Minority Leader Mary Throne. Thorne questioned a number of the budget cuts.

“And their cuts seem to be to programs that nobody has ever had complaints about, programs that work well, and don’t cost that much money. But they were just trying to get to a certain number.”

Both appropriations chairman say they were trying to get spending as close to revenues as possible and then use rainy day funds to balance the budget. House Chairman Steve Harshman said they just went through the budget request by request.

“And then where it comes out it comes out. And then we work a budget balancer at the end. So it’s not a thing of pitting K-12 against this, road construction, or against UW Athletics.”

But the state’s top Republican is shaking his head. Governor Matt Mead said he’s frustrated that the committee ignored many of his budget recommendations, most notably expanding Medicaid. He said by doing that, the state would have received enough federal money to hold off spending cuts. But even without that, Mead said lawmakers made cuts they didn’t have to.

“You see the cuts they’ve had to make just to avoid borrowing from and paying back the rainy day fund. People understand we have to make cuts, but they aren’t gonna understand that their sewer system doesn’t work and we are still just building up the rainy day fund. It doesn’t make sense.”

But to Senate President Phil Nicholas it makes perfect sense. He said Wyoming’s long-term revenue picture looks bleak, especially with the loss of coal revenues the state had relied on to fund education. He added that if the legislature starts reducing spending now, it won’t have to come back and make major budget cuts in the future.  

“So if you say we are going to have a shortfall, if you start early you can make major adjustments by reducing small amounts. But if you fail to take action, three or four years later you will create a cliff that’s too large for the tax base in Wyoming to pick up,” said Nicholas.

House Appropriations Chairman  Harshman predicts that some of the cuts won’t make it to the final budget. For example he expects pushback on the reduction of education money and to literacy programs. Harshman said the biggest reason for not spending more out of savings now, is because without the millions the state used to get from coal leases, Wyoming may be forced to use those savings to pay for schools in the future. Harshman said a discussion over whether to increase taxes to pay for education will need to begin soon.