Requests for state funding dwindle amid bleak revenue forecast

Feb 17, 2012

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HOST INTRO: Wyoming lawmakers are about to start budget work, with the knowledge that revenue projections have dropped substantially since last fall.  State agencies are being told that most budgets will not increase, and that they should be prepared to cut their budgets for a total of 12 percent over the next three years.  It should mean that the days of sticking in big money amendments into the budget during debates are probably over for a while.  Bob Beck reports.

BOB BECK:  This is the waiting area outside the Wyoming House of Representatives.  It’s where lobbyists have access to legislators to discuss bills and amendments with them.  Normally the week before the legislature debates the budget, it is loaded with people looking for funding.  But very few are looking for help this year.  House majority floor leader Tom Lubnau.

TOM LUBNAU: Well it’s pretty obvious how much money we have, it would be a waste of time.

BECK: Rachel Girt is one of the few looking for money anyway.  She is hoping for some funding for child advocacy centers to deal with a 97-percent increase in child abuse victims that have come to centers since 2006.  But Girt says it’s tough.

RACHEL GIRT: No, everybody has been very gracious and listening, but everybody is still saying it’s a tough situation this year.  So not necessarily a lot of promises.

BECK: On the other side of the building Senator Michael Von Flatern, a member of the Appropriations committee says he still gets requests, but he notes that people don’t have a ton of confidence when they approach him.

MICHAEL VON FLATERN:  People start out with, ‘I realize it’s tight this year, I realize you don’t have the money.  And then they usually go into a spiel about well … I just need.’  (Laughs) So there is a different attitude.

BECK: And even legislators appear to have heard the message.

VON FLATERN: The bill numbers are way down.  I think that’s proof that people are really listening.  And then you add that to the fact the bills I have seen so far, any of them that had much money in it the sponsor has said, well I think we probably could make some adjustments here.  So people realize we are going to live within our means.

BECK: And most say, that is just what this is.  Bill Mai is the legislatures top budget official.  He says cuts could come in the future, but for the most part, cuts won’t occur this year.

BILL MAI: These actions are seen as big cuts to government, but really all it is is pressing pretty hard on the breaks to slow the increases.

BECK: But Mai says the legislature will have to address a shortfall in Medicaid funding that could constitute some cuts in the health department and earlier this week Senate appropriations committee chairman Phil Nicholas admitted that will be a challenge. 

But the greater challenge will come on Tuesday when the house and senate begin budget work.  While people have been careful with spending requests so far, Senator Von Flatern says things could change.

VON FLATERN: What I’m really waiting to see is the budget itself on the floors.  There is a little pot money left over.  I’m curious if there is going to be four times that much requested or pretty much that much requested, I really don’t have any doubts that we’ll get less than that amount requested.

BECK: But while some are concerned about the difficulty in getting new dollars, longtime lobbyist Lynn Birleffi who represents a number of travel and retail groups says she appreciates the deliberate approach lawmakers are taking.

LYNN BIRLEFFI: I have been in situations ten years ago when there were just across the board cuts.  And they are always bad because agencies have funding from different sources.  And if you make general fund cuts across the board, you can just decimate some agencies.  I think they have been very careful, very prudent, and have done their best, really.

BECK: Senate appropriations Chairman Phil Nicholas told lawmakers that natural gas prices could quickly improve if there is a sudden prolonged cold snap this winter or a heat wave this summer.  He urged fellow Senators to pray for those things to occur.  For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Bob Beck.