SHERIDAN — Proposals in last week’s Joint Interim Revenue Committee meeting could alleviate some of Wyoming’s education deficit.
Two diversion bills that could free up about $130 million were tentatively approved. Legislators will vote at next month’s meeting whether to send them on for approval at February legislative session.
Of the $130 million, about $90 million would come from severance tax payments and go into the state’s general fund. Rep. Mike Madden, R-Buffalo, said the money would probably go toward education, but that is not a guarantee.
The other approximate $40 million would come from money earned on state land leases.
Of the about $150 million earned annually from the leases, the bill proposes to use one-third for education. Currently, the state uses around $8 million of those earnings on education and puts the rest in savings accounts.
“It’d be nice to be able to save more, but the point is we need to save a little bit less now because we don’t have the flexibility in our budgets anymore,” Madden said. “That’s what’s persuading me.”
Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, was more hesitant. He said a temporary diversion away from permanent funds is dangerous because it could become permanent.
That would damage the long-term finances of the state, Kinskey said. He said he will likely vote against the proposal unless there is “an absolute fail-safe way to make it temporary.”
Rep. Mark Kinner, R-Sheridan, said he is uncomfortable sending any bills forward to the February session until he sees Gov. Matt Mead’s budget in early December, which will provide an estimate of how much the state can spend in the 2019-20 biennium.
Kinner said that even if the diversion bills are approved, there will still be an education shortfall.
“It’s not like we’re rolling in dough,” he said.
Local educators disagree. Sheridan County School District 1 superintendent Marty Kobza cited the more than $1 billion earned in interest last year from Wyoming’s $20 billion in investments.
“To say that we’re short on revenue when we just earned $1.17 billion in interest … that’s a difficult pill to swallow,” he said.
Kobza said he also believes the state is entering a boom cycle again because of the increase in oil prices, so using money from savings accounts or investments will not have a negative long-term impact.
“Diversion is the way,” Kobza said. “I don’t think we need to raise taxes at all.”
Sheridan County School District 2 assistant superintendent Scott Stults agreed with Kobza. He said money should not be put into savings accounts when it can be used to offset the current state deficit. Stults also said SCSD2 could live with a 1 or 2 percent budget cut, but anything more than that would be detrimental.
Kobza said the impacts caused by underfunding or making cuts to education can have long-term consequences in terms of the quality of education children receive.
Kinner is also a member of the Joint Education Committee, which meets Tuesday in Casper; he encouraged citizens to tell their local legislators what they think about the potential bills at next Monday’s Sheridan County Chamber of Commerce legislative forum.
Nothing is official yet, but time is approaching quickly for legislators to approve or disapprove of sending the proposals to February’s legislative session.