By Joel Funk
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Via Wyoming news Exchange
CHEYENNE – Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead’s eighth and final State of the State remarks repeated his calls to restore funding to some agencies cut in recent years.
He also asked state lawmakers to support investing in economic diversification and to consider balancing new revenue sources with responsible reductions to K-12 education.
The governor’s address to the 64th Wyoming Legislature kicked off the 2018 budget session Monday at the Jonah Business Center. Lawmakers are heading into a session lasting 20 business days where they’ll work on adopting a two-year budget.
It looks to be a session filled with challenging decisions. Though revenue forecasts have improved since an economic downturn that began in late 2014, the Legislature is still facing an estimated $900 million structural deficit for fiscal years 2019 and 2020.
In his speech, Mead highlighted some accomplishments during his tenure, including reducing the size of government by several measures, deeming it “healthy frugality.” He said the budget recommendations submitted for the 2018 session sought a “golden mean,” embodying former Wyoming Gov. Francis Warren’s sentiment of “sufficient, but not excessive.”
The nearly $3 billion budget includes $105 million for local governments, $200,000 for senior centers, $2.2 million to strengthen cybersecurity, paying off the Capitol Square Project and money for community college construction projects. As he has said since releasing his budget late last year, Mead called on lawmakers to restore funding in areas where he felt cuts went too far. In addition to returning some money for the Wyoming Department of Health, Department of Family Services and Department of Corrections, he said cuts to the Wyoming State Fair of around $800,000 effectively eliminated it.
“The State Fair is part of our history and heritage – a great celebration of our state every August,” Mead said. “Wyoming ag has been – and, in my view, must always be – a big part of Wyoming. The State Fair is one of the best ways to continue with the next generation of farmers and ranchers.”
Lawmakers also need to address shortfalls in K-12 education by considering “responsible cuts,” while also seriously considering tax measures such as a tobacco tax and statewide lodging tax, Mead said. The Wyoming Legislature’s Management Council – co-chaired by Senate President Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, and House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper – is scheduled to address the lodging tax during a meeting tonight.
While many lawmakers, Bebout included, have argued K-12 funding is too high for the outcomes the state has seen, Mead cited several measurers that ranked Wyoming’s education system as one of the best in the nation.
“Facts, not anecdotal statements about our schools doing well or not, must lead the discussion,” Mead said.
When it comes to building projects, Mead said there are some he’d like to see get done this session, such as the State Hospital in Evanston and Life Resource Center in Lander. However, he said it’s also prudent to focus on maintaining existing facilities, rather than taking on too many new projects.
“We must adjust to these times of constrained revenue, recognizing we cannot build at the same rate and must focus on maintaining what we have built,” Mead said. “My budget calls for more dollars for major maintenance, recognizing deferred maintenance is, in fact, deficit spending.”
The opportunities presented by ENDOW – which stands for Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming – should be a top priority for the Legislature, Mead said. He asked the Legislature to fully fund all of the recommendations outlined by the ENDOW Executive Council in its December report and support a foreign trade representative in Taiwan. Additionally, he said he’d like to see lawmakers advance proposals to incorporate computer science in K-12 education and provide funding for workforce training to move ENDOW forward.
“Now we have to take the next step,” Mead said. “We have to seize the moment. We have to invest in ENDOW. Diversification is the best way to keep our future bright by keeping more of our young people in Wyoming. ENDOW is needed now.”
Also tied to economic diversification were Mead’s calls for the Legislature to fund recommendations made by the Outdoor Recreation Task Force, including creating an Office of Outdoor Recreation within the Department of State Parks, Historic Sites and Trails.
“These will create efficiency and increased exposure for the public, are not costly to implement, and fit with economic growth and diversification initiatives,” Mead said.
Initiatives related to firearms fit under his call for enhancing outdoor recreation as well, Mead said. He touted the state’s recruitment of Weatherby Inc., HiViz and Magpul to Wyoming in recent years.
“They promote sport shooting opportunities, fit with our affinity for the outdoors and Western traditions, and promote economic diversity,” Mead said.
Prior to the start of the session, the Joint Appropriations Committee drafted a budget bill that avoided drastic cuts and restored some funding to agencies that took reductions in previous years, but also called on Mead to eliminate
50 state government positions through the biennium, according to a WyoFile report.
Mead said he hoped there would be room for compromise in the JAC’s budget.
“I appreciate the work of the JAC and look forward to continuing discussions and resolving our differences,” Mead said.
Despite the challenges of the session ahead, Mead concluded optimistically by declaring the state of Wyoming is strong. With the right approach, he said lawmakers could take Wyoming to a brighter future. Mead cited comments from past governors that a consistent theme jumps from the historic words.
“The theme is optimism and a strongly held belief that Wyoming’s future will not be written just by whoever is in power in D.C. or what commodity prices are,” he said. “It will be written by you, me and the people of Wyoming.”