SHERIDAN — State lawmakers appeared before members of the Sheridan business community Wednesday to tout accomplishments from the recently concluded 62nd Wyoming Legislature.
While hot button issues such as an increase to the state gas tax and a measure to scale back responsibilities of the superintendent of public instruction dominated most of the media coverage, legislators told the audience at the Sheridan County Chamber of Commerce monthly luncheon that they succeeded in keeping Wyoming’s finances strong — often through largely overlooked initiatives.
Of the more than 600 bills drafted prior to the start of the session, 209 became law. Their intents ranged across a wide spectrum of government responsibilities including infrastructure, public education and regulation of the energy industry among others.
Rep. Rosie Berger, R-Big Horn, said the Legislature’s willingness to budget conservatively bodes well for the future. The budget passed in this year’s session is the smallest since 2006.
“We continue to save,” she said, lauding across the board cuts to state spending.
Berger also touted interest earned on the state’s $5.5 billion of permanent mineral funds and its $1.6 billion rainy day fund. She told the audience those funds could prove to be vital given recent federal cuts brought about by the sequester.
“If we do hit hard times, we’re able to operate the government on these funds,” she said.
One of the more controversial bills to win approval, the 10-cent increase in fuel tax took up a substantial portion of Wednesday’s presentation. Rep. Mike Madden, R-Buffalo, said the measure was necessary if the state hopes to continue expanding its economic base.
“Wyoming runs on roads for economic developments,” he said.
According to figures compiled by the Wyoming Taxpayers Association, more than 80 percent of Wyoming’s roads will be in poor condition by 2030 if not properly maintained. Approximately 400 miles of additional roadway capacity is needed by 2022 to support economic development, but funding levels before the increase would only cover about a dozen miles.
Attempts to increase long-term funding for Wyoming’s highway system had failed several times in the decade leading up to this year’s decision.
Madden said that while he expected the bill to be unpopular, drivers are unlikely to feel the full extent of the initiative given the dynamics of the regional gas market.
Berger echoed the sentiment saying, “We think the increase of the fuel tax is important to the infrastructure of economic development in Wyoming.”
Commenting on Senate File 104, Berger said the decision to scale back the duties of the state superintendent of public instruction was necessary as a result of how extensive the job description had become.
“We are hopeful and optimistic we have created something good for the state of Wyoming,” Berger said.
Also at Wednesday’s presentation, lawmakers touched on financial commitments to the state’s education system, which include a $209 million investment in elementary school capital construction and $55 million for an engineering building at the University of Wyoming.
Additionally, they covered other measures such as renovations to the state capital and the formation of a state lottery corporation.
Also of note, lawmakers successfully outlawed human trafficking in Wyoming during the session. As one of the last states in the union to do so, Berger said the measure was long overdue.
State lawmakers are set to meet up to three times before the next legislative session begins early in 2014. A budget session, it will focus heavily on determining how best to fund state operations.