For the second year in a row, the House and Senate differ by around $80 million on the state’s budget, after senators made cuts to their version and representatives added money to theirs.
The gulf is again widest on education, with the chambers jousting this year over an “external cost adjustment” to match education funding to the pace of inflation and costs increases.
But the budgets also differ in other areas, both small and large, from cuts to a tribal liaison program to a Senate move to sell one of Wyoming’s two state planes.
The measures are HB1 — General government appropriations and SF1 — General government appropriations.
The Joint Appropriations Committee writes the proposed budget, but the measure is drawn up as two “mirror bills,” then submitted to each chamber where members make amendments. Differences are reconciled during negotiations by a conference committee or committees appointed by leadership. Those negotiations can drag out to the last day of the session.
Wyoming’s two-year budget for state government — education funding aside — is currently $2.85 billion and lawmakers now propose to surpass $3 billion.
To meet the cost of Wyoming’s public schools, including $18 million for the external cost adjustment, the JAC’s supplemental budget put Wyoming’s public schools budget at about $1.76 billion for the 2019-2020 period.
Education and general government taken together, the JAC recommended that Wyoming spend a total of $4.76 billion.
The proposed budget equates to roughly $4,100 per citizen, per year, when using estimated population figures from the 2017 census.
As of Friday, the House and the Senate were roughly $52.3 million apart on the general government aspects of the budget, according to an estimate by the Legislative Service Office. The Senate cut around $22.8 million from the levels the JAC recommended. The House spent nearly $30 million above the recommendation, half of that for new computers, software, personnel and other costs associated with a potential corporate income tax.
In education, the difference is now at $28 million.
Some education advocates say the state is close to a lawsuit over education funding because school spending has dropped nearly to unconstitutional levels. While the House looks to muscle through more money, the Senate is playing chicken with school districts through cuts. Several senators last week voiced a willingness to go to court.
After halving the external cost adjustment earlier in the week, the Senate considered two amendments to SF1 to put money back into it and ultimately rejected both. The first amendment, brought by Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, would have restored $9 million the Senate cut out of the $18 million total cost adjustment approved by the JAC. The external cost adjustment has been endorsed by the Senate Education Committee and both former Gov. Matt Mead and Gov. Mark Gordon.
“There is really only one outcome if we pass an ECA that’s below that level,” Rothfuss said, “and that is a losing lawsuit.”
But several senators dismissed Rothfuss’ worries about a lawsuit. Longtime Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, argued that lawmakers were elected and voters would remove them if the state disliked how they treated education.
“I don’t think there’s any appropriation that is constitutional or unconstitutional other than the appropriation made by the Legislature,” Scott said.
Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, said the potential for litigation is not as sure as Rothfuss maintained.
“No lawsuit has been filed yet. And I’ll tell you why,” Kinskey said. “The position is just not that clear, not that firm. I remember this old lawyer in Sheridan. He used to tell me that any reasonable settlement is better than taking a chance on what a judge or a jury might do.
“Nine million dollars is within what’s reasonable in terms of a cost of living adjustment. I urge a strong no vote,” Kinskey said.
Rothfuss’ amendment failed 8-22. A subsequent amendment brought by Sen. Jeff Wasserburger, R-Gillette, to add $4.5 million back in failed on a closer vote, 11-19.
Hours after the Senate had finished its budget, the House put more money into education Thursday.
On Thursday night House Appropriations Chairman Bob Nicholas, R-Cheyenne, brought a late amendment to raise the House proposed increase to $37 million. The amendment increased a proposed pay raise for professional staff at schools from 2.1 percent to 3.97 percent.
The 2.1 percent raise was added by the House on Tuesday and matched raises slated for other state employees.
Thursday night’s amendment brings teachers’ raises above those of other state employees. However, education funding is administered as a block grant, giving school districts leeway to use the money for things other than raises.House leadership brought the amendment late during debate over the budget that kept the chamber working until after 10 p.m on Thursday. At the time, its proponents couldn’t confidently estimate the cost of the increase to the external cost adjustment, raising skepticism from some House members.
“I just want a dollar figure,” said Rep. Bill Pownall, R-Gillette.
By Andrew Graham