It’s all about the budget. That sums up the legislative session convening in Cheyenne on Jan. 10 for 40 days.
But, work has already begun. The Joint Appropriations Committee had budget hearings in the days leading up to Christmas. There is no seasonal joy in this work. These are hard decisions that affect lives.
I attended the JAC meetings in Cheyenne.
The sizes of the budget deficits are daunting. First is the general fund. That is the operations budget for state government — the court system and all the executive departments such as the departments of agriculture and health, the prison system, etc. — 45 agencies in total.
As recently as the past legislative session, the funding gap was hundreds of millions. After being whittled down by the Legislature, and then again by the governor, there remains another $78 million to be cut.
On the hot seat at JAC: any agency that cuts programs but not the personnel that administer them. Pressing for reductions in people is Grinch-like work, but it must be done.
The real challenge is in the education fund budgets. The gap for school operations is $360 million to $400 million per year — nearly five times the remaining general fund deficit. Additional deficits in the hundreds of millions remain in school maintenance and construction budgets.
For the next couple of years, for school operations, savings were used to balance the budget. But, that emptied out the piggy bank. That creates a sense of urgency to start cutting now as it will only be worse if we wait.
There continues some talk about tax increases. But, consider this: to make up the loss in the school operations revenues it would take a four-cent statewide sales tax. That would put the state sales tax at 8 percent, and in areas with the optional pennies, drive the rate to 9 or 10 cents. That’s clearly not anything I, or the public, nor, I think, the House or the Senate would support.
Class sizes are going to go up, not by a lot, but some. When I went to school we had dozens of kids per classroom. Not ideal by any means, but certainly not the end of the world. I don’t foresee reversion to the class sizes of the post World War II era. But, there is no question we must learn to educate with a lot less money.
There are no easy answers. Wyoming has been through it before. We’ll find a way. We are still blessed in so many ways — Merry Christmas!
Dave Kinskey represents Wyoming Senate District 22 which consists of Johnson County and eastern Sheridan county. A businessperson and former mayor of Sheridan, he can be reached at Dave.Kinskey@WyoLeg.gov or cell 751-6428.