By Kristine Galloway
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Via Wyoming News Exchange
CHEYENNE — The state Legislature is one step closer to asking the public to change the Wyoming Constitution to fix the state’s school finance funding problem.
The Senate Revenue Committee voted 4-1 to pass Senate Joint Resolution 4. The resolution would amend the constitution to specify that the Legislature has the right to determine how much money it gives to school finance based on state revenue.
Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, sponsored the amendment. Her co-sponsors are Senate President Eli Bebout, R-Riverton; Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody; and Sen. Drew Perkins, R-Casper.
“I’m not excited about bringing this resolution. There is not one part of me that woke up this morning feeling excited or enthused to raise these issues, but they’re important conversations that we need to start having,” Ellis said.
Her proposed amendment would change the constitution to say that when setting education funding, “the Legislature shall take into consideration currently available revenues and other funding requirements that provide for the health, safety and welfare of citizens of Wyoming.”
The amendment also would remove the power of the courts to task the Legislature with raising taxes or finding another source of revenue to fund education.
Ellis told the committee that the constitutional amendment is important because the current state of education spending is “out of touch with our fiscal situation.” She added that she determined through discussions with voters during her election campaign that children’s success also depends on their “health, safety and welfare.”
Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, said he thinks a change could be made to the line that would require the Legislature to consider the “health, safety and welfare” of citizens when determining education funding levels.
He explained the Supreme Court ruled that education must be considered above all other items of constitutional magnitude. He added that about 30 items fall on that list, and “health, safety and welfare” is one of them.
“The question is: Is ‘health, safety and welfare’ too narrow, or is that broad enough? In other words, should it say, ‘provide for all other needs of the state and the citizens of Wyoming?’” Kinskey said.
The committee did not make that change to the bill before passing it.
The bill states several times that the Legislature would “rationally” determine the level of funding required by the state’s K-12 education system.
Ellis said, “I think a case can be made that if we act irrationally — say we pick a number out of the blue and we’ll cut education 50 percent — and we can’t justify that, a strong case could be made that we were acting irrationally, and the Supreme Court would probably have some findings to dismiss that.”
She said the term “rationally” holds the Legislature accountable for ensuring the public understands the logic behind its decisions.
Sen. Jeff Wasserburger, R-Gillette, disagreed. He explained that the state Supreme Court ruled “strict scrutiny” should be used to examine education funding in the state, as opposed to “rational basis.”
Wasserburger told the committee that when a law is subject to rational scrutiny, the state always wins the case, but when it’s subject to strict scrutiny, the plaintiffs generally win.
Pat Hacker, attorney for the Wyoming Education Association, said Thursday that under the constitution’s equal protection clause, anything that is considered a fundamental right, such as education, is evaluated through strict scrutiny. All other laws are evaluated through the rational basis test.
Wasserburger said, “Essentially, what we’re doing with this is overturning the apple cart. No longer is strict scrutiny going to be used in the requirements that we have as a Legislature to develop and maintain a fundamental educational system with equity for all kids, whether it’s in the curriculum or in the building itself.”
He added that, having served on the Joint Appropriations Committee, he believes if education funding became examined through rational basis, the Legislature would simply make cuts to education, however large, to fit within the budget.
Tammy Schroeder, government relations director for the Wyoming Education Association, told the committee that the constitutional amendment would affect the quality of education in the state.
“When we go for a constitutional amendment, what is it that we’re really trying to change? It’s not going to change the need that the schools have. It’s just going to change the constitution,” she said.
Schroeder added that the amendment would create cuts that would, in turn, affect the level of salaries available to educators in the state, which would mean teachers would leave the state for better-paying jobs.
Committee Chairman Sen. Ray Peterson, R-Cowley, responded, “Give me a teacher that wants to be here, and I’ll hire that person before I’ll hire the person that’s here for the salary.”
He added, “It’s a serious challenge. We’re taking it seriously. And I know that the education professionals out there are listening seriously because they think that higher wages and more money mean a better-quality education, and that is false.”
Ellis, Peterson, Kinskey and Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, voted in favor of the bill. Wasserburger voted against it.
The bill next will go to the full Senate for approval. Should the full Legislature ultimately approve the amendment, it will go on a ballot during the election in November for the public’s approval.