SHERIDAN — After a contentious session, the Wyoming Legislature agreed on a budget over the weekend that would fund the state for the next biennium, but some local legislators were not satisfied with the outcome.
Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, said he voted against the budget because he felt it was a short-term fix without a plan for the long term.
“We’re covering the hole with diversions, which robs from the future,” Kinskey said. “And let’s say it’s a good idea to do that just for the short term. Short term has a tendency to turn out to be permanent.”
Kinskey added that much of the funding in the budget is coming from “one-time” money, such as capital gains, which he said the state is unlikely to have when it has to negotiate its next budget in two years.
“My concern is, the longer you put it off, the harder it is when the day of reckoning comes,” Kinskey said.
“Instead of gradual [cuts] year after year, when you truly run out of one-time money and temporary diversions won’t save you anymore, your back is truly against the wall and the cuts become very drastic and very painful unless you want to raise taxes, which I do not.”
Rep. Bo Biteman, R-Sheridan, also voted against the budget, arguing it contained too much government spending and not enough cuts.
“There were some savings to be had in the general fund we had found, some vacant full-time positions that we tried to get rid of as budget amendments; those all failed,” Biteman said. “We ran probably 18 to 20 amendments on second and third reading to reduce expenditures in the general fund; they all failed. At that point I had to vote against it.”
Rep. Mark Kinner, R-Sheridan, however, said considering the clashing philosophies being forwarded by the House and the Senate, the budget was a fair compromise.
“Whenever you have a budget that is involved in a lot of negotiations, and [considering] the philosophical differences between the House and the Senate, it would be hard to say at the end of the day you are totally happy with it,” Kinner said. “But I would say I feel OK about it.”
The House budget proposed diverting revenues that would be deposited in savings accounts and spending them in the state budget to avoid drastic cuts. The Senate argued that the money the House wanted to divert was not guaranteed, it was based on projections, and advocated a plan that would require more cuts but would only guarantee money the state had on hand.
Kinner said the finalized budget essentially uses the House’s philosophy in the first year of the biennium and the Senate’s philosophy in the second year.
“We’ll be able to compare the two and see which way we should consider going forward,” Kinner said. “I think that was a very fair compromise.”
In a session where legislators were struggling to find funding for education and infrastructure projects, some local legislators were upset that the budget appropriated $42 million for Gov. Matt Mead’s ENDOW initiative.
Rep. Mike Madden, R-Sheridan, said he voted against the budget primarily because of ENDOW.
“We ended up having to cut a lot of things…to stay within the budget and then we let things loose with the ENDOW budget,” Madden said. “Not one dime got cut from it.”
Madden added that there were pieces of ENDOW he agreed with but he was frustrated that amendments to scale back other parts of the initiative were soundly defeated while funding for important services were either cut or received only short-term funding.
“We funded ENDOW for five and a half bienniums into the future,” Madden said. “I’ve never seen that happen before. I’m totally disgusted by it.”
Rep. Biteman said he thought the ENDOW initiative was well-intentioned but did not think the initiative would be effective.
“I don’t believe in government creating jobs or government diversifying its own economy. I think that has to happen in the private sector,” Biteman said.
He added that, considering some of the other cuts the Legislature had to consider, ENDOW should not have been a priority.
Rep. Kinner took a different approach. He said he supported the ENDOW initiative as a way to advance the state’s economy and argued that investing savings into the initiative was the best way to fund it.
“Then we’re saying, okay, we are spending some savings, but we are not cutting education at the expense of the ENDOW initiative; it’s not being funded at the expense of something else,” Kinner said. “I think working on a plan to move our state into the future by using some savings is a responsible way to do things.”
Sen. Kinskey said he had mixed feelings about ENDOW. While he agreed it could stimulate Wyoming’s economy in the future, he did not think it would address the state’s current predicament.
“In the long run, I think developing industries like light manufacturing will help develop our economic base and so grow our tax base,” Kinskey said. “But economic development is a long game. And our budget crisis is in the near term.”
Local legislators agreed that there is still work to be done.
One area of concern was an increase in state spending without corresponding increases in revenue. Several House bills proposed at the start of the session sought to create new revenues for the state, mostly by creating new taxes, and none of them were approved.
Legislators agreed that there were still too many inefficiencies in the government to justify passing new taxes.
“I think that one of the few positive takeaways from the budget was no new taxes,” Biteman said. “The main reason being that it just shows there’s no appetite to cut spending. Until we can get some reasonable spending cuts, new taxes would just mean new spending.”
Kinner said the focus of the Legislature right now should be to ensure the government is running as efficiently as possible. Once that has been accomplished, he added, the state could explore adding news taxes if necessary.
Kinner added that he was optimistic about a Senate file that passed that allows the state to appropriate money to hire a consulting firm to analyze the state government and point out inefficiencies the state can explore cutting.
“Of all the things we did, I’m most hopeful about that,” Kinner said. “One of my hopes is that that will help Wyoming be more efficient going forward.”
He noted, however, that the effectiveness of assessing the efficiency of the state government will depend largely on how the next governor, who will be elected in November, works with the firm conducting the analysis.
Kinskey said he was cautiously optimistic about the efficiency assessment.
“I have great hope for the efficiency project, but I am an eternal optimist,” Kinskey said. “The counter-argument would be: we’ve seen this show before…But that doesn’t mean you quit trying. I’m hoping this one will stick.”
With a new budget in place, lawmakers will have to decide whether to address these issues now or wait two years for the next budget session.