The state of Wyoming is facing revenue shortfalls that have never been seen before. The combination of the pandemic and suppressed energy production and prices have put us behind the eight ball. Our past history of relying on energy production to account for many of our government services has made our situation dire. The Legislature has started to make the difficult decisions to reduce spending. The cuts will eventually reach almost every household. In the meantime, the public will need to let legislators know your thoughts.
The governor has made across-the-board reductions in state agencies, but it still leaves a $171 million deficit in this biennium and a school foundation shortfall of $298 million this year. The education shortfalls have been covered since 2017 with the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account (LSRA) or “rainy day fund,” which will eventually be sapped. The JAC (Joint Appropriation Committee) has suggested a $100 million cut to the school foundation. These cuts will be devastating to our schools and communities and need to be kept as far away from classrooms and educators as possible.
The Department of Health’s cuts amount to approximately $135 million, which will affect programs like the Wyoming Home Services. This helps keep our senior citizens in their homes with support systems to help them rather than pay much more for placement in nursing homes. This saves our state money, but it may be on the chopping block as well. There will be cuts for support services for our disabled population.
The Wrap Around program, which serves around 1,000 at-risk youths per year, may be eliminated even though half of the money comes from the federal government — and when you weigh the cost of approximately $15,000 for support services versus a $50,000 out-of-state placement, this is another example of a program that will ultimately cost the state more in the long run. Cuts to mental health and substance abuse programs will also create more problems in the long run with recidivism, suicide, etc.
The Senate voted for a 10% total reduction to cities and towns. Because of the way direct distribution is allocated, cuts to some cities (Green River, Rock Springs, Casper) will be far less than Evanston, Lyman and Mtn. View. These cuts will affect budgets, personnel, and important services such as water rates, police, recreation programs, etc.
In 2005, the legislature cut local governments’ share of sales tax allocation to just 29 cents out of every dollar of sales and use tax while the state keeps $0.71. In 2000, revenue on minerals and severances was capped for municipalities. Because of the unwillingness of the legislature to give cities more control of their own financial stability and the inequality of not making “across-the-board cuts” for all cities, I could not support this bill.
We could go on at length about cuts, but the bottom line is we can’t cut to the bone without also generating some revenue. We must diversify our tax base and our economy. We need to grow our economy and create long-term economic growth.The pandemic has negatively affected our state, but we only do well when our residents and our businesses are doing well.
After the past few weeks of the legislative session, these are a small sampling of the bills that moved forward:
SF 60 would shift mineral producers to paying monthly ad valorem payments rather than twice a year. The goal is to align ad valorem payments with monthly state severance payments. This eliminates the 18-month lag time from the sale of minerals until the county could collect the fees. This bill also moves the duty of collecting those payments from the county to the state. This should help our counties, our municipalities and our school districts.
SF 18 would provide some help during the pandemic and beyond with universal occupational licensure issues. SF 53 affects our ground ambulance services and may help keep many of those services viable in the future. SF 16 is the net metering bill which moves the regulation of the rates of those with rooftop solar to the Public Service Commission and will grandfather them in also.
SF 56 modified and corrected some of the newly-created Wyoming Gaming Commission and operator or manufacturer reporting requirements and fees, and repealed the sunset date of skill-based amusement games. HB 9 is the short time compensation program bill, which will help both employers and employees when there is a danger of layoffs and lost benefits.
When the 66th Legislature meets again on March 1, please follow the action with the website www.wyoleg.gov to see the status of bills. Better yet, if it is an option, come on down to Cheyenne and the Wyoming State Capital. My email address is [email protected], and my cellphone number is 307-679-6774. I would welcome hearing your suggestions and advice as we gavel back in during the month of March. As Jefferson wrote, “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people … they are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”