A year for the history books

Hectic legislative session ends with agreement on education funding

 

By Sarah Pridgeon

It was a legislative session for the history books, says Senator Ogden Driskill. The monumental question of education funding came right down to the wire as the House and Senate reached an agreement nearing midnight on the final day.

“We gaveled out at 11:46 p.m.,” Driskill says. “We were actively working bills until 11:20 p.m. and, at the very last minute of the very last day, HB-236 was the only education bill left standing.”

As the session began, legislators were dealing with a long list of ideas to shore up education funding or find places to make cuts. These were slowly whittled down, leaving only the House’s omnibus bill.

“Out of all those bills, one bill passed. HB-236 was highly amended,” he continues.

“The raw take-away of it was that the Senate stripped out funding from all of the bills.”

HB-236 calls for cuts that will total around $40 million or 3.7 percent of the total education budget, Driskill says, and also includes recalibration of school funding over the next year.

“It’s a start. The real concern is that there was real resistance from the education community to do any cuts,” Driskill says. “What we’re at is I believe between a five and eight percent cut on the schools, so it’s a livable number, I think, though we’ve got more to go.”

Driskill feels strongly that the time has not arrived to consider new revenue for education – in fact, he says, he will not support doing so until the education community shows willingness to participate in the cutting. He is concerned that the issue will end up in the courts, freezing funding at its current level and ultimately leading the courts to use any new funding as part of the base.

“We’re in a very delicate situation here and the flat honesty of it is that education showed very little willingness to work to try to bring it down,” he says. “It’ll have to be dealt with for the next biennium.”

Representative Tyler Lindholm is, for the most part, content with the cuts that were made.

“We have to be realistic that 65 percent of our education dollars come from minerals and, when we had this bust, the 65 percent all of a sudden shrank,” he says.

“We either cut education to a manageable level or we raise revenue. Considering where we’re at with education funding levels – we’re the third highest in the nation and the highest in the Rocky Mountain region by a long way – there was room to cut.”

Though Lindholm says he did not support every amendment as the bill was crafted, he does support the end product. He appreciated the input he received from the school district, parents and other citizens.

“We’ve still got $1.5 billion in our rainy day account and that’s what that money is for. We’ve all decided that education is going to see the bulk of that money if needed,” he says.

When HB-236 left the House, it covered the entire $400 million-per-year deficit, partly by instituting a half-cent sales tax that would have switched on if the rainy day fund dropped below $500 million.

“I didn’t support the half penny,” Lindholm says, explaining that he thinks the situation needs to be much more severe to consider raising taxes.

“The Senate disagreed with the half penny, so they pulled that out of the bill along with other cuts that they had found to be common sense. A lot of them were pretty agreeable.”

How exactly these cuts play out, however, will be in the hands of the districts themselves.

“It’s up to the school boards how they cut and how they handle the situation,” Lindholm says. “I know our school boards in this area…are really well prepared. They’ve been preparing for these cuts for quite a while, they’ve got a reserve and they’re moving forward with plans to be able to save some money.”

Lindholm encourages stakeholders to step forward as the cutting process continues to make sure their voices are heard. He suggests the same with the committee the Legislature has authorized to look deeper into the funding issue over the next year.

“It’s not a supercommittee any more,” he says, explaining that the number of members has been reduced from the original suggestion and the committee will hold six or seven meetings before the next session before bringing recommendations and legislation to the full legislative body.

“If we need to do revenue enhancements, that’s the kind of legislation they’ll be bringing forward.”

Lindholm says that the committee will likely look to produce something along the lines of a white paper and will look for comments online and from attendees at their meetings. He was not surprised by how fraught the debate became over the final weeks of the session, as such a large percentage of Wyoming’s population is made up of students, parents and educators.

“Things get pretty tense when you’re talking about cuts in that area,” he nods. “It wasn’t easy and these cuts weren’t made without thought and without a lot of lost sleep.”

Though the main reason for the debate stretching into the late evening was to finalize the education bill, Lindholm points out that there was one other bill that kept legislators talking. The success of the school facilities appropriations bill includes funding to demolish the old Central Office building, he says.

 

Balancing the Budget

The Legislature was able to balance its budget this year, says Driskill. One last chunk of around $400 million will be taken from the rainy day fund to keep things level.

Work was also done to protect against future bust cycles. In particular, the Legislature took steps to make certain departments self-sustaining.

“For the first time in very many years, Game & Fish is fully funded without general fund revenues. That was accomplished through a bill for license fees,” Driskill says.

The bill raises license fees between five and 12 percent, he continues, and is the first time fees have been increased since the early 1980s. The same was done for the Department of Transportation.

“We doubled the price of drivers licenses from $20 to $40 and we moved the state portion of licensing vehicles up fairly substantially. Those two bills made it to where the Department of Transportation is totally off of general funding as well for the first time in many years,” Driskill says.

The same has been achieved for the livestock board, says Lindholm, by raising the fees for inspections – again, the first time this has been done in many years.

Lindholm draws an analogy to welfare to explain why the Legislature is keen to make departments self-sustaining. The state is on welfare from minerals, he says; to protect this during bust cycles, the Legislature is looking to make as many departments independent as possible.

“Users of the service are paying for that service, which I think is a great aspect and more along the lines of where we need to be in some of these situations,” Lindholm says.

According to Driskill, these steps were in response to the loss of $1 billion per year in mineral income.

“We’ve only got two choices on that billion dollars: to either substantially reduce services to the general public or increase revenue resources somewhere. We’re looking at accommodations for both,” he says.

Meanwhile, the Legislature eliminated more than 500 full-time state positions this year and reduced the general fund budget by around $280 million, Driskill says. This brings the total number of positions eliminated over the past four years to 1000, the lowest since 2002, and the state budget to the same level as 2004 without adjusting for inflation.

“It’s going to take Wyoming from being one of the upper end states on government employees and spending to probably down into the middle part of the categories,” Driskill says.

However, says the senator, some of the cuts made this year will hurt.

“We’ve got extreme pressure locally, particularly on our mental health. They cut that budget again; we fought really hard to keep it intact and we did not succeed to the level we needed to,” he says.

“Our local mental health is a vital part of our communities.”

 

Economic Diversification

Lindholm has heard plenty of feedback from citizens hoping to support efforts to diversify Wyoming’s economy, he says. Several pieces of legislation this year spoke to this effort, including a bill that will allow TESLA to open up a dealership in Wyoming and a bill loosening regulations that has already led to the Uber rideshare service setting up shop in the state.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen jobs created that fast,” Lindholm laughs. “The Governor signed that bill at 3 p.m. and by 5 p.m. there were Uber cars running round Cheyenne. It was incredible.”

Driskill, meanwhile, succeeded in passing his bill to request that the federal government return a portion of revenue from the wind industry to the state’s coffers.

“That bill may bring back to Wyoming as much as $100 million per year,” he says. “It’s substantial.”

A bill funneling money into the Governor’s ENDOW program to look at economic diversification was also successful.

“That specifically looks at pulling private sector experts in their field together and us as the public sector, taking advice on different areas,” Lindholm says, listing fiber optics and pre-permitting as potential ways to improve Wyoming’s business climate.

The Legislature also passed a bill requiring that sales tax be paid on remote sales, such as from websites.

“I voted against it because of the potential for lawsuits against it. A couple of different states have tried this and then they’ve had to refund taxes, which is really a hard thing to do,” says the senator.

State law already said that anyone purchasing from a remote seller is supposed to remit that sales tax, he continues. The issue was to correct a failure to collect rather than to institute a new tax.

“Just by running the bill, Amazon is now going to voluntarily pay the tax in Wyoming,” he adds. “That’s $40 to $70 million a year, so it’s substantial income.”

Another bill passed this year authorizes hemp farming within the state. Driskill was surprised to find himself supporting it, he says.

“I am one of the ones who has been pretty slanted against it – I am very anti-marijuana all across the board and I always have been,” Driskill says.

“One of the bigger organic farmers in the state came to me and asked me to take a look at it. I came out of that with a little different opinion and I think it’s potentially a viable crop for Wyoming.”

Even with the bill, he notes, hemp farming is probably a few years out in the state due to the strict monitoring and testing requirements that Wyoming does not yet have the infrastructure to meet.

Lindholm, too, supported the bill having heard the facts about hemp. It has been proven that a person cannot get high from hemp, he says, and so the majority of the Legislature supported the bill.

 

Gun Bills

Three bills that received plenty of attention during the legislature focused on repealing gun free zones throughout the state. Of those bills, the two that allow concealed carry in government meetings and by authorized personnel on school property were passed into law.

“I basically voted for all of them, I’m tired of messing with them,” Driskill says. “They continue to come back and continue to come back and the places that haven’t restricted guns don’t seem to be having problems, so it’s just time to quit consuming our time on gun bills.”

Lindholm supported the idea of concealed carry in government meetings, he says, on the basis that the Legislature does not allow municipalities to ban certain books or newspapers to protect the First Amendment and should take the same approach to the Second Amendment. However, he believes there are problems with the new law as it stands.

“I think the Senate really screwed that piece of legislation up. They essentially made it so that the Legislature doesn’t have to allow guns, whereas we’re telling cities and counties that they have to,” he says. “I think we’ll be revisiting that piece of legislation next session to clean it up.”

 

Marijuana Products

Another controversial topic during the session was reform of the state’s penalties for marijuana. The conversation became about edible marijuana products, though the bill was ultimately postponed.

“I was in favor of it. We’ve got a hole in our law,” Driskill says. “Edible marijuana has no regulation in Wyoming right now, so you can go to jail for having a bag of leafy green marijuana but you can come out of Colorado with a bag of gummy bears that’s equivalent to 20 pounds of marijuana and we have no mechanism to arrest you.”

The issue has been worked on for three years but has yet to make forward progress, Driskill says. It’s likely to come back, though the problem remains that it’s not possible to test for THC content.

Lindholm did not support the bill due to the difficulty of knowing how much THC a person is actually carrying. He also believes that overall criminal justice reform is needed with regards to marijuana.

“We haven’t seen any noticeable trends of downward use since the war on drugs was started. If that’s the case…then why do we continue to do the same programs?” he asks.

“If this isn’t working, let’s try something else. I don’t think legalization is the right first step but I do think an aspect of criminal justice reform is that maybe, instead of putting people in cages for having a plant in their pocket, we should try some corrective thinking treatment.”

 

The Future

Looking ahead to the next session and the interim activities before it begins, Driskill believes that education funding will continue to dominate the Legislature’s attention.

“A lot of it is going to depend on the willingness of the education community to work with the Legislature. Like a lot of things, if they choose to be obstructionist and sue, the end results aren’t probably going to be what they should be,” he says.

“It would be much better if we worked together and found a common solution. When you get into a 40 percent plus shortfall, you’ve got some severe problems in any system.”

There’s no doubt, he says, that the state will need to look for new revenue sources.

“I’m not going to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes in Crook County, we’ve got to look at raising some revenue at some point in education,” he says. “But our economy is coming around and hopefully things will meet in the middle.”

Lindholm intends to continue listening to the requests he has heard from the public.

“Overwhelmingly, individuals have told me to cut – and to keep cutting. The large part of the voices I’ve heard is for more conservative government and to keep cutting, so that’s what I’ve supported,” he says.

Both legislators were successful with many personal pieces of legislation this year. Unfortunately, says Lindholm, one bill he sponsored did not become law: the first step in reinstating recall elections in Wyoming by cleaning up the current statutes.

“I have no idea what happened to that. Nobody called me, nobody got hold of me – all of a sudden it just died in committee,” he says.

Believing that many people do support the idea of recall elections as a way that citizens can correct the problem of an elected official failing to represent the people, he plans to bring the legislation again.