By Sarah Pridgeon
This week marks the moment when every bill to be considered at the 2017 Legislative Session has hit the floor. The final date to introduce individual Senate and House bills has passed, with a deadline of Thursday for bills to be reported out of committee.
With all the year’s issues now under the microscope, the discussion is still dominated by the issue of education funding. Legislators have brought forth a range of bills that open the dialogue and suggest various ways to bolster the budget or, alternatively, cut spending on schools.
One bill now under consideration would create a joint select committee on education funding that consists of 14 members taken from the House and Senate education, revenue and appropriations committees, as well as four at-large seats.
The committee, which would be limited to ten members from the same political party, would look for solutions to the significant budget shortfall facing education in the state. As well as searching for places to make cuts, it would look at options to increase revenues and for permanent funding solutions for capital construction and major maintenance.
The House Education Committee has proposed a bill that would transfer $100 million from the stabilization reserve account into the school foundation account each fiscal year until such time as the former fund drops below a total balance of $500 million.
Legislators held a hearing for the bill, which contains a comprehensive funding proposal, on Monday night in Cheyenne. Public comments on House Bill 236 will also be accepted on legisweb.wy.org until February 6.
Meanwhile, legislators are looking at creative ways to tackle the shortfall. House Bill 233, co-sponsored by Senator Ogden Driskill and now referred to the House Minerals Committee, would allow the Legislature to apply a general salary or benefits reduction across the school system.
Driskill has also co-sponsored a bill that would amend class size requirements, increasing the average number of students in a class from 16 to 18 up to 5th Grade and from 21 to 22 for grades 6 through 12. A second bill has also been put forward to repeal the law that forces a school district to report its class sizes in order to receive funding from the school foundation account, while a third suggests increasing the average class size to 24 students per teacher.
A Senate Joint Resolution now with the Senate Education Committee would amend the Wyoming Constitution, authorizing the Legislature to require that school districts impose a special tax on property within the district for the purpose of constructing school facilities. School districts could be required to do this in order to receive state funding and the Legislature may also ask for voter approval, with a vote against a proposal taken as conclusive determination that the project is not necessary.
A House Joint Resolution, on the other hand, would amend the Constitution to provide for a state tax that would be used for construction and maintenance of public school facilities across the state. HJ07 has been referred to the House Revenue Committee.
Other suggestions changing the interest rate on funds borrowed to cash flow the school foundation account, a bill that has been passed to the Senate after three readings in the House; or to implement a new sales tax on services such as beauty shops, funeral services, pest control and graphic design. Senator Driskill has also co-sponsored a bill that would make temporary reductions in education funding.
Another issue around which lines have been drawn in the sand involves LGBTQ rights within the state. While one bill filed last Wednesday and now with the Senate Judiciary Committee for equal treatment for members of that community in the workplace, the “Government Nondiscrimination Act” called for the government to take no discriminatory action against a person who acts on a moral or religious belief that marriage should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman or that “man” and “woman” mean a person’s gender as “objectively determined” at birth.
Representatives Cheri Steinmetz, Sue Wilson and Nathan Winters withdrew HB135 on Thursday, issuing a statement that said it had “aimed to protect the peaceful exercise of religious beliefs and adherence to moral convictions for people of all faiths without diminishing the rights of any other group”. It was withdrawn, they said, to give Wyoming citizens time for “thorough consideration”.
On a familiar note, a newly introduced bill would make it a criminal offense to use a public bathroom or changing room that is “designated for the opposite sex”, requiring that all citizens use the facility corresponding to their gender as identified at birth.
Representative Tyler Lindholm’s Food Freedom expansion continues to move ahead, now with an amendment that poultry or poultry products may only be sold if the producer slaughters fewer than 1000 birds during a year and does not trade in poultry products other than those they raised themselves. Lindholm’s proposal to do away with marriage certificates has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee.
A hot-button topic receiving state scrutiny is abortion, with HB116 calling for an amendment of the definition of “viable” to include the ability to feel pain and HB132 aiming to establish additional requirements for abortion reporting and set a $1000 fine for any physician who fails to report that an abortion has been performed within 50 days. HB182 would require that a woman is informed in person that she has the right to view an active ultrasound and hear the unborn child’s heartbeat before a non-emergency abortion.
Second Amendment rights are also getting their fair share of attention, with three bills now on the floor to repeal gun free zones in government meetings and the Wyoming Legislature and allow school district employees to carry firearms on school property. All three passed the House on Monday.
A bill introduced on Friday calls for the Department of Workforce Services to initiate a study of the wage gap between the genders in Wyoming, including potential solutions that would reduce any disparities that are found. House Bill 140 would increase the minimum wage in Wyoming for non-tipped employees for $7.25 per hour; though it originally suggested $9.50 per hour, an amendment was included to drop this figure to match the federal minimum wage.
A bill that would create a presidential primary election for Wyoming failed in committee on Monday, with legislators preferring to study to idea during the interim.