Funding bills rise and fall

By Sarah Pridgeon

Still razor focused on the education crisis, the Legislature last week moved forward on a bill that creates a joint select committee to look more closely at the budget shortfall. Estimates suggest that, due to a decline in federal mineral royalties and coal lease bonus payments, schools are set to lose around a third of funding.

HB-225 would create a committee of 14 pulled mainly from the House and Senate education, revenue and appropriations committees. Its task would be to study and recommend solutions for the shortfall.

The bill would also require that the governor appoint four advisory groups to provide input. He and the State Superintendent of Public Education would consult with the Wyoming School Boards Association and ensure these groups include stakeholders including school districts, teachers, parents, small and large businesses and the general public.

HB-236, an education finance omnibus bill also continues to move ahead, now without a proposal to increase sales tax by two percent as a way to bolster funding.

A bill co-sponsored by Senator Ogden Driskill to make temporary reductions to education funding passed its third reading in the Senate on Tuesday. Among the suggested cuts are a temporary base salary cut of five percent for school district administration staff in 2017-18 and an appropriation of $20 million to pay for the costs of offering early retirement to teachers who are within five years of retirement age.

Also sponsored by the senator, a joint resolution was proposed last week to amend the Wyoming Constitution, modifying the standards for judicial review of how the Legislature chooses to fund education. The amendment would have required “greater judicial deference when reviewing challenges” to decisions made on the school finance system.

Due to there being no report out of committee before the cut-off date, it will not be considered further this year.

HB-166 meanwhile suggested increasing the taxes on alcoholic drinks and then dividing the proceeds between the general fund and the school foundation account, with the latter receiving 78 percent. Reports suggested that the net result would likely be that the general fund would see no difference in the amount received from alcohol tax, while school funding would receive a boost of around $6.8 million per year.

The bill failed on the House floor with a vote of 8-51 against. Representative Tyler Lindholm was among those who voted it down.

Budget Concerns

According to a release from the Joint Appropriations Committee, the supplemental budget now under consideration in both the House and Senate through identical bills HB-0001 and SF-0001 will aim to reduce the size and slow the growth of state government.

“No one likes to make cuts, and no one likes to increase fees,” said Senator Bruce Burns, Co-Chair. “However, with significant revenue shortfalls projected into the foreseeable future, we’ve been forced to make some tough choices”.

The bill aims to make reductions across all branches of government, according to the release, with the intention of addressing a $156 million shortfall in general government operations. It includes net reductions to appropriations from the General Fund and Budget Reserve Account of $32.8 million in addition to net budget recommendations from Governor Matt Mead and the judicial branch of $245.2 million.

It also includes a reduction of 135 full-time positions, ten part-time positions and a shift of authorization for 23 positions, expected to result in savings of $102 million in the next biennium. The JAC has attempted to “distribute the pain as evenly as possible,” said Burns.

Economic Ideas

One bill aiming to have an impact on the overall Wyoming economy is HB253. Supported by Lindholm, it would appropriate $25 million from the reserve stabilization account and funnel it into the economic development enterprise account, where at least $5 million would be spent on projects involving broadband services and connections within the state.

A bill that would increase taxes on cigarettes passed its third reading in the House last week and moved on to the Senate, squeaking through with 31 votes for and 28 representatives, including Lindholm, voting against it. HB151 would not only increase taxes on cigarettes by approximately one third, but calls for license fees for sellers to be deposited in the general fund and increases the amount of the proceeds from the tax that is distributed to towns and counties from one third to 74.5 percent.

The much-discussed bill that would have imposed fines on electric utilities for using wind or solar energy failed to make it out of committee. On the other hand, a joint resolution co-sponsored by Driskill that would request Congress enact legislation requiring that federal revenues from wind and solar energy developments be shared equally with the state has moved on to the House after passing the Senate with a 29-0 vote.

Another economic bill attracting attention statewide is HB-288, which would increase certain fees for Game & Fish licenses, with an emphasis on increases to nonresident licenses. Among the suggestions made, nonresident elk licenses would increase from $480 to $576 and nonresident deer and antelope licenses from $240 to $288.

Resident fees would see smaller increases, such as an increase of $1 to mountain lion, deer and game bird/small game licenses. The bill has now been received for introduction in the Senate.

Bills of Note

The marriage license bill introduced by Lindholm this session has now stalled. HB-99 would have removed the requirement for two people wanted to get married to acquire a license to do so.

Sponsored by both Crook County legislators, HB-54 would have expanded the classification of “agricultural land” to include parcels between five and 35 acres, if that parcel is deriving annual gross revenues of $5000 or more from marketing agricultural products. This failed in the Committee of the Whole with a 20-38 vote against.

The two legislators have also co-sponsored a bill that addresses cruelty to animals. SF-115 expands the felony of “aggravated cruelty” to include shooting or placing poison on another person’s property with the intention of harming or killing an animal owned by that person.

The controversial non-discrimination bill for members of the LGBTQ community was postponed for the year. SF-153 passed the vote in the Senate Minerals Committee 4-1, but was placed on general file.

Two bills focused on abortion continue forward. HB-182 would require a physician to inform patients of the opportunity to view an ultrasound and hear the heartbeat of their unborn child before a non-emergency abortion, while HB-116 prohibits the sale or transfer of tissue from an aborted child for experimentation.

Both bills passed a third reading in the House, with support from Lindholm. A third bill that would have introduced additional requirements for abortion reporting died in committee.

Now with the Senate, HB-238 would create a new offense for the crime of one minor selling or sharing a nude image of another minor. The bill sets severity levels on such an act, with a minor to be considered guilty in the first degree if they disseminate or threaten to disseminate a nude image with the intention of causing emotional distress to their victim.

Though passed by the Senate Education Committee, SF-171 failed to pass the Senate Committee of the Whole last week. The bill would have required that a person pass an exam on the principles of the constitutions of the U.S. and Wyoming in order to receive a high school diploma or degree.