Legislature 2012: Communities may face significant funding cuts

Rep. Semlek: expect conservative budget session

By Sarah Pridgeon

Declining revenues may hit local governments hard in the wake of the upcoming Wyoming State Legislative Budget Session, says Representative Mark Semlek. The amount of revenue available for distribution is expected to decline by $135 million from last fiscal year’s high of $475 million.

“Small towns in our community will likely see a decrease in State revenue sharing for direct distributions,” says Semlek. “Sundance estimated a decline of approximately $80,000 per year, based on comments from Mayor Brooks at a recent Wyoming Water Development Committee Meeting.”

Projected revenues for the next four years were revised downwards by the Consensus Revenue Estimating Group at the beginning of January. “The forecasted decline is largely attributed to a decrease in natural gas prices – gas supplies have exceeded demands in part due to the unusually mild winter,” explains Semlek.

Storage levels for gas are 11 percent higher than at this time last year, while prices in early January at the major hubs fell below $3 per 1000 cubic feet (Mcf) at a time when they have historically exceeded $5. “The legislative spending policies will likely remain very conservative until natural gas prices return to $4 per Mcf and that value of gas is forecasted to be at least four years into the future,” says Semlek.

A bill to provide a voluntary animal ID trackback program is among those to watch during the upcoming session, says Semlek. “It’s primarily for disease management, so that an animal sent out of state can be rapidly found.”

“The system would use the ear tagging ID systems that have been in place for many years, particularly with female animals,” he continues. “We just need a database to allow us to search for animals in the event of a disease situation, so we can quarantine immediately and not jeopardize the industry across the state.”

A bill to aid producers affected by brucellosis in the northwest of the state will also be considered during the session. In some situations, herds exposed to game animals suffering from the disease must be depopulated and there is concern that producers are not getting a fair price for these animals, says Semlek.

“The bill looks at whether it’s fair to reimburse or fund these producers,” he explains. “It’s probably not a good year to talk about it, though, as it will cost $500,000 to fund.”

Semlek believes the Governor’s proposal to provide more money to the program to recruit data centers and other high tech companies into Wyoming could have positive repercussions for the state’s economy, but would prefer to see the current program given a chance first. “I think appropriate incentives are already built into the law, plus these facilities generate a lot of heat, which makes the high altitude and cool temperatures here advantageous,” he says. “We have incentive built in already… it’s called Wyoming weather!”

Semlek believes the current program should be given a chance to compete with other communities in the country. “If it works, it will provide many hi-tech, skilled jobs for the people of Wyoming, and for universities preparing graduating students. The whole state could benefit from this and the sales tax earned, they’re huge facilities and would be a pretty big boost to local economies.”

A proposal to increase the mandatory school dropout age to 18 will also likely be discussed in an attempt to reduce the approximately 20 percent of students still leaving school at age 16. “But would it be in the interests of the 80 percent who stay to force them to attend?” Semlek points out.

“We’ve done things to make it more difficult to drop out, but there are still students who struggle to continue, for various reasons. Working on the causes, such as difficulties in keeping up with the work or problems with family life, is a discussion we should have. Some are beyond the control of the education system, but anything we can do to make kids want to stay would be better, as forcing them to could be disruptive.”

The 2012 Wyoming State Legislative Budget Session will begin on February 13 and will focus primarily on the State’s biennial budget.