By Seth Klamann
Via Wyoming News Exchange
CHEYENNE — By the end of the first day of the 2018 legislative session, state lawmakers had proposed three different constitutional amendments to tackle the deficits facing school funding.
The proposals – two from the Senate and one from the House – come as the full Legislature begins to grapple with a two-pronged education funding deficit. The first prong, K-12 operations, has received more attention and attempted fixes than the second, school construction and maintenance. But both have looming deficits created largely by the recent economic downturn.
The three bills would all take different approaches to addressing the deficits. One, Senate Joint Resolution 1, would lower the amount of school funding that Wyoming provides to the level spent by neighboring states. Currently, school districts in the Equality State receive more than $17,000 per pupil. The Senate amendment, which is sponsored by Sen. Ogden Driskill, would instead take the five-year average of six nearby states’ per-student spending and apply it to districts here.
The six states are Idaho, Nebraska, Montana, South Dakota, Colorado and Utah.
The average would include the states’ operations, construction and maintenance spending. In Wyoming, operations funding is separate from maintenance and construction dollars.
The bill would take effect during the 2019-20 school year. It would give Wyoming schools at least “100 percent” of the five-year average of those six states and up to 110 percent of that figure.
Such a proposal – If voted for by two-thirds of legislators and then approved by Wyoming voters – would almost certainly mean a funding cut. Wyoming spends significantly more per student than any of its regional neighbors, as officials – including Senate President Eli Bebout – have noted repeatedly over the past year.
The bill would attempt to cap any cuts state schools would receive at no more than 7 percent per year. In total over the past three years, schools have been cut by just under 5 percent.
Driskill said he doesn’t think the bill will gain much traction this session, even if it were to pass the Senate.
“We’re going to have to deal with it at some point,” the Devils Tower Republican said of the budget deficit. “The bill as much as anything is to (raise) … some awareness.”
Keep the courts out
Driskill is also a co-sponsor of another amendment, this one from the House, that would limit courts’ oversight of Wyoming education. The current school funding landscape here has been largely shaped by a number of landmark court decisions, which threw out the state’s old, district-by-district system of paying for education.
But the House amendment, sponsored by Lingle Republican Rep. Cheri Steinmetz, would bar the courts from imposing “any tax or tax increase” or “any other provisions of funding” to shore up education spending.
Steinmetz did not return a request for comment. Driskill said the bill would “keep courts out.”
“The courts never should’ve been in it,” he said of school funding. “Using judges to determine education is not a good process.”
Last session, Driskill co-sponsored a similar amendment, which would’ve given the Legislature the power to determine what constitutes an adequate education in Wyoming. As evidenced in past state Supreme Court cases, that power ultimately rests in the hands of Wyoming’s judges.
Driskill said the bill had little hope of surviving.
“Speaker (Steve) Harshman and I are good friends,” he said. “I haven’t talked to him, but I would guess the odds of Speaker Harshman letting this come out on the open floor are somewhere between slim and none.”
Still, he said, the Legislature needed to talk about how to fund schools in the future, even as the state begins to pull out of the economic bust. He said he was concerned about a “stock market correction” that would shatter some of the state’s hopes for dealing with its budget woes.
Sen. Charles Scott, a Casper Republican, is sponsoring the final amendment that, he says, is similarly looking toward a new future of education funding.
Senate Joint Resolution 3 would amend the state constitution to shift much of the burden for paying for new schools onto districts. A district hoping to build a new high school, for instance, would have to fund the project via a bond issue that would be accepted — or rejected — by the voters.
“I think it’s important that local people have skin in the game,” Scott said, “that people in the vote on it will have their personal property taxes go up.”
Prior to those landmark court cases that Steinmetz’s bill appears to reference, Wyoming’s districts funded their own school construction. But the state Supreme Court rejected that strategy because some districts’ had more wealth and ability to fund such projects than others.
For years since, the state has paid for construction, using more than $2 billion it received in coal lease bonus money to erect new school buildings. Now, that bonus money has completely evaporated. Scott’s bill, then, would return Wyoming to its previous system of locally approved projects, albeit with some state protections.
Scott said his measure solves the problem of wealth inequality between the state’s districts. Those districts whose assessed valuation would fall below the statewide average would be treated as if they were at that average, and the state would fund whatever money was needed. Those districts at or above the statewide average would fund the projects entirely themselves.
The amendment wouldn’t fix the major maintenance problem, which will be more significant than the construction piece now that the state is easing out of a period of building and into a phase of preserving.
But Scott said it was a solution to a piece of the broader funding problem. He said it had broad support around the Legislature.
“This gives us a way to handle the problem that I think has a basic fairness to it and a basic workability,” he said.