The sixth week of the general session has come to a close and we are now closer to having a budget finalized and a remedy for the Education crisis. In the last 18 months, the Wyoming Legislature has listened to Wyoming citizens and stakeholders, made tough choices and advanced responsible reductions to government that will allow our state to emerge from this downturn with the books balanced and stable.
Including the 2016 Budget, and if our recommendations are adopted, the Legislature will have cut $351,500,000 and 249 positions. All in all, government will need stitches.
I have had the opportunity to work with the local school board on some of these cuts coming to education as well as some of the teachers in our schools. Before we jump into what these cuts entail, I wanted to share what Wyoming K-12 Education looks like on a funding model.
These are not draconian cuts, nor are they earth shattering, but if we do not do something to restrain our current spending; draconian cuts will be needed. Over the last two decades, the Wyoming legislature has invested over $22.3 billion in education, opened more than 24 new schools and renovated hundreds more.
The current funding for K-12 education is $1.5 billion annually—almost as much as Wyoming’s entire state operating budget, excluding federal funding. Our current Wyoming funding model in K-12 education funds at $16,146 per student.
Based on data from the National Education Association, Wyoming spends nearly $6000 more per student than the average for the Rocky Mountain Region, which is $10,915 per student. By comparison, Utah spent only $7905 per student in the 2015-2016 school year, less than half of what Wyoming spends per student per year.
Now that the table is set, what is your Wyoming Legislature proposing? The House position cuts funding per student down to $15,801 and the Senate position goes to $15,244 per student.
That’s a reduction of $345 or 2.1 percent and $902 or 5.5 percent respectively. Both positions will cover the deficit were currently facing, and each takes a different route to achieve that, but we still have to figure out what the final product will look like.
Either way, our children will still receive a world class education and our teachers will still be some of the best compensated in the region.
The last two weeks of session are primarily for conference committees to work out the differences between the House and Senate on different pieces of legislation. These key bills will be the budget and the education funding bills, but any other piece of legislation with a difference in amendments will also be conferenced.
Two bills of importance had action taken on them in the last week, and I am proud of each. In the past I have written about the awful policy of raising the cigarette tax and last week I testified in front of the Senate Revenue committee about some of the reasons to reject such a proposal.
Not only would the proposal just sink into the general fund, but we couldn’t even claim the victory of reducing use as this tax hike was not even supported by the American Cancer Society. Granted, they were against the bill because it did not raise the tax high enough, but I’ll still count them as an ally. This legislation was killed for the second time with a vote of 2-3!
House Bill 26 Bark Beetle-Program Funding has passed Committee of the Whole in the Senate and is looking for final passage next week. This bill puts into statute the efforts of your local and state leaders and private industry over the last six years to mitigate bark beetle infestations in the black hills and across the state and giving priority to projects that produce saw logs.
Those of you that know me well, know that I am hard pressed to support a program that uses tax payer dollars, so let me explain some of the reasons why I am such an ardent supporter. The program has a track record of reducing infestations from 2-6 times down to 1.2, effectively guaranteeing large stands of timber on our public lands for generations to enjoy.
The fire mitigation aspect is one not be forgotten as many of you know that pine beetle infestations are a huge danger to everyone involved and can be the difference between a half acre fire and some of the large fires of last summer. Lastly, you can literally see the difference between South Dakota and Wyoming and the color of our trees, we have made the difference and the Black Hills of Wyoming are still green.
My interns over the last two weeks have made our corner of the State proud and demonstrated to the rest of the State why we are District #1. Josie Olsen, an Upton Bobcat, skipped basketball season due to a knee injury and surgery and instead worked with Senator Driskill and myself.
Emma Tinsley, a Sundance Bulldog, is taking a few weeks off of choir and drama to intern in Cheyenne. I will note that these young ladies have learned the value of sleep as the Legislature has kept them working as late as 8 p.m. It’s a cruel pace that we set in the shortest legislative session in the nation. “Coffee…the favorite drink of the civilized world.” – Thomas Jefferson