In a dramatic bit of parliamentary maneuvering, the Wyoming Senate suspended its rules Wednesday at the direction of its leadership to introduce four alternative budget bills. The lategame shift, they say, is designed to fund essential state operations if the overall budget bill fails.
Senators are balking at the amount of spending the House put into the supplemental budget. The backup funding bills signal their willingness to walk away from a comprehensive budget bill, thus leaving a number of state agencies without money they need.
“There’s a lot of us in the Senate that feel like the spending is beyond levels that we agree with,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman and former Senate President Eli Bebout, R-Riverton. “As chairman of appropriations, I’m not going to support the budget bill as it is. I’m not going to support it.”
The four new bills include funds for the Department of Health and Department of Family Services, an inflation-based increase to public schools and an air-service subsidy.
For the Senate’s bills to move forward, the chamber must continue the suspension of its rules that established Wednesday, the 21st day of the session, as the last day for bills to move from Senate to House and vice versa. It would also require accommodation by the House.
House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper, however, flatly declared late Wednesday that the House would not suspend its rules to accept the new bills.
The proposed supplemental budget was debated for weeks by the Joint Appropriations Committee and for days in both the House and Senate. But now negotiations over the budget are happening at the highest levels of the Legislature, between chamber leaders and the chairmen of their respective Appropriations committees.
Suspending the rules for one reason or another is not unheard of in the Wyoming Legislature, but longtime legislative observers said the prospect of a supplementary budget bill failing would be.
The new levels of “gamesmanship” between the chambers is damaging the transparency and effectiveness of the budget process, said Senate Minority Leader Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie.
“The rest of the Legislature ends up being held hostage,” Rothfuss said. “We sit back and we watch the majority leadership, the chairmen of the [Joint] Appropriations Committee, battle it out and really nobody else that isn’t directly involved has any say in the outcome or gets their interests reflected.”
Harshman in essence agreed with the Senate minority leader. “That’s why you have a conference committee and the process,” he said. The Legislature ultimately will not be able to walk away from many funding obligations, he said.
Rules may also have to be suspended to revive a bill to fund certain state construction projects. The Senate voted unanimously to kill SF162 – State fund capital construction. But there were projects in the capital construction bill some deem essential, like repairing a problematic roof at the Wyoming State Prison.
The Senate chose to use its vote on SF162 to emphasize its opposition to the House version of the supplemental budget. Bebout laid out his opposition in a short speech before the final vote on the measure.
“Members of the Senate, I’ve been thinking a lot about, about this bill. I’ve been thinking a lot about where we stand relative to our deficit and what’s going on with the budget bill. There is a big difference between us and our colleagues down at the end of this building,” he said.
“Mr. President, it’s just hard for me to support more money building more buildings in Wyoming right now. Mr. President, very reluctantly, and there’s a lot of programs, buildings in here that are important. There’s one in my district. There’s one in a lot of districts. But I’m going to ask the Senate to vote no on 162.
“These are good projects. They’re there. They’ve been vetted. There’s no question about the need. It’s the timing, Mr. President.
“Now’s not the time, with all that’s going on, to go ahead and spend the amount of money [included] in this on capital construction when we have other demands on the state. We have deficits we’re looking at down the road. It’s just not good fiscal management.
“The last thing I would close with is that Wyoming consistently ranks No. 1, 2, 3 or 4 in the country for the way we run our books and try to be fiscally responsible. So, Mr. President, I would ask the Senate to vote no on Senate File 162.”
The 0-30 vote to kill the bill quickly followed.