Even though Rep. Andy Schwartz is a Democrat from Teton County, legislative leadership appointed him to the Joint Conference Committee tasked with merging the House and Senate versions of the state budget bill.
In doing so, Schwartz will be one of five members to essentially set Wyoming’s fiscal policy for the coming biennium.
Four Republicans — Rep. Lloyd Larson, R-Fremont; Rep. Bob Nicholas, R-Laramie; Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Sublette; and Rep. Tom Walters, R-Natrona — will join him on the committee.
With a growing philosophical divide between the House and Senate, their task will not be an easy one.
“There’s a wide gulf between the two spending bills,” said Rep. Mike Gierau, D-Teton. “Combining the two bills will come down to some basic philosophical questions. It’s going to be an interesting discussion.”
As written, the Senate’s bill calls for $76 million in cuts to public education. It would fund school capital construction projects with $40 million from the state savings account and another $20 million going to build a new state penitentiary.
The House bill calls for roughly $20 million in cuts to public education. But instead of using money from the state’s savings, it proposes using income from the unrealized capital gains generated by the state’s $10 billion stock portfolio to fund capital projects.
“Why not wait to realize the capital gains, book them and then transfer the money as needed?” Senate President Eli Bebout said. “That way you know the money’s there and you can make a better decision on which projects to fund,” rather than having projects betting on the yield.
“It also allows the Legislature to have more say on how much we are spending and do a better job of living within our means,” Bebout said.
The House argued that by guaranteeing certain projects using a percentage of the state’s unrealized capital gains, the Legislature could free up money in the state’s coffers for other purposes, including education, while at the same time reducing the amount of savings spent this year.
“I get all the reasons why [guaranteeing projects with unrealized capital gains is] not necessarily the best way to do things,” Schwartz said, “but if we’ve already had to spend down our cash because we can’t use the projected earning to guarantee, then we have a bigger problem with our cash flow when it comes to cutting education.”
While the Legislature’s 2018 budget session is scheduled to close March 9, because of the “gulf” between the two budget bills, several legislators believe they will have to stay through March 14 to come to some sort of compromise.
“We’ll still fight over the education cuts,” Schwartz said, “but the thing with education is there are all these different ways you can cut money, whether it’s special education, transportation, technology, directing cuts to the administration, class sizes, maybe a few fewer days of school each year. On each one of those topics, there’s room for compromise. So we’ll figure something out. We’re not going to shut down the government.”