Wyoming Legislature

It’s crossover week in the Wyoming Legislature.

Bills that passed one chamber now move across the Capitol, and those that pass the second chamber will head to Gov. Mark Gordon’s desk. Several amendments the Senate passed are likely to have an uphill climb in the House.

Unlike in some budget years, the House and Senate’s overall budgets are quite similar. Over the next biennium, each allocates roughly $1.88 billion from the school foundation program that provides school district funding. They also expend $249 million from the school construction fund for improvements to facilities.

However, the upper chamber is looking to curtail local school districts’ spending, particularly through SF118, even though most funding is provided in a block grant.

“The block grant is just that,” Wyoming Education Association President Kathy Vetter said. “This would remove local control from elected school board members.”

Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Teton, voted aye on SF118, which would make a pair of changes. One would change the way health insurance is funded through the foundation program by limiting the amount of money districts are given for health insurance costs.

The foundation model pays districts an amount for salaries and benefits based on how many teachers and employees the model deems they should have.

Some districts choose to not fill the designated positions and instead pay employees a bit extra or hire different positions than the model dictates. SF118 would lower the funding received by such districts because they would have vacant positions under the prescribed model.

“They would have to find a way to fund those things in those positions elsewhere,” Vetter said.

The other big change in SF118 is to transportation. Several years ago transportation funding was capped. Two years ago the cap was lifted, and school districts have been buying buses to replace the ones they couldn’t while it was in place.

Now the Senate wants to cap funding at the level it allocated for the 2019-20 school year. Districts would have less money to upgrade buses in coming years because as costs for maintenance and new buses rise, funding would remain stagnant.

“We’re going to have to get our kids to and from school,” Vetter said. “We have to buy buses.”

Given how the budget process works, much of this won’t be determined until the budget conference committee convenes. That group includes five representatives and five senators, who parse the details and come to a compromise on the budget.

Regardless of how the House votes on SF118, Vetter sees this session as the wrong time to change how education is funded. On Tuesday the House passed HB40, which approves the recalibration of the funding model the state is mandated to do every five years.

Consultants study what Wyoming is constitutionally required to provide in the “basket of goods,” which defines the quality of education given to students. Then they determine what that will cost, which informs the school foundation program over the next half decade.

Recalibration, should HB40 pass the Senate, is set to happen this year, and it could change the level of funding the state is expected to provide. Lawmakers asked for an off-year recalibration in 2017 in an effort to cut costs, but the study found the state needed to pay more.

In light of the potential for increased spending recommendations, Vetter thinks the Legislature should delay any cuts to sectors like transportation and health insurance until the study is completed at the end of the year.

“They’re going to look at what is a high-quality education, then tell the Select Committee what does it cost to provide,” she said. “If we’re going to spend money on these consultants, why not try to let them do their job?”

In the grand scheme of education funding, none of the individual amendments would make a huge dent in the amount of money the state spends. But with a $396 million structural deficit in the school foundation program over the next biennium, lawmakers in the Senate are looking for any kind of savings.

However, some in the House are looking for new revenue sources. A bill introduced by Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, would change the way dividends from the state’s investments are paid out. HB186 passed a committee vote but hasn’t received a floor vote.

Dividends from the permanent mineral trust fund are used for several state programs, but HB186 would shift some of the payouts into the school foundation program and the state’s Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account, the “rainy day” fund. If the rainy day fund balance falls below $500 million — it is estimated to be $1.3 billion at the end of the next biennium — the sales tax would increase from 4% to 5%.

“We’re in a definite decline,” he said Feb. 17 during a House Appropriations Committee meeting. “So do you want to wait? Or do you want to do nothing?”

Contact Tom Hallberg at 732-7079 or thallberg@jhnewsandguide.com.

Tom Hallberg covers a little bit of everything, from skiing to long-form feature stories. A Teton Valley, Idaho, transplant by way of Portland and Bend, Oregon, he spends his time outside work writing fiction, splitboarding and climbing.

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