In the U.S. Senate, lawmakers are sometimes forced into what are called “vote-a-ramas,” in which any legislator can introduce any number of amendments that must be voted on before a bill can be passed.
The Wyoming House of Representatives had a mini-vote-a-rama Wednesday as it considered House Bill 173, which undertakes the quinquennial recalibration of the school funding model. In total, 12 amendments were raised; two were withdrawn, two failed and eight were adopted.
“Chief Clerk, is this our last amendment?” House Speaker Eric Barlow said before No. 12, a slight look of relief on his face.
Discussion on the bill took up most of the day. The original bill has a multitude of stipulations that would change even the most arcane details of the school foundation block grant program, which allocates money on a relatively even per-pupil basis across Wyoming.
When originally written, the bill would have cut $100 million annually from the foundation program. The House Education Committee sent an amended bill to the chamber that would increase the state sales tax from 4% to 5% when the balance of the legislative stabilization reserve account, the “rainy day fund,” falls below $650 million.
A report from the Wyoming Legislative Services Office this session estimates a 1% sales and use tax increase would raise $169 million annually.
With schools facing a $300 million shortfall, the rainy day fund will be used to cover the difference between revenue and the education funding level. However, that will deplete the account pretty quickly, so the sales tax increase is meant to give the state a cushion.
Wyoming lawmakers have been loath to consider major changes to the way the state raises revenue. They voted down a sales tax bill this session that would have extended it from goods to services.
School funding is a different matter, however, because the state has a constitutionally mandated level of education it has to provide. So lawmakers have kept alive the 1% sales tax increase for schools.
The House did adopt an amendment from Rep. Steve Harshman, R-Natrona, that put guardrails on that tax. While the increase would go into effect if the rainy day fund drops below $650 million, Harshman’s amendment would cancel it if the fund eclipsed $1.2 billion.
Judging by the Legislative Services Office report, that’s not likely to happen any time soon. Other than the oil industry, which the report says should rise in value in coming years, the extractive industries that comprise the bulk of Wyoming’s revenue are expected to continue contracting.
That same report shows that nearly all the taxes Wyoming levies on citizens and businesses are lower than in neighboring states. Though that leaves room for revenue generation, lawmakers have not yet pushed for major tax increases.
Harshman has his eyes on other changes, but he was cryptic about what they are.
“I got some big ideas to generate revenue,” he said on the House floor. “We’ll be talking about them next session, then the tax would go away.”
Even with extra revenue, the recalibration bill would make cuts to the foundation model, forcing districts to make decisions on where to cut. Since school districts already spend most of their budgets on personnel, that could mean layoffs or not filling open positions.
Rep. Joe MacGuire introduced an amendment, which the House adopted, that would personalize any impacts of the cuts. Districts or the Wyoming Department of Education would need to compile a report following the cuts that specifies any affected staff members, including their names, titles and salaries.
“Ultimately what it is, is taking ownership of what we as a body end up doing,” he said. “If there are cuts, I think we should know what the results are.”
A majority of the House supported the notion, though Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Sublette, was not one of them.
“I don’t know how many reports are generated out of K-12,” he said. “So you’re going to ask to have another one generated? I mean, come on.”
House Bill 173 will go before the chamber a third time, though the discussion has not yet been scheduled.