The measure came after repeated clashes between legislators — who say the superintendent has failed to follow accountability measures or work with them — and Hill — who says she has improved the state’s education system and is the victim of a “good ole boys” club.
The House is set to take up the measure soon.
Speaking to members of the Wyoming Press Association on Friday, Mead pushed back against arguments he’s heard opposing the bill, such as that it’s unconstitutional, that it’s a power grab by his office or that the issue is just a personal spat between legislators and Hill.
Mead rebutted each of those arguments individually and suggested they miss the overall point of doing the right thing in education.
“What I’ve never heard through the debate is this: ‘It’s not an issue. Wyoming is exactly where it wants to be on education. It’s never been better. We have achieved educational excellence,’” Mead said. “I’ve not heard that this year. I didn’t hear that last year. And I ask the question of all of you: when’s the last time in Wyoming that we heard that?”
Mead argued the state is proudly spending top dollars on its education system but not getting needed results. The governor said that’s not because of a lack of new schools or a lack of good teachers and administrators around the state, but rather because of problems in the capital.
“We’re demanding accountability from Cheyenne,” Mead said.
Instead of discussing issues such as dual language immersion programs and and school safety, “what we’re discussing is who’s to blame, where’s the last fight,” Mead said.
He said the current setup, which has his office supervising some of Hill’s implementation of accountability efforts, is not working. He asked Legislators to either remove Hill or his office from the accountability process.
Mead said Senate File 104 has prompted many heated emails to his inbox, but he called the most frequent complaint a proposed 10 cent per gallon increase in the state’s fuel tax.
“If I just counted emails, I’m down to, I don’t know, 1 percent approval rating in the state right now,” Mead said. “But the fact is we have to get serious about it, and this is the time.”
Mead said the fuel tax is a better way to meet a funding gap for the state’s roads than toll roads, mineral taxes or the state’s general coffers.
“Why take money that should be used for other things — for savings, for elderly, to healthcare to education — and continue to put it in roads? Because roads are going to get more expensive, the cost is going to get more,” Mead argued. “We need a long-term, predictable funding source so the DOT can do long-range planning, and then the contractors in the state have long-range predictability about what they’re going to have to meet in terms of construction in the future.”
The fuel tax would raise about $70 million per year for state highways and local roads, though Wyoming Department of Transportation officials say they need another $70 million just for maintenance.
The proposed fuel tax hike passed the House on a 35-24 vote minutes before Mead spoke Friday.
Rep. Dave Blevins, R-Powell, Rep. Elaine Harvey, R-Lovell, and Rep. Sam Krone, R-Cody, voted in favor of the tax hike while Rep. David Northrup, R-Powell, voted against it.
The governor said he’s heard calls to make up the shortfall through cuts to the transportation department’s budget.
“We’re working on that, and there’s additional cuts that need to be made, and we will do that. But if you think you’re going to get $144 million in cuts out of a single agency every year, you’re mistaken,” said Mead, adding, “You cannot cut your way out of DOT to build roads.”
Mead said he’s proposed overall cuts to the state budget that will total roughly $60 million each year, or about 6.5 percent.
Some agencies have cuts as steep as 10 percent, while for others he recommended no cuts.
On top of that, the Legislature is looking at 8 percent cuts (another $140 to $150 million) in the next biennium.
Mead has called upon legislators to make the budget process more stable.
“One year, you add 5 percent, then two years later you’re saying cut 10 percent, or 2 percent or 8 percent,” he said. “It’s not the message that we should send, and especially it’s not the message we should send from a state that is as strong as Wyoming.”
His recommendations include putting fewer dollars in untouchable savings and including projected revenue from the state’s financial investments in the budget process (instead of treating it as “unanticipated revenue” every cycle).
“The revenue that we’re predicting over the next few years is more than adequate to fund what we are currently spending,” Mead said.
The Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee finished its own budget recommendations Friday, and the House and Senate will consider them soon.