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January 08, 2009 4:10 am

Legislators share thoughts on session

Written by Tribune Staff

Local legislators expect this year's session of the Wyoming Legislature to be marked by fiscal conservatism.

That was the message they brought to a forum sponsored by Park County School District No. 1 at Northwest College Monday night.

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Local lawmakers attending were Sens. Hank Coe, R-Cody, and Ray Peterson, R-Cowley, and Reps. Dave Bonner, R-Powell, Elaine Harvey, R-Lovell and Colin Simpson, R-Cody.

The legislative session begins Tuesday, Jan. 13 in Cheyenne.

Before an audience of educators and school board members from Park and Big Horn counties on Monday, the legislators spoke mainly of education, but the economy and the state's revenues were central parts of the discussion.

“We don't have a big budget surplus this year,” Coe said. “We'll have to learn how to be more fiscally conservative.”

Coe said if there is extra money, he hopes the Legislature will spend it on infrastructure, noting that Wyoming's highways need attention.

Simpson, who will serve as speaker of the House of Representatives during the coming biennium, noted that the state's revenue is uncertain at present, and the budget surpluses the state has enjoyed the past few years “have shrunk, and may shrink further.”

“The next two years might be a little scary,” Simpson said. “Long term, we'll be OK, but the next two or three years we may have to pull back.”

Due to the uncertainty about revenues, Simpson said, the Legislature will be “flying by the seat of our pants for the next month on the budget” until new revenue estimates are available.

However, the legislators said the state still be able to support education. Peterson said the Joint Appropriations Committee is recommending a 3.7-percent adjustment in the school funding model to account for increased costs.

The school funding model is scheduled to be recalibrated in 2010, and Coe said he thinks it will be more transparent and take into consideration how schools are spending the money and how spending relates to student achievement.

Coe added that he is concerned about the small-school adjustment built into the formula, especially for the smallest districts in the state, including Meeteetse in Park County.

Peterson said the state may have to slow down school construction, but in answer to concerns about construction already planned, the legislators said money already appropriated for projects will be spent.

“When I met with the School Facilities Commission, I pounced on them about that,” Peterson said. “I gave them the message that current projects should be completed before new ones are started.”

Coe said now is actually “a great time to do those things.” He said the economic downturn has reduced costs for materials and construction, and contractors are looking for work.

Bonner added that school construction could provide economic stimulus in the state.

Legislators referred to several bills affecting education that will be introduced. A bill dealing with reducing drop-outs brought discussion of state support for enrichment classes, gifted and talented programs and more concurrent enrollment programs that would allow high school students to take college classes for high-school credit.

The Hathaway “success curriculum” also was discussed, and legislators noted some proposals to adjust it. One bill would allow sign language to be acceptable to fulfill the foreign-language requirement, and Harvey said she supports a proposal to add music education as an alternative to the foreign-language requirement.

Coe said he supported a plan to provide money for a program that would teach eighth-graders and their parents what they need to do to earn Hathaway Scholarships.

Other educational items that will be considered in the Legislature include a bill to enhance the program funding instructional facilitators, additional money to ensure that the state's retirement fund remains sound and supplemental money for food-service programs.

Simpson said he may sponsor a bill that would allow school districts to develop policies to deal with cyber bullying over the Internet.

Legislators also discussed property-tax relief, and Simpson said he will sponsor a bill, but no details of proposals were offered. Simpson also noted that property relief would impact funding for local governments and the school foundation fund.

“We may have to rethink some of the decisions made in the past,” Simpson said.

Peterson expressed caution on the issue of tax relief, saying that he would hate to see the Legislature have to reinstate taxes in a few years.

Harvey, speaking of her work on the Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee, said the committee's main task this year is “improving the marketability of Wyoming minerals.” She said the committee is studying ways to encourage investment and to protect markets.

Coe said Wyoming has been fortunate to be able to fund education because of minerals, and he is optimistic that the state can continue to do so while keeping taxes reasonable, and the other legislators agreed.

“The best tax relief we can have is to make our minerals more marketable,” Peterson said.