The Wyoming Legislature and Gov. Matt Mead are in for a great deal of free advice now, as the 2014 legislative session gets underway in Cheyenne. Mead offered his take during his State of the State address Monday, and the legislators have four weeks to complete a budget for a two-year period that starts July 1.
The governor is asking for $3.33 billion for fiscal years 2015 and 2016. The budget for the current two-year period is $3.4 billion.
The Consensus Revenue Estimating Group projects that the state will bring in $3.723 billion in revenue for 2013-2014 with a slight decline — if you can call $75 million “slight” — to $3.648 billion for 2015-2016. The CREG is a collection of government staffers, economists, and mineral production experts who look at the state, national and world economy and mineral prices and take their best guess.
In January, it forecast an uptick in sales tax revenue in the state, which was welcome news, and a small drop in coal prices, which was not. But for the most part, it said that Wyoming is in very good shape, in large part thanks to investment income in recent years. To read the report, go to http://eadiv.state.wy.us/creg/GreenCREG_Jan14.pdf
With Mead calling for an expenditure of $3.3 billion, the Legislature may eye the remaining $238 million in projected revenue and ponder some projects. But given the conservative nature of our lawmakers, expect them to sock the majority of that money away, adding to the $17 billion already in trust funds and reserves.
That’s a wise choice, we feel, with the coal industry in particular and energy in general facing an uncertain future, both with commodity prices always fluctuating and ever-changing federal regulations.
However, we applaud Mead for recommending $175 million for local governments and for supporting pay raises for state employees, many of whom have not seen an increase since 2009. Last session, Mead wanted to spend $11 million for raises, but the Legislature whittled that down.
There is such a thing as being penny-wise and pound-foolish. Wyoming has lost several talented and experienced state employees, including some members of the University of Wyoming faculty, who can find more attractive salaries in the national market.
The raises are needed and are also a good investment.
Other one-time expenditures could include an appropriation for endowment matching funds for higher education. This has been a popular legislative initiative that doubles the power of endowment fundraising for UW and the community colleges. The NWC Foundation, for example, has less than $300,000 remaining out of the last endowment match allocation. It will in all likelihood be committed in the next year.
We’re glad the governor is listening to local leaders and wants to give them the money they need to maintain infrastructure and keep counties, cities and towns in good shape. The state is flush with cash; it’s a good time to keep things working well, rather than letting them run downhill. Replacing items is always more expensive, and Mead knows that.
“It’s important to recognize that the money that Wyoming has doesn’t come from the (Capitol) rotunda,” he told The Associated Press last week. “It comes from those communities, and we need them to continue to be strong. And infrastructure needs to continue to be met in order for them to be strong.”
Neither Mead nor the majority of the Republican-controlled Legislature support expanding the federal Medicaid program. President Obama has pledged to fund the first few years of the Affordable Care Act, but in such a bright red state, the ACA is not popular.
That was evident in 2013, when legislators rejected $50 million in federal money for the expansion. While it may have provided another 17,600 people with health coverage, that was a non-starter last year and has little chance again this session. Still, after a committee urged some expansion of Medicaid, we expect to hear a lively debate.
With so much available cash, a lot of people and agencies have their eyes on it.
A bill is asking the state to use general fund dollars to pay for Wyoming Game & Fish Department’s health care costs as well as grizzly bear management. Those cost almost $6 million from a $70 million overall budget that is primarily funded by license fees.
Game & Fish took an $8.5 million cut last session, and a proposal to raise hunting and fishing fees is also on the table this time. We urge a long look at backing these expenditures and fee hikes, which will mostly target out-of-state hunters, to support the state’s great outdoor assets.
This is the first session since the 10 cents-per-gallon fuel tax was passed last winter. People started paying it on July 1, and the projections are it will collect $72.4 million annually. Gas prices have remained much the same as they were at the time the tax was approved; we will be interested to see how this additional revenue stream impacts the budget process.
This short session is dedicated to the budget, and we hope that remains the primary focus. Yes, the mess in the Education Department remains a pressing concern, but we hope that is dealt with after the dollars and cents issues are addressed.
First things first, lawmakers.