Legislature prepares to wrestle with tight budget

Posted 1/21/20

This year’s legislative session is all about budgets, and with revenue forecasts predicting a decline, the debates over spending cuts versus taxes are at the forefront.

The Legislature is …

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Legislature prepares to wrestle with tight budget


This year’s legislative session is all about budgets, and with revenue forecasts predicting a decline, the debates over spending cuts versus taxes are at the forefront.

The Legislature is set to convene on Feb. 10 to lay out the state’s budget for the next two years

State Sen. R.J. Kost, R-Powell, mentioned the challenge in getting voters to support tax increases and the lack of trust that often informs their opposition.

“At some point, we have to get to where there’s some trust in what local and state government is doing,” Kost said. “There’s only one of two ways to go. We either look to bring in more money, or we ask where are we going to cut.”

For his part, state Rep. Dan Laursen, R-Powell, said he thinks the state should continue to look into the second option — of cutting more spending.

“We’re short of money. I think we could save some more on our expenses,” Laursen said.

He also suggested the state could close its own budget shortfalls by tapping more into the “rainy day fund.” Laursen said the fund has a significant reserve and replenishes itself enough that the state can rely on it to cover expenses for a while.

“It’s what you do as a family. You dip into savings during lean times,” he said. “That’s what the state should do.”

Laursen said he’d oppose any attempt to enact a corporate tax, which the House passed in the last legislative session. The bill never made it to a vote in the Senate before the session ended.

He also is opposed to a bill that would allow county voters to make a 1 percent general purpose sales and use tax permanent, while also granting local governments the ability to seek another 1 percent sales tax. That’s all in addition to any 1 percent specific purpose taxes, such as the one local governments are considering for infrastructure needs (see related story).

Local leaders are hoping they find room to again provide $105 million to cities, towns and counties across the state.

“It’s pretty critical to keep us rolling along,” said Powell Mayor John Wetzel.

Park County Commission Chairman Joe Tilden added that, while that funding is a relatively small source of revenue for the county, “we certainly need it.”

Area representatives don’t appear to have a lot of doubts about securing the $105 million in funding this biennium.

“That should be a slam dunk,” said Rep. David Northrup, R-Powell.

Laursen said nothing is for certain, but he doesn’t see much opposition to at least maintaining that figure.

“I sure hope we can get it to them, and I don’t see why we can’t,” he said.


Additional priorities

Legislators have a few other priorities they’re going to try to pursue in this year’s session.

Kost wants to expand Medicaid in the state, which he said is important to supporting critical access hospitals like the one in Powell.

These hospitals, which primarily serve rural areas, are closing at alarming rates, especially in the South. The majority of the others are under financial strain.

Kost explained that in Wyoming, these providers serve much of the state. And when someone needs emergency care, they are often the only option within a reasonable distance. Receiving care in the first hour of a medical emergency, often referred to as the “golden hour,” greatly increases a patient’s chance for survival. If these critical access hospitals close, fewer and fewer Wyomingites will be within an hour of emergency care.

Kost also sponsored a bill that would allow another exception to Wyomings open meetings laws. Wyoming governing bodies can close meetings to the public for a number of reasons, including employee disciplinary discussions, real estate purchases, and litigation. Under Kost’s bill, discussions to “consider and conduct safety and security planning for the protection of life and property” would also be cause to close a meeting to the public.

Meanwhile, Laursen has again introduced a bill that would eventually end Daylight Saving Time by having Wyoming “spring forward” into the Central Time Zone. It would eliminate any reversion back to Mountain Standard Time in the fall.

States can opt out of Daylight Saving Time, as Arizona and Hawaii have, but to move the time forward permanently requires a much more involved process.

Even if the bill were to pass the Wyoming Legislature, the legislatures in Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Utah would likewise need to pass similar bills. Then, the federal government would need to give its approval.

While the change does involve a complicated process, it’s doable, Laursen said. “I think we’re smart enough to figure it out.”

Northrup, who is on the House Education Committee, is supportive of a bill that would create a committee to study and make proposals to determine if modifications are needed to the formula the state uses to fund schools.

Northrup said school funding has become too high in some cases. While it’s not true of all districts, he said there are sometimes teacher bonuses and other spending that’s not in the spirit or intent of the original model.

He is also supportive of another committee bill that would increase the amount of a purchase before a school district would need to put the procurement out to a competitive bid. Northrup said the current amounts are outdated. The current amounts were set before textbooks cost a few hundred dollars each. So now, for example, if a committee votes to use a certain textbook, but the supplier doesn’t come in with the lowest bid, they have to go with another textbook, he said.

Another bill, if passed this session, would increase penalties to parents for truancy.

“There needs to be more consequences if you don’t show up for school,” Northrup said.

Ahead of February’s session, Mayor Wetzel expressed gratitude for the work state politicians are doing. The mayor said the session brings a lot of challenges, and the job of legislators isn’t easy.

“We appreciate everything they do. It’s not easy to go down there and do what they do,” he said. “We feel pretty fortunate to have the legislators we do.”


Lawmakers to hold Wednesday town hall

Three local lawmakers — state Sen. R.J. Kost and Reps. David Northrup and Dan Laursen — will host a Wednesday town hall meeting at Northwest College.

The trio of Powell Republicans has scheduled the public gathering to run from 6-7 p.m. at the college’s Yellowstone Building.