After months of meetings and debates, lawmakers will reconvene in Cheyenne this week. And for the second straight year, education funding will be near the top of their to-solve list.
CHEYENNE — Gov. Matt Mead cautioned against deep cuts to state spending on education and social services, while praising the overall reduction in the size of Wyoming’s government during his tenure as governor in his final State of the State address.
Speaking on opening day of the Legislature on Monday morning, Mead sternly warned lawmakers not to unduly slash education spending, saying that maintaining the quality of Wyoming’s public schools must come before cost reductions.
“I say in advance while we look to find savings, we should do nothing that lessens Wyoming’s long held view on the value of a great education,” Mead said, according to a transcript of the speech.
After months of meetings and debates, lawmakers will reconvene in Cheyenne this week. And for the second straight year, education funding will be near the top of their to-solve list.
Mead attempted to stay ahead of arguments that education funding was bloated and in need of a new, less expensive funding model.
“Facts, not anecdotal statements about our schools doing well or not, must lead the discussion,” Mead said. But, the governor added, if anecdotal stories were going to rule, he said his children’s teachers in Cheyenne had done a great job.
Mead’s speech was wide-ranging, touching on his accomplishments during seven years as governor. It tended toward the speculative, with Mead taking few specific positions on controversial issues. He asked the Legislature “to continue to look” at the proposed lodging tax and the $1 increase in the tobacco tax, but did not explicitly call for their passage.
One area where Mead made a clear request to lawmakers was in defending the slight increases in spending for social services and for the Department of Corrections in his December budget proposal.
“Where overcutting has affected programs and services and the people relying on them or created other concerns, we have the opportunity to right-size the budgets of those agencies this session,” Mead said.
“We never want to spend too much — and we haven’t — but if we spend too little, that can be a problem too,” he added.
The governor said he hoped that the Joint Appropriations Committee would provide additional funding to both the Department of Corrections and Wyoming State Fair.
“I look forward to resolving our differences in my favor,” Mead quipped.
Mead proposed a $2.9 billion budget for the Legislature. While the JAC draft budget, currently being finalized, hewed closely to Mead’s recommendation it also includes deeper cuts to some state agencies.
Mead, a Republican, is more moderate than many lawmakers and has split with the Legislature over issues including Medicaid expansion. But the governor sought to assert his conservative bonafides, including reducing the size of Wyoming government, the growth of the state’s savings accounts and resistance to various federal regulations.
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead has called for increasing spending on various social services in the state, saying that cuts made to weather the economic downturn caused by the energy bust have gone too far.
“We have fought the good fight on federal overreach,” Mead said.
Unsurprisingly, Mead also sought to rally support for Endow, his economic diversification initiative that is seeking up to $60 million in one-time funding from the Legislature this session. Mead said he was aware of skepticism surrounding Endow but dismissed the notion that diversification was unfeasible.
“I reject the notion that Wyoming is incapable of determining its own destiny or that our future will only be determined by commodity prices or other exterior forces,” Mead said. “Surely the Equality State — the Cowboy State — has a belief in self-determination.”
Leaders from both parties of the Legislature praised Mead’s speech at a Monday afternoon press conference, though House Minority Leader Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, said she hoped to see a state budget that reflected the governor’s state support for social service programs including homelessness prevention.
“You talk the talk but show me your budget,” Connolly said, repeating what she said was an old adage. “Are we funding the programs? Do we have the political will to fund those programs?”
Republican Senate President Eli Bebout had more unqualified praise for Mead, despite past differences on various issues. Bebout said Mead’s speech was “consistent with the Republican philosophy.”
“That was an incredible speech and said a lot things that I think are near and dear to the citizens of Wyoming,” Bebout said.
CHEYENNE — Democratic leaders in the Wyoming Legislature plan to re-introduce a Medicaid expansion and call for the passage of an income tax on high earners.
Senate Minority Leader Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, said he was bringing forward an omnibus health bill that would include an expansion of the state Medicaid system as allowed under the federal Affordable Care Act.
Rothfuss said the failure of Congress to address health care reform made it incumbent on states to find a solution for people who do not have access to affordable health care.
“There was a lot of discussion obviously in Washington, D.C., about ‘repeal and replace’ but no action was taken, so it’s up to us to try to find a solution for those individuals,” he said at an afternoon press conference.
Rothfuss said his goal was to see the Medicaid expansion passed as part of a budget bill. He made the announcement on the first day of a four-week budget session.
House Minority Leader Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, said at the same press conference that she would be bringing a bill co-sponsored by Rothfuss to raise or create several taxes, including a personal income tax. The tax would only apply to individuals who earned at least $300,000.
“For mom and pop on main street, you and your neighbor, that income tax would be zero,” she said.
Connolly said the bill would also raise all severance taxes to the same rate as coal. Rothfuss said he would be sponsoring an apparently separate bill to comprehensively study Wyoming’s tax base, similar to the Tax Reform 2000 study that came out nearly two decades ago.
Wyoming receives about 70 percent of its public revenue from the energy industry and, given the current bust, the Legislature is facing an $850 million budget deficit for the next two years. While Democrats hold few seats in the Legislature and Rothfuss’ and Connolly’s tax measures appear unlikely to pass, even the normally tax skeptical Senate President Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, acknowledged the need to diversify the tax base.
CHEYENNE — Democrats make up just over 13 percent of Wyoming’s 90-seat Legislature. But leaders on both sides of the aisle insist the numerical difference isn’t what counts.
“I’ve been a no tax guy since before the last session,” Bebout said. “But if we’re going to have taxes, we’ve got to broaden that tax base.”
After months of discussion, the Joint Revenue Committee killed all its major tax proposals weeks before the session began, making the approval of any measures other than a statewide lodging tax and a cigarette tax increase unlikely. Two jumps in projected revenue, in October and again in January, damped the appetite for new revenue streams in an already conservative Legislature.
It’s a familiar refrain: Hunker down. Weather the storm. Ask God for one more boom.
House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper, suggested the income tax measure was unlikely to pass.
“Oh,” Harshman said when asked. “No.”
Harshman said he had not heard of the planned Medicaid expansion bill until Rothfuss spoke at the press conference.
State lawmakers have rejected Medicaid expansion for years despite the move having support from Gov. Matt Mead, a Republican, and a coalition of business, medical and other advocacy groups.
A majority of Wyoming residents support using money from the federal government to expand Medicaid over tapping the rainy day fund, cutting government or raising taxes.
“The whole Medicaid program, which is for folks with disabilities and kids and those kind of things, is really under a lot of pressure under expansion,” Harshman said in an interview shortly after President Donald Trump’s election. “When you open it up to able-bodied adults, it’s a whole lot of pressure on the system.”
A 2016 poll found that roughly 52 percent of Wyoming residents would have supported the Legislature expanding Medicaid by accepting $268 million in federal dollars to provide care to 20,000 more individuals.
Rothfuss said that while some health care reform measures would take longer study, Medicaid expansion was relatively straightforward from a technical perspective.
“We can get that passed through the budget if we have the political will,” he said.
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump unveiled a $4.4 trillion budget plan Monday that envisions steep cuts to America’s social safety net but mounting spending on the military, formally retreating from last year’s promises to balance the federal budget.
The president’s spending outline for the first time acknowledges that the Republican tax overhaul passed last year would add billions to the deficit and not “pay for itself” as Trump and his Republican allies asserted. If enacted as proposed, although no presidential budget ever is, the plan would establish an era of $1 trillion-plus yearly deficits.
The open embrace of red ink is a remarkable public reversal for Trump and his party, which spent years objecting to President Barack Obama’s increased spending during the depths of the Great Recession. Rhetoric aside, however, Trump’s pattern is in line with past Republican presidents who have overseen spikes in deficits as they simultaneously increased military spending and cut taxes.
“We’re going to have the strongest military we’ve ever had, by far,” Trump said in an Oval Office appearance Monday. “In this budget we took care of the military like it’s never been taken care of before.”
Trump’s budget revived his calls for big cuts to domestic programs that benefit the poor and middle class, such as food stamps, housing subsidies and student loans. Retirement benefits would remain mostly untouched by Trump’s plan, as he has pledged, although Medicare providers would absorb about $500 billion in cuts — a nearly 6 percent reduction. Some beneficiaries in Social Security’s disability program would have to re-enter the workforce under proposed changes to eligibility rules.
While all presidents’ budgets essentially are dead on arrival — Congress writes and enacts its own spending legislation — Trump’s plan was dead before it landed. It came just three days after the president signed a bipartisan agreement that set broad parameters for spending over the next two years. That deal, which includes large increases for domestic programs, rendered Monday’s Trump plan for 10-year, $1.7 trillion cuts to domestic agencies, such as the departments of Health and Human Services, Agriculture and Housing and Urban Development even more unrealistic.
Trump also is proposing work requirements for several federal programs, including housing subsidies, food stamps and Medicaid. Such ideas have backing from powerful figures in Congress including Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who promises action on a “workforce development” agenda this year.
There was immediate opposition from Democrats.
“The Trump budget proposal makes clear his desire to enact massive cuts to health care, anti-poverty programs and investments in economic growth to blunt the deficit-exploding impact of his tax cuts for millionaires and corporations,” said Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee.
Some Republicans, on the other hand, said spending was much too high.
“This budget continues too much of Washington’s wasteful spending — it does not balance in ten years, and it creates a deficit of over a trillion dollars next year,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida. “We cannot steal from America’s future to pay for spending today.
Trump’s plan aims at other familiar targets. It would eliminate the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The administration wants NASA out of the International Space Station by 2025 and private businesses running the place instead.
But the domestic cuts would be far from enough to make up for the plummeting tax revenue projected in the budget.
Trump’s plan sees a 2019 deficit of $984 billion, although White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney admits $1.2 trillion is more plausible after last week’s congressional budget pact and $90 billion worth of disaster aid is tacked on. That would be more than double the 2019 deficit the administration promised last year.
All told, the new budget sees accumulating deficits of $7.2 trillion over the coming decade; Trump’s plan last year projected a 10-year shortfall of $3.2 trillion. And that’s assuming Trump’s rosy economic predictions come true and Congress follows through — in an election year — with politically toxic cuts to social programs, farm subsidies and Medicare providers.
Last year Trump’s budget promised such ideas could generate a small budget surplus by 2027; now, his best-case scenario is for a $450 billion deficit that year, more than $300 billion of which can be traced to his December tax cut.
In stark numbers, the budget rewrites the administration’s talking points for last year’s tax plan, which administration figures, such as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, promised would more than pay for itself.
“Not only will this tax plan pay for itself, but it will pay down debt,” Mnuchin declared in September.
Instead, Trump’s budget projects that tax revenues will plummet by $3.7 trillion over the 2018-27 decade relative to last year’s “baseline” estimates.
By the end of the first day of the 2018 legislative session, state lawmakers had proposed three different constitutional amendments to tackle the deficits facing school funding.
The proposals — two from the Senate and one from the House — come as the full Legislature begins to grapple with a two-pronged education funding deficit. The first prong, K-12 operations, has received more attention and attempted fixes than the second, school construction and maintenance. But both have looming deficits created largely by the recent economic downturn.
The three bills would all take different approaches to addressing the deficits. One, Senate Joint Resolution 1, would lower the amount of school funding that Wyoming provides to the level spent by neighboring states. Currently, school districts in the Equality State receive more than $17,000 per pupil. The Senate amendment, which is sponsored by Sen. Ogden Driskill, would instead take the five-year average of six nearby states’ per-student spending and apply it to districts here.
The six states are Idaho, Nebraska, Montana, South Dakota, Colorado and Utah.
The average would include the states’ operations, construction and maintenance spending. In Wyoming, operations funding is separate from maintenance and construction dollars.
The bill would take effect during the 2019-20 school year. It would give Wyoming schools at least “100 percent” of the five-year average of those six states and up to 110 percent of that figure.
Such a proposal — if voted for by two-thirds of legislators and then approved by Wyoming voters — would almost certainly mean a funding cut. Wyoming spends significantly more per student than any of its regional neighbors, as officials — including Senate President Eli Bebout — have noted repeatedly over the past year.
The bill would attempt to cap any cuts state schools would receive at no more than 7 percent per year. In total over the past three years, schools have been cut by just under 5 percent.
Driskill said he doesn’t think the bill will gain much traction this session, even if it were to pass the Senate.
“We’re going to have to deal with it at some point,” the Devils Tower Republican said of the budget deficit. “The bill as much as anything is to (raise) ... some awareness.”
Driskill is also a co-sponsor of another amendment, this one from the House, that would limit courts’ oversight of Wyoming education. The current school funding landscape here has been largely shaped by a number of landmark court decisions, which threw out the state’s old, district-by-district system of paying for education.
But the House amendment, sponsored by Lingle Republican Rep. Cheri Steinmetz, would bar the courts from imposing “any tax or tax increase” or “any other provisions of funding” to shore up education spending.
Steinmetz did not return a request for comment. Driskill said the bill would “keep courts out.”
“The courts never should’ve been in it,” he said of school funding. “Using judges to determine education is not a good process.”
Last session, Driskill co-sponsored a similar amendment, which would’ve given the Legislature the power to determine what constitutes an adequate education in Wyoming. As evidenced in past state Supreme Court cases, that power ultimately rests in the hands of Wyoming’s judges.
Driskill said the bill had little hope of surviving.
“Speaker (Steve) Harshman and I are good friends,” he said. “I haven’t talked to him, but I would guess the odds of Speaker Harshman letting this come out on the open floor are somewhere between slim and none.”
Still, he said, the Legislature needed to talk about how to fund schools in the future, even as the state begins to pull out of the economic bust. He said he was concerned about a “stock market correction” that would shatter some of the state’s hopes for dealing with its budget woes.
Sen. Charles Scott, a Casper Republican, is sponsoring the final amendment that, he says, is similarly looking toward a new future of education funding.
Senate Joint Resolution 3 would amend the state constitution to shift much of the burden for paying for new schools onto districts. A district hoping to build a new high school, for instance, would have to fund the project via a bond issue that would be accepted — or rejected — by the voters.
“I think it’s important that local people have skin in the game,” Scott said, “that people in the vote on it will have their personal property taxes go up.”
Prior to those landmark court cases that Steinmetz’s bill appears to reference, Wyoming’s districts funded their own school construction. But the state Supreme Court rejected that strategy because some districts’ had more wealth and ability to fund such projects than others.
For years since, the state has paid for construction, using more than $2 billion it received in coal lease bonus money to erect new school buildings. Now, that bonus money has completely evaporated. Scott’s bill, then, would return Wyoming to its previous system of locally approved projects, albeit with some state protections.
Scott said his measure solves the problem of wealth inequality between the state’s districts. Those districts whose assessed valuation would fall below the statewide average would be treated as if they were at that average, and the state would fund whatever money was needed. Those districts at or above the statewide average would fund the projects entirely themselves.
The amendment wouldn’t fix the major maintenance problem, which will be more significant than the construction piece now that the state is easing out of a period of building and into a phase of preserving.
But Scott said it was a solution to a piece of the broader funding problem. He said it had broad support around the Legislature.
“This gives us a way to handle the problem that I think has a basic fairness to it and a basic workability,” he said.
Attorneys in a Casper businessman’s sexual assault trial agreed on a jury Monday, with the defense offering its first public glimpse at its strategy.
Pamela Mackey, a Denver attorney who is representing Tony Cercy in the case, said the defense team would deny sexual contact occurred between Cercy and a 20-year-old woman who told authorities Cercy assaulted her at his Alcova Lake house this summer.
“This is not a consent case,” Mackey told potential jurors in Natrona County District Court. “The defense is it did not happen.”
The alleged victim told authorities she awoke to Cercy performing oral sex on her. Cercy, who faces three felony charges, has pleaded not guilty.
Judge Daniel Forgey began the morning by denying a request by Cercy’s lawyers to move his sexual assault trial prior to jury selection.
Forgey said it was not evident that media coverage of the case had prejudiced public opinion to a degree that would require the case to be tried in a different county.
One of Cercy’s three defense attorneys, Jeff Pagliuca, told the court that media coverage, which he characterized as extensive, slanted and factually inaccurate, made it impossible for Cercy to obtain a fair trial in Natrona County.
As part of the argument, he said an August article published in the Star-Tribune cited an incorrect number of phone calls made by the woman following the alleged assault.
During the court’s lunch break, a Star-Tribune reporter approached Pagliuca to ask about the alleged inaccuracy. Pagliuca said he did not have time to talk. He likewise declined to speak after the court adjourned Monday evening.
The Star-Tribune has a policy of correcting factual inaccuracies when they occur. Cercy’s defense team has never requested a correction from the Star-Tribune.
Pagliuca during the hearing also cited alleged inaccuracies in other media outlets during what he characterized as a “small recap” of press coverage relating to the case.
“All we want, your honor, is a fair chance here,” Pagliuca said.
District Attorney Mike Blonigen said the case had received extensive publicity. He went on to say that the court sees “several cases...every year,” that receive as much media coverage as Cercy’s has.
In ruling against the motion, Forgey said reporting cited by Pagliuca was generally factual in nature. Forgey also noted that the jury pool was comprised of “more jurors than I (have) ever requested to appear.”
After a roughly 30-minute break, the court clerk drew 34 names to make the initial jury pool. An additional pool of about 40 people also entered the courtroom to replace any potential jurors dismissed for cause.
After Forgey excused a handful of jurors due to age and medical issues as allowed by state law, Blonigen questioned the jury pool.
Although one woman told Blonigen she had relatives in prison for sexual assaults she believes they did not commit, he did not ask her to be excused from the pool.
The prosecutor likewise did not ask for the excusal of a woman who said she had met Cercy briefly, or a man who said he knew the alleged victim in the case.
After Blonigen finished questioning jurors, Mackey took to the lectern.
The defense attorney asked potential jurors if they could presume Cercy innocent in the case. None of the assembled panel said otherwise.
“I will look at the facts and judge by the facts,” one potential juror said.
Soon after, a man was excused when he said his 13-year-old daughter would expect him to return a guilty verdict. He was replaced by another potential juror from a back-up pool.
Mackey turned her attention to the man who said he knew the alleged victim in the case. He told her he might have difficulty being impartial when it came to the woman’s testimony, but said he should be able to set aside any bias he might have.
“This is a job,” he said.
The man was not ultimately chosen for the jury.
Mackey then asked potential jurors if Cercy’s net worth or out-of-town lawyers would prejudice them against her client. None of the 34 took issue with either of the issues raised by Mackey.
When Mackey mentioned Cercy’s Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination, a handful of potential jurors expressed frustration with the idea of Cercy not taking the stand.
“I’d like to hear his side,” one man said.
By 4:10 p.m., a jury of 12, plus two alternates, was sworn in and preliminary instructions were read to jurors. The jury, including alternates, is made up of seven men and seven women.
The trial will continue 9:30 Tuesday morning. It is scheduled to run through Feb. 20.