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Want to know what the Legislature will do with Wyoming’s budget this year? You're not alone

CHEYENNE — Look for directions to “Jonah Business Center” on Google Maps and it tries to send you to a local bank. You won’t find much by running an internet search of the name either. But rest assured, there is, indeed, a teal glass-clad building sitting along East Pershing Boulevard. And, starting Monday, 90 state legislators and dozens of lobbyists and bureaucrats will gather here to hash out Wyoming’s budget for the next two years.

The Legislature relocated to the building in 2016, and if it seems unreasonably difficult to find directions to the Jonah Business Center, that opacity mirrors the lack of clarity about just what lawmakers are going to do here over the next month.

Every other year is a budget session, intended to exclusively address state government funding. That’s especially fitting this year considering the looming $850 million deficit. Or is it a $684 million deficit?

“It’s 684,” House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper, said in an interview last week. He is counting over $150 million in rolled over cash and one-time payments the state received last year, money the Legislative Service Office doesn’t count in its official $850 million estimate.

Cuts, taxes or diversions

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper, sees a smaller budget deficit than the official estimate from the Legislative Service Office suggests.

Either way, there is a big deficit and lawmakers have a short time to make up — pick your number — an $684 million deficit, an $850 million deficit, or some other hundred-million-some dollar deficit. How? That’s a question there have been shockingly few answers to given that the Legislature has been aware of the issue since before last year’s session and interim committees have ostensibly been working on solving it for the last 10 months.

As of press time Friday, the Joint Appropriations Committee had yet to release its budget bill. However, early reports suggest the committee’s budget hews closely to Gov. Matt Mead’s recommendation released in December, which called for few new cuts and a slight increase in social services spending. The Legislature is required to pass a balanced budget. If they can’t reach an agreement within the four weeks allotted, lawmakers can vote to extend the session.

But after the revenue committee rejected a series of major tax proposals last month and the group reexamining Wyoming’s public education funding model recommended increasing spending rather than cutting it, there is little potential for either new revenue or widely accepted spending cuts to close whatever the remaining deficit turns out to be — even if its far less than $850 million.

(Harshman said that, in addition to using the one-time cash, he is looking at a variety of fiscal policy adjustments that would generate a little over $250 million. Coupled with spending the allowed 10 percent of the Legislature’s rainy day fund, the Speaker has whittled the deficit down to $258 million.)

One option would simply be to spend more of the rainy day fund or to tap into some of the state’s other savings accounts, either directly or by channeling new dollars that usually go into them and putting that money toward current expenses.

Senate President Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, said he’s opposed to using such diversions to balance the budget because such a strategy would be inherently unsustainable. Yet Bebout also couldn’t say quite what state spending he wanted to eliminate.

“It’s awfully hard for me to be starting brand new building programs,” Bebout said, hinting at cuts to capital construction. “The flip side of that is we got things we need to build.”

A modest agenda?

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

An oil field worker preps a winch truck earlier this year in Douglas. While oil prices have rebounded, economists do not expect Wyoming's energy economy to bounce back to pre-bust levels. Unless it does, the state will either have to adjust spending or reform its tax model, both things the Legislature appears unlikely to do this year.

While oil prices have climbed to around $60 per barrel, economists don’t expect Wyoming’s energy market — responsible for roughly 70 percent of public revenue — to fully bounce back any time soon. Barring the unexpected, the state will either need to adjust to a new, permanently lower level of spending or it will need to restructure its tax code to bring in sufficient revenue to cover current government costs.

Yet with so much uncertainty remaining as the Legislature convenes, some aren’t confident that those big decisions will be made this year.

“There will be changes down the road,” said Mike Moser, executive director of the Wyoming State Liquor Association and a longtime Cheyenne lobbyist. “But I’m not sure if this session is going to lay the groundwork for that or not.”

House and Senate leaders appear to have slightly different philosophies about whether this winter is the time to do so. Bebout has said that he would like to find a sustainable spending level for the state soon. In contrast, Harshman said that the savings available for the Legislature to use this session can provide more time to look at both long-term spending patterns and diversifying Wyoming’s tax code.

Harshman said state residents will have to make their priorities clear, including what spending cuts they will be comfortable with in exchange for no new taxes.

“The people are going to decide whether they can give up schools in our small towns,” Harshman said. “People will decide whether that’s what they want or not and it’s not a thing that happens in a four-week budget session — nor should it, frankly.”

GOP consultant and lobbyist Bill Novotny said that the House was likely to hold more sway over the budget than the Senate, and that Harshman’s reluctance to impose significant cuts may rule the day. But he also noted that it was too early to say with certainty what will happen once the Legislature convenes Monday.

“It’s going to be a very, very interesting session,” he said.

Showdown brewing

Dan Cepeda, Star-Tribune 

Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper, is one of several right-wing lawmakers seeking fiscal data from the Legislative Service Office. Political observers expect some conservative lawmakers to challenge the budget priorities of the Legislature's leadership.

Part of that intrigue comes from the fact that while leadership is taking a relatively cautious approach to the budget, political observers expect some House lawmakers to bring fiscal bills or budget amendments that seek much steeper spending cuts.

“There’s a fair amount of people who are concerned about where we are and the impact of this budget long term,” said Jonathan Downing, CEO of the conservative Wyoming Liberty Group.

While few lawmakers will dispute that it is appropriate to spend some reserves during lean times, disagreement comes over how long the state must make its savings last and whether government spending has been trimmed enough to justify dipping into the rainy day fund.

Reps. Chuck Gray, R-Casper, and Cheri Steinmetz, R-Lingle, confirmed to that they have been requesting fiscal information from the Legislative Service Office. But while budget amendments will be heard and debated, it is far from certain whether the Legislature’s most conservative bloc has enough votes to buck leadership’s preferences.

307 Politics: Can we talk about the Legislature's looming shadow budget?

Happy Monday! It’s T minus seven days until the Legislature gathers to meet in Cheyenne. Actually, it’s more like T minus five days, since most lawmakers will be arriving this weekend for a sexual harassment training and orientation. I’ll get down there Wednesday night for the duration. I pitched this last week, but make sure you’re following 307 Politics on Facebook to keep up once the session starts. This newsletter will still only come out once a week, but we’ll have live updates and video on Facebook and This week's newsletter is a little shorter, but I don't control the news cycle -- I just recap it and throw in some observations. Speaking of which, if you missed it last week, there was a lawsuit against the state auditor and big decisions on education.

“I’m hoping the small group that we’re talking about, whose eye is on cutting, will be in a minority,” said Marguerite Herman, a lobbyist for the League of Women Voters. “They will have their chance to speak their piece — fair enough — but the majority will see that government is funded at a reasonable level.”

But Herman acknowledged that even if right-wing lawmakers fail to pass a more austere budget, the session is likely to be used as a proving ground for many controversial ideas that may receive more serious consideration during next year’s full legislative session.

“Four weeks goes in a flash,” Herman said. “They are floating stuff understanding that it’s just a trial balloon.”

With recalibration in the rear view, educators and lawmakers prepare for budget session

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.

“I think the big one for me remains education,” said Sen. Bill Landen, a Casper Republican and member of two education committees. “I think it’s necessary to continue to have a policy discussion about where that funding model should be and where that budget level should be. That’s going to be a big one.”

The interim was not a quiet time for education. Two different committees set out with the specific goal of solving a pair of school funding deficits, one in operations and one in maintenance and construction. A third conducted a top-down review of the education funding model. Another was tasked with looking at revenues.

By far the most expansive — and, for many lawmakers, the most crucial — was the work of that third group: the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration. Those lawmakers were tasked with looking at the school funding model, a process that cannot begin with the question of dollars spent. Still, some legislators hoped it would reveal efficiencies that could help chip away at a sizeable funding deficit.

It didn’t. Instead, the model that was presented to lawmakers as a potential replacement was $71 million more expensive. The committee unanimously voted to reject it. The next day, the Joint Revenue Committee — citing the “implosion” of recalibration — swiftly and in silence killed several tax-related bills.

That’s not to say legislators will walk into the session completely out of ideas. The Joint Education Committee is sponsoring a pair of bills that will impose cuts. One “tightens” the funding model in several places, lawmakers have said, to the tune of about $19 million in savings in the first year. The other, which similarly tightens up health care spending, would also provide cuts, though it’s yet unclear how much.

For now, those are the vehicles for education cuts. Landen and Sen. Dave Kinskey are in the process of drafting a bill — or bills — that will provide further cuts, though both have yet to be posted. Landen said that Wyoming’s K-12 budget has been cut by slightly less than 5 percent, which is half — or even less — of what other agencies have absorbed.

But educators and at least one lawmaker are hoping there won’t be cuts. Tens of millions have already been slashed from schools, and they say that recalibration proves that Wyoming isn’t spending lavishly on education.

“I really hope that we won’t be seeing cuts to education,” said Kathy Vetter, the president of the Wyoming Education Association. “I think there’s a possibility and that’s my hope, that our senators and representatives will put education first and that we will appropriately fund it.”

“The big issue or big issues surround funding, and I think you know we’re happy with the starting place,” said Brian Farmer of the Wyoming School Boards Association. “We would like to see the ending place be the same as the starting place, but that’s not always the case.”

Sen. Chris Rothfuss, a Laramie Democrat, echoed that sentiment. He warned against “draconian” cuts to education and predicted that wouldn’t happen.

“I think it’ll be us trying to find ways to finance our current system of education,” he said. “Looking around for diversions, internal savings, wherever else. I don’t see any significant cuts on the horizon.”

That’s not to say some lawmakers won’t look hard to cut more. Sen. Ray Peterson, a Cowley Republican and the co-chairman of the revenue committee, said at a recent meeting that he liked the idea of increasing class sizes. That’s been a popular topic in conversations and came up repeatedly in last year’s session.

It’s easy to tell why: Bumping up class sizes by just one student could mean a sizeable cut, potentially more than $40 million. On top of that, some lawmakers have argued, most school districts have more kids in classrooms than they’re supposed to anyway.

But, educators respond, that’s because they use more money to pay teachers and keep them in Wyoming.

Rothfuss said that in light of the recalibration findings, class size increases would be “indefensible” in court. That’s because the architects of the new, rejected model paired a class size increase with more money for salaries.

Cherry picking just the cut, Rothfuss said, would blow apart that recommendation and end with the state losing a lawsuit.

“I think lawmakers would just be salivating to take that,” he said.

Still, he expects to see a class size increase bill.

Speaking of litigation ...

After last session, when the deficit was much more significant and lawmakers had just passed more than $36 million in cuts, some districts were openly discussing suing the state. Four of the largest districts passed resolutions allowing them to do just that.

Given that much of Wyoming’s current education landscape has been shaped by lawsuits, it’s not a surprise. But lawmakers have said they’re not influenced by those threats.

“Obviously some (educators) are saying, ‘If we don’t like what we get, we’ll sue you,’” Senate President Eli Bebout said. “Well, sue us.”

In any case, the threat of lawsuits quieted over the interim. Whether that continues into this session and beyond remains to be seen.

“If there are significant cuts, I would not be surprised to see some type of litigation follow,” Farmer said. “And I don’t think that’s what we want. That’s not the best solution.”

Vetter agreed.

“I think there are districts that are just waiting to see whether or not the Legislature does fund education,” she said.

Landen said he understood where the districts were coming from. But he said that the attitude on the Senate side of the Jonah Business Center is that schools need to make more reductions.

“I think all of our education professionals have become better aware of the depth and breadth of the problem,” he said. “Everybody’s been involved in the conversation. They were all there. There’s a better understanding of the magnitude that we’re facing. ... I hope that’s part of reason why it’s quieted.”

What about revenue?

A year ago, as the bust continued to gut the state’s coffers, lawmakers and officials across Wyoming were calling for the state to diversify its economy. Now that Wyoming is starting to pull its way out of an economic hole, it remains to be seen whether that talk will continue.

Speaker Steve Harshman has said diversions, pieces of the 1 percent severance tax, investment income and savings can help fill what deficits remain. A tax increase seems almost certainly off of the table, if it ever was: The Senate is staunchly opposed to it, and now that the deficit is smaller and recalibration failed to turn up school cuts, revenue hikes seem an even slimmer prospect.

“I’m not there yet,” Landen said. “Part of the reason is we were very careful over the last decade or so to put a lot of reserves away just for times like this.”

But while operations is in a better place, facilities remain in limbo. Lawmakers are looking at removing a cap placed on state royalties, but that could contribute $40 million, less than half and perhaps just a third of the annual cost of buildings. More may be filled by a piece of the severance tax pie, but that pie will be sought by more than just educators.

Even with the economy turning around, lawmakers should still discuss changing the tax structure, Landen and others said. Rothfuss has said in the past that if a large company were to come to Wyoming, it would pay no taxes beyond the property tax on its physical locations.

“I think our corporate tax structure probably needs to be looked at,” Landen continued. “If we bring in a big new company, because of the lack of taxes that they do pay, it may be a losing situation for Wyoming because by the time you’ve provided all the services and schooling to the people that work there, it might be a losing proposition simply because our corporate tax structure isn’t where it should be.”

“It’s an unhealthy structure that we’ve created,” Rothfuss added, “and the political appetite to deal with it now is diminished due to the fact that we’re all banking on oil coming back and saving the day.”

File, Star-Tribune 

The Jonah Business Center in Cheyenne is serving as temporary housing for the Wyoming State Legislature as the historic capitol building is renovated. It is unclear what the Legislature will do with the state's budget once the session starts Monday.

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

Kayla Dyer dances to the "Cupid Shuffle" on Friday night at Highland Park Community Church. 

Remembering John Perry Barlow: Internet activist, Grateful Dead lyricist and true Wyoming independent spirit

Before he wrote lyrics for the Grateful Dead and advocated for an open internet, before he was a fellow at Harvard and a friend of the Kennedys, John Perry Barlow was a ranch kid from Cora who nearly flunked out of Pinedale High School.

Barlow’s death on Wednesday was noted by the powerful and the famous across the globe. Edward Snowden posted condolences. Bob Weir, founding member of the Dead, tweeted tributes. But in Wyoming, where Barlow was known as a rancher, conservationist and amateur politician, his passing was felt as well.

“He lived in two or three worlds at once and had a soaring vision of how things should work,” said Wyoming’s former U.S. Sen. Al Simpson, whom Barlow worked for during his 1978 campaign. “He was a rancher. He was an entrepreneur. He was a dissident in cyberspace.”

Barlow was the only son of Mim and Floyd Barlow, a state lawmaker from Sublette County. He grew up on the Bar Cross Ranch outside Cora, but struggled in high school after discovering the lure of the open road. His parents eventually sent him to a private school outside of Colorado Springs, where he met Weir, and he later graduated from Wesleyan University after indulging in all the ‘60s hippy scene had to offer.

Shortly after, Barlow’s father died and he returned to Wyoming to run the ranch. The Bar Cross Ranch had always remained home.

“It was the place he loved,” said Kim Cannon, a Sheridan attorney who also grew up on a ranch near Cora and came to know Barlow through the Wyoming Outdoor Council. “It was his center in the world.”

Despite relocating to remote western Wyoming, his outsized life followed.

“He had the Grateful Dead out to the ranch to hay on many occasions,” Cannon said.

Barlow served as president of the Wyoming Outdoor Council from 1978 to 1984 and shepherded the conservation group through rough times, Cannon and others said. But he never shied away from complex issues. Instead, he ran straight toward them.

“He was a guy of unusually eclectic interests and talents,” Cannon said. “He was someone who was capable of seeing the paradox of so much of what we do and the absurdity of what we do.”

Barlow was known to bring a Kaypro computer with him to board meetings, where he sat clacking away at the early computer. The machine — approximately 3 feet long with a small screen at one end — was an oddity to the council, said Phil Hocker, a longtime Wyoming conservationist who served on the board with Barlow.

“John Perry never did anything by halves,” Hocker said.

Barlow wrote the council’s statement, “Wyoming’s Terms,” outlining its broad goals and beliefs, said Barbara Parsons, who served on the council at the same time. Among its points, the document stated that Wyomingites had a right to clean air, water and land as well the need for aggressive stewardship programs based on science and ethics.

“The document mirrored our belief and John’s that our actions should reflect a pact with our descendants, assuring them the same quality of life we have enjoyed,” Parsons said.

Barlow also helped manage Al Simpson’s 1978 Senate campaign and Dick Cheney’s congressional campaign in Wyoming. He also served as chair of the Sublette County Republican Party.

Simpson remembers visiting Barlow at his ranch and striking up a conversation with a group of young people seated around a table. Only later did he realize that he was chatting with John F. Kennedy Jr., whom Jaqueline Onassis had sent to Wyoming during his troubled teenage years.

Simpson and Barlow didn’t always agree on politics, like public lands issues, and Barlow was sure to let the senator know.

“He would just call and say, ‘What the hell are you doing?’” Simpson said.

Despite the arguments, the two men never quite destroyed their friendship. Simpson and his wife visited Barlow in San Francisco last year.

“Once he was loyal to you, oh, he was loyal,” Simpson said. “That was key.”

Barlow sold the Bar Cross Ranch in 1987. Cattle prices had plummeted and the property wasn’t making enough money to sustain it, his friends said. His father had left a substantial amount of debt on the ranch when he died.

“He tried to run the ranch and worked hard at it,” said Bob Bing, who runs the Cowboy Shop in Pinedale and grew up with Barlow. “But it was an impossible task.”

Barlow soon returned to the national stage when he co-founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation in 1990. The organization works to promote free expression and online privacy. He saw the internet as a place where people could be more equal. In 1996, his wrote his most famous essay, “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” in which he espoused a wariness of government that may be familiar to many Wyomingites.

“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind,” he began. “On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

“He always understood the independence that Wyoming people feel,” Cannon said. “He was a wonderful example of that.”

Over the next decades, he continued to write Grateful Dead songs, helped raise money for the tech news outlet Wired and co-founded the Freedom of the Press Foundation in 2012. He kept in touch with his hundreds of friends through email blasts dubbed “Barlow-grams.”

Barlow fell sick in 2015, but returned one last time to his native Wyoming before his death.

“You never really leave Wyoming,” Hocker said. “I don’t think he did either. You don’t really get it out of your blood.”

He, along with some friends, made the drive from San Francisco to a friend’s ranch outside of Big Piney for the solar eclipse in August. Photos posted to his Facebook page show him seated in a wheelchair dressed in all black except for a scarf with a pattern of skulls and rainbow-colored suspenders. He smiled beneath his eclipse glasses.

He watched as the sky darkened and the air cooled, as the shadow of the moon raced across the lands at the headwaters of the Green River.

It was an “utter miracle,” he later said in a post, a miracle spent in the company of the mountains and pastures he’d known his entire life.

“He lived his life like a meteor,” Simpson said. “He crossed the sky and left a trail.”