The state Legislature's Joint Appropriations Committee endorsed a one-year, 2 percent funding increase for Wyoming public schools on Monday.
Known as an external cost adjustment, the increase in funding would boost salaries for teachers and other personnel who are full-time or contracted state employees. The bill would also increase the money schools receive for buying materials and paying utility bills.
The legislation will go before the full Legislature in February.
The Joint Education Committee proposed a 2 percent increase for two consecutive years at its meeting last week in Cheyenne. But the committee only voted for the one-year increase.
“We’ve never done an increase two years in a row,” said Rep. Steve Harshman, R-Casper, a committee co-chairman.
If the bill passes it will be the first bump in teacher pay since 2008 and will cost the state $19.25 million in 2015. There have been three increases in the past eight years.
Salaries for Wyoming teachers rank among the best in the nation, according to lawmakers and state officials.
But with inflation pushing up prices on goods, superintendents from across the state implored the committee to give them more money in 2015.
Rod Kessler, the superintendent for Johnson County School District 1, said he’s had to let go of an assistant principal at Buffalo High School and a technology director for the district since 2008. He’s also cut two administrators and other personnel.
“The next route is cutting programs,” he said.
Converse County School District 1 Superintendent Dan Espeland said the cost of living has skyrocketed because of an energy boom in his county during the past five years.
The average teacher salary in Wyoming is $37,000. He said many of his teachers make less than that.
Someone could get a two-bedroom apartment for $500 in 2008, he said
“Now you can’t get one for less than $1,500 per month,” he said.
The committee also worked on four bills affecting the state’s pension plan. The committee passed two and tabled the others.
One bill, known as the big plan, will mandate a three-quarter percent increase in employer contributions and a three-quarter percent increase by the state in pension programs in three years if the bill becomes law. Total contribution levels vary by position across state agencies.
The state currently has a $1.2 billion unfunded liability in its long-term pension fund, said Rep. Bob Nicholas, R-Cheyenne.
“We are trying to come up with a reasonable mechanism to cover that liability,” he said.
If the bill becomes law, the liability will be reduced to $600 million in 30 years, he said.
The other bill passed by the committee will provide a consistent source of funding for the existing retirement plan for emergency medical technicians in the state. The money will come from taxes levied on insurance companies that provide fire coverage in the state.