CHEYENNE — Lawmakers from the Wyoming House and Senate have established a committee to work out differences in their respective plans to fund the state for the next two years. But significant obstacles still stand in the way of an agreement.
While the two budget bills are nearly the same in terms of total spending, they are far apart in both where the money comes from and on several specific areas, some obscure and others more prominent.
One of the more obscure items in the Senate bill that isn’t in the House’s version is $7.5 million — to be matched by private funds — for upgrades to roads and bridges that see heavy use due to coal mining. A difference more likely to draw public attention is the more than $85 million in cuts to education included in the Senate bill but not in the House.
Rep. Andy Schwartz, D-Jackson, told his Democratic colleagues during a Wednesday caucus meeting that the differences between the two bills were so large that he did not see an obvious path toward agreement.
“For those who haven’t heard, don’t pack your bags,” Schwartz said, hinting that the four-week session may need to be extended.
In an interview, Schwartz said that the House and Senate had not taken the same approach to crafting budgets.
“Call them philosophical differences,” he said. “It’s not just a little difference.”
But Rep. Donald Burkhart, R-Rawlins, said the budget bill — which covers most general government operations — may be a relatively simple one to iron out compared to others. He said the two chambers will have a harder time reconciling their differences in two additional pieces of major legislation, one on school finance and the other on state construction projects.
“Frankly, the main budget may be the easiest one to do,” Burkhart said.
In order to resolve the differences between the House and Senate, leadership in each body appoints a group of lawmakers to a committee. The budget committee was set to begin meeting Thursday, but the teams for the education and construction bills were yet to be announced.
A key sticking point between the House and Senate involves the source of funds being appropriated, with the larger chamber preferring to rely on expected earnings from the state’s permanent mineral trust fund and the Senate favoring the use of cash. Theoretically, there is no reason that this should have an impact on total spending levels. But the Senate’s cash approach is part of its general preference to cut spending rather than find new sources of revenue for government or school operations — even when the new money being relied on by the House is already flowing into savings accounts.
“If you’re only spending cash, the impact to your cash balances looms large,” Schwartz said. “Even if we were spending the same amount of money in the two budgets, it looks different.”
House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper, has aggressively pushed a plan to guarantee funds to the Strategic Investment and Projects Account, known as the SIPA (pronounced “sippah”), which currently fluctuates based on the earnings from the Permanent Wyoming Mineral Trust Fund and so is an unreliable source of budget funds. But Harshman wants to use a reserve account to cover any gap between projected SIPA funds and those realized by capital gains from the permanent minerals trust fund.
“We’ve got to trust our trust funds,” Harshman has taken to saying.
But the Senate’s reluctance to do so — with President Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, arguing that the House plan is needlessly complex and potentially risky — has set up the current showdown.
If the Legislature wants the ability to override line-item vetoes by Gov. Matt Mead it must submit its budget to his office three days prior to adjournment, which is currently set for March 10. That would mean approving a budget by Tuesday, though leadership could relatively easily extend the session two more days and give lawmakers slightly more time to agree to a budget.
The committee working to finalize the legislation is limited to resolving the differences between the House and Senate bills. However, if they cannot agree on those changes or if lawmakers vote against the committee’s proposed budget, a new committee will be appointed with the authority to essentially craft a new budget from scratch.
Burkhart, who sits on House appropriations committee, is confident that the Legislature will be able to come up with a solution — when and what the solution is, though, remains to be determined.
“We’ll have to wait and see,” he said.