CHEYENNE — On Saturday morning, the 20th and final day of the Legislative session, the House finally took up the sole surviving education funding bill. It then swiftly refused to agree with the Senate’s amendments to it, and as the sun set on the 64th Legislature, lawmakers had not settled on a deal.
“When the good people down the hall took it and obliterated the bill, and then tried to put it back together again, some of the language on special education got messed up,” Rep. David Northrup told lawmakers.
Northrup had sponsored the measure, which passed the chamber and was sent to the Senate. Senators there gutted it, over the objections of Speaker Steve Harshman, because, they said, that it was unconstitutional.
Northrup’s reasoning behind opposing the Senate’s version was that an amendment to the bill — which capped special education and provided a $2 million appropriation — was in conflict with other language in the measure. Effectively, he said, that $2 million, which was meant to somewhat offset the special education cap, was impossible for districts to receive.
The House agreed with him. Fifty-eight of 60 representatives voted against accepting the bill as it was, prompting leadership in both chambers to appoint a conference committee to hammer out a deal. By press time Saturday evening, the committee had not met to resolve their differences.
Sides dig in
It was the latest in weeks of disagreement on education funding between the House and Senate. Speaker Steve Harshman favored using revenue diversions to bridge a school funding deficit of $240 million a year.
Senate President Eli Bebout and much of his chamber were firm in their position that education needed to be further cut and that lawmakers should be transparent in how it’s paid for. They advocated using savings and the state’s general fund.
“I think we should’ve maybe been a little more aggressive (with education cuts), but I’m satisfied with where we ended up,” Bebout said Friday morning. “Did the House think we did too much? Probably. But it’s called compromise.”
The bill that went back to and was promptly rejected by the House on Saturday proposed $26 million in cuts in the next two years, with the bulk coming in fiscal year 2020.
Both sides agree that some amount of cuts need to be made. Northrup has repeatedly said the $26 million in cuts are modest. Those reductions largely focus on closing loopholes within the state’s school funding model.
Educators seemed as satisfied with the proposed cuts as they were ever likely to be.
After two years of reductions, the close of this legislative session may bring with it the end of serious cuts. Harshman, a Casper Republican, said Friday he thought reductions seemed mostly done, though lawmakers may take a closer look at efficiencies, like combining bus routes or districts’ administrations.
“Everybody wanted to say, ‘Well, it’s not cut as much as other state agencies,’” Harshman said, an argument that would be repeated on Saturday in the Senate. “Well, first of all, education’s not a state agency, right?”
He ticked off some agencies like the Department of Health that have had funding restored to the point, he said, that education has now been cut more.
In any case, lawmakers in the Senate have suggested they’re not done looking at school funding. As the chamber debated its budget bill Saturday, the conversation continued to swing toward education.
“How long until we hit the day of reckoning?” Sheridan Republican Sen. Dave Kinskey asked, after noting that K-12 cuts were removed from the budget bill.
Sen. Ogden Driskill of Devils Tower said that until everyone came together, the state would continue to slide backward.
“That’s education. They’ve got to come to the table,” he said. “We’re going to continue on this path until we hit a hard wall.”
Bebout, a Riverton Republican, told media Friday that he wanted to look at the “escalators” — like health insurance — that keep ticking up the cost of education in Wyoming. He’s also repeatedly asked why Wyoming pays so much more per student than the Equality State’s neighbors.
But Harshman dismissed the idea of cutting those cost increases and “ghost insurance,” or the money districts receive for health insurance that goes unused and instead covers other costs.
“When you hear all this about ghosts, that’s all just talk,” Harshman said. “And it’s a harmful narrative to locally elected school boards.”
He stressed that lawmakers should honor local control and give the districts the ability to use their funds as they see best. But he added that 90 percent of the money that goes to the 48 school boards is spent as dictated in the state’s funding model.
Signs of progress
While the disagreements in the House and Senate ran deep — they were repeatedly described as fundamental philosophical differences — the two chambers did agree to a deal Friday. The Senate stripped school cuts from its budget and in return, the House agreed to try its method of paying for schools in 2019 and the Senate’s in 2020.
Natrona County Superintendent Steve Hopkins said Thursday that he felt good about the House’s education bill as it stood then. It won’t throw Natrona County School District’s off of its plan to deal with previous budget cuts, which amount to $77 million statewide and $12 million in the Casper area.
Kathy Vetter, the president of the Wyoming Education Association, said the bill was the best she’d seen. But, she said, any cuts are going to hurt, especially now that districts have exhausted some of their flexibility to absorb reductions.
“This will hurt kids,” she said.
All things considered, the House’s bill was likely the best-case scenario for educators. The Senate’s primary education bill would’ve cut tens of millions from schools over the next three years.
In a meeting about state capital construction, Rep. Bob Nicholas said the House “is happy with the cuts in 140 now.” Whether that means that number won’t change remains to be seen.