CHEYENNE — Pessimism or optimism? The tenor of next week’s Joint Appropriations Committee meeting figures to have a significant impact on early next year’s state Legislature session.
Two committee members in particular represent lawmakers’ opposing viewpoints in terms of the state’s economic outlook.
Rep. Ken Esquibel, D-Cheyenne, is amenable to tapping into the $1.7 billion in the state’s Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account, or so-called rainy-day fund.
“I’m more in favor of taking care of the needs we have currently,”
he said Monday.
Rep. Sue Wallis, R-Recluse, seeks a more cautious approach to the 20-day budget session starting in February.
“Unless things really change on the national and international scenes, we’re in for really hard times,” she said Monday.
Esquibel’s optimism is buoyed by late last month’s updated state Consensus Revenue Estimating Group report. The group, comprised of fiscal experts in the state’s legislative and executive branches, estimated the Legislature will have
$333 million more income than expected.
The new figures mean lawmakers will have about $3.7 billion available for the two-year budget period beginning July 1.
Most of the additional $333 million comes from interest income, primarily capital gains that CREG doesn’t account for in its state revenue forecasts. The interest income offsets losses in mineral severance taxes on natural gas and
Wallis said the forecast changed little from the revenue picture early this year.
“It is flat at best and I think that is really optimistic from what I know is going on in the coal and oil and gas industry,” Wallis said.
The estimates, she said, were based on coal prices and a level of production that her friends in the industry say are “not sustainable.”
Esquibel said CREG reports in the past have always been overly conservative. He said he would like to allocate more money to the state’s most vulnerable population, the developmentally disabled. He also favors pay raises for state employees.
Gov. Matt Mead has said the additional money means no more budget cuts at this time. However, he added that the flat long-term revenue forecast demands caution.
Mead said his top spending priorities for next year are aid to cities, towns and counties and pay raises for state employees.
He also would like to allocate more money for highways and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to avoid an increase in hunting and fishing license fees, which has been proposed.
A hike of 10 cents per gallon in the state fuel tax that went into effect this summer is expected to generate $72.4 million per year. But only about two-thirds of the total will go toward highway renovations and repairs. The remainder goes to cities, towns and counties for their roads.
A Wyoming Department of Transportation said the agency needs $64 million more to maintain highways in their current condition.
Interestingly, the WYDOT and Game and Fish budgets will receive more scrutiny in the Nov. 18-19 Joint Appropriations Committee meeting than ever. The Legislature this past winter passed House Bill 78 to expand the committee’s role to cover all funds received. Previously, the committee only voted on the parts of the two budgets that were financed by the state’s general fund.
Wallis sponsored House Bill 78, which appropriated $23,000 to the Legislative Service Office for salary, travel and per diem for committee members to meet for an additional five days to review the two budgets.
Both agencies are looking for more money to finance their operations.
Mead must present his recommended budget for the 2015-2016 biennium to the Legislature by
The Joint Appropriations Committee then will incorporate its own recommendations into the governor’s budget and present it to the full Legislature.
Esquibel said it is difficult to achieve Democratic objectives when the Legislature is so out of balance politically.
He and Sen. John Hastert of Green River are the only Democrats on the 12-member Joint Appropriations Committee.
“I think they take into account our concerns. And then they vote the other way,” Esquibel said.