CHEYENNE — As the Wyoming Legislature wraps up what is scheduled to be its final week, Gov. Matt Mead says, based on conversations with legislative leadership, that education funding levels will be largely preserved.
House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper, and Senate President Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, remain divided on school spending, with Bebout seeking deeper cuts. A committee created to bridge the divide has not met since Monday.
One of Mead’s top priorities is his economic diversification initiative, known as Endow, and he said in an interview with the Star-Tribune that well-funded schools are a necessary aspect of that effort.
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“You can’t have Endow without a strong education system,” Mead said.
Mead said he had met with Bebout and Harshman on Wednesday morning and was confident that a compromise would be reached.
“I don’t think anyone is going to be perfectly happy with it, but I think we’ll come out of here with education still in a pretty good place,” Mead said.
While the Legislature cut roughly $70 million from education last year for a two-year period, the governor did not propose any further cuts in his budget recommendation to lawmakers made in December. That proposal served as the starting point for the Legislature, with the House proposing about $30 million in spending cuts and the Senate proposing roughly double that.
But both chambers then rejected the other’s education spending plan and the conference committee deadlocked on how to bridge those differences in the main budget bill. Time has now become a serious consideration as the clock ticks down until the four-week budget session is scheduled to end Saturday.
In order to override potential line item vetoes by Mead, the Legislature must deliver its budget to his office four days before adjourning. With no budget agreed upon by the House and Senate by press time Wednesday, it appeared that four-day window had already closed.
The Legislature can continue to meet through next Wednesday if leadership decides to do so, which would allow lawmakers to consider any vetoes made by Mead or to complete the budget if that is not done this week. However, all other legislative business is scheduled to be finished by Saturday, making any extension a last resort.
(Going beyond Wednesday would require a two-thirds vote of lawmakers or a directive from Mead.)
Alternately, Mead could agree to shorten his allotted time for budget review. However, he appears reluctant to do so.
“What I need to see is what the budget looks like and that takes some time,” he said. “If they run out of time on the three-day window, that’s the side effect of the calendar that they’ve been on.”
While the governor has three days to review the budget, that is calculated as 72 hours, meaning the Legislature would need to meet one additional day in order to vote on veto overrides.
In his wide-ranging interview with the Star-Tribune, which was streamed live on Facebook, Mead also discussed the importance of increasing funding to the Department of Health — a move the Legislature has largely gone along with — and noted his concern to some parts of the “stand your ground” self-defense bills being considered by the House and Senate. Those parts were eventually stripped out.
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Mead also discussed his belief in Endow, the economic diversification plan, which is a 20-year plan that began in earnest last year. With Mead leaving office next January, he said it would be essential that the project be continued by whoever replaces him as governor.
“For it to work it does have to be sustained through multiple administrations,” Mead said. “We can’t have a mindset that our entire future is based on the price of a barrel of oil or the price of coal.”
He said that success would include more young people choosing to stay in Wyoming, as well as a move away from the state’s reliance on the mineral industry for 70 percent of public revenue. In part, Mead said, that would mean reforming the state’s tax code — an effort he noted had failed to move ahead during this legislative session, as all major tax proposals died in the first week.
As for when the Legislature will finish its work this year, Mead said he was not sure.
“Some days we seem like we get a little closer and some days it seems like we get a little further apart,” Mead said.