CHEYENNE—A proposal to give $8 million in matching funds to University of Wyoming athletics will likely meet resistance this year among lawmakers who say they must reject spending the money at a time of budget constraints and possible slashes to other state programs.
Since supporters of the match feel equally passionate – including many in legislative leadership who argue the money is part of an ongoing UW program and will likely be reduced – the athletics spending will likely be one of the big budget fights this year.
Rep. Lloyd Larsen of Lander said he plans to oppose it, even though he isn’t against the match. He is trying to watch the state’s finances.
“I think it’s fine if we have the money,” the Republican said. “It’s just one of the things I don’t have as a priority.”
Sen. Tony Ross, R-Cheyenne, is a chairman of the Joint Appropriations Committee and a member of UW’s booster organization, the Cowboy Joe Club, which would provide the private match. UW originally wanted $10 million for the program, he noted. Gov. Matt Mead and the committee, in initial budget proposals, recommended $8 million.
“A 20 percent reduction to an existing program is pretty significant,” Ross said.
UW, as Wyoming’s only state-funded four-year university, inspires pride and loyalty among legislators, many of whom are alumni. Last year, 17 lawmakers of the 90 in the Legislature were members of the Cowboy Joe Club, according to information the club provided to the Star-Tribune.
That includes the leaders of both the Senate and House: Phil Nicholas and Kermit Brown.
Donations from lawmakers ranged from Sen. Leland Christensen’s $30 contribution to $3,000 apiece from Sen. Eli Bebout and Rep. Tom Walters.
The state’s ethics and disclosure laws mostly address gifts and travel bestowed to lawmakers. They do not address situations in which private money leverages state money.
Lawmakers said they have received many emails from the public, both for and against the match, during these early days of the 2016 session. They are in the beginning of a roughly 20-day session where legislators will adopt a two-year budget for the state. This year’s session is particularly difficult because revenue from coal, oil and natural gas that funds state agencies is expected to be down $477.7 million.
While the Joint Appropriations Committee, in its initial review of the budget, approved $8 million for the UW match, it cut $45 million to K-12 schools. Other proposed cuts included $3.8 million to help low-income elderly and disabled Wyomingites with taxes and utility and energy costs and $3.3 million to a program that pays for eight family literacy programs combating generational poverty across the state.
Larsen is not the only lawmaker saying he’ll oppose the match. Legislators from both political parties have said they are unwilling to support it.
Democratic Rep. Charles Pelkey, whose Laramie district includes faculty, staff and students at UW, will vote against it. It’s more important to increase faculty and staff salaries to a competitive level than to fund athletics at a time when the pie is smaller, he said.
“I was in here over the weekend, talking to members of the other party,” he said. “There’s not much support for the idea.”
Most lawmakers said $8 million is a relatively small amount of money – considering the two-year budget they will adopt by the end of the session will likely end up around $3 billion. But they don’t like the message it sends.
“The thing is, we’re being asked to cut essential programs across the board,” Pelkey said.
Pelkey said he might be more open to funding athletics if the Legislature accepted federal money to expand Medicaid to 20,000 low-income Wyoming adults. The state would be in a better financial position, he said.
“I suspect someone is going to take the funding out,” said Sen. Charles Scott, the longest serving member of the Legislature.
And the attempt will likely be successful, the Casper Republican added.
Scott doesn’t know who is planning a budget amendment to remove the athletics match at this point. He said he’s focusing on other bills.
Scott notes that attending games is part of the college experience, and student athletes learn life skills about team work and discipline. But he questions the state’s priorities if, at a time of cuts, athletics gets $8 million.
“It’s always nice to have winning athletic teams, but it’s more important to have a world class petroleum engineering program,” he said.
UW officials are asking for the money to pay for a number of initiatives to improve athletics – from nutrition and recruiting to travel and stipends for student athletes to cover their cost to attend school.
They say the amount of money spent on UW athletics is low compared to other schools in the Mountain West Conference, at a time when some NCAA rules will allow even more money to be spent on athletics.
The $8 million in state money over the next two years would be matched by another $8 million from private donors. This year, the school has $5 million in state matching funds for athletics, and last year the school received $1 million, but the match was set up differently.
“We expect we’ll be able to raise it,” said Chris Boswell, a UW vice president.
Ross, the chairman of the Joint Appropriations Committee, said initiatives that will benefit from the match aren’t just Wyoming football or basketball.
“It goes across the board for all our university athletics,” he said.
For instance, some of the money will go to airfare for teams that usually travel by bus, since there is not enough money currently to fly them. Air travel will reduce the amount of time the student athletes are away from class, said Boswell, the UW vice president.
Over the long term, it’s not just Wyoming athletics that will benefit from the money, but everyone who attends UW. After all, attending games is part of the college experience, Ross said.
“Kids go to the University of Wyoming for a quality experience, not just the athletes,” he said. “They want to go to a school for those amenities.”
Chad Baldwin, an associate vice president at UW, noted in an email last week that like other state agencies, money to UW is expected to decrease in other areas. For instance, the portion of the school’s budget that comes from the state’s General Fund faces a 1.5 percent reduction over the next two years, about $6 million.
And academics and research, Baldwin added, could receive $11.5 million in new money as a match.
Ross said he will continue to defend the match because he believes it’s a cut from this year.
“Very few programs are taking a 20 percent reduction – some of them are,” he said. “But that’s quite a haircut.”
Pelkey, the Laramie representative, exchanged emails with a couple who asked him to vote for the match.
“We believe that our current coaches are working hard to produce winning teams, but they need these funds to survive the battle,” the couple wrote.
Pelkey replied that he agreed combining sports and academics is valuable to a young person’s life. But during one of the most important budget sessions in Wyoming history, he couldn’t support the match this year.
“As we begin this critical session, I feel that it is my duty to prioritize the ways which we spend our rapidly dwindling resources. How am I supposed to go back to my constituents and tell them that I voted to cut millions from K-12 and post-secondary education and then, as an afterthought, tell them how I was, nonetheless, willing to boost funding for a Division I athletic program?” he wrote.
“I could not imagine standing in front of a room full of constituents and say, “Yes, I know we cut the education budget. I know we trimmed social services. I know that key faculty are leaving for better pay at other universities. I know that we are replacing tenure-track positions with poorly paid adjuncts and I know that a significant number of UW support staff are eligible for food stamps ... but, hey, we went to the Fiesta Bowl!’”