CHEYENNE — Beginning Monday, the Wyoming Legislature needs to focus on the proposed state budget and delay attention on the legal status of a 2013 law that stripped state Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill of many of her duties, legislative leaders say.
The session will open at 10 a.m. with Gov. Matt Mead's address to a joint state House-Senate assembly, followed by a report on the judiciary from Wyoming Supreme Court Chief Justice Marilyn Kite.
The two houses then will begin introducing bills. All nonbudget bills require a two-thirds majority vote to be considered in the budget session.
Legislators, meanwhile, are thinking and talking about the Wyoming Supreme Court's split decision to strike down last year's Senate File 104, which reorganized the state Department of Education and removed administrative duties from Hill.
State Attorney General Peter Michael has said he will ask the court for a rehearing. The deadline for his petition is Wednesday.
House Speaker Tom Lubnau, R-Gillette, said he has cautioned legislators not to let the Hill matter overshadow the complicated issues to come before them in the 20-day budget session.
Lubnau and other legislative leaders, including Senate President Tony Ross, R-Cheyenne, say there are many variables and unanswered questions regarding the case that can't be resolved in the short session.
"I'm sensitive to the criticism of rushing things through," Lubnau said. Ross said the legal developments are "new stressors" added to the budget session that hadn't been expected.
Ross and Senate Majority Leader Phil Nicholas, R-Laramie, said major decisions about the roles of the education department and the state superintendent may require a special legislative session later on.
Nicholas and House Majority Leader Kermit Brown, R-Laramie, said legislators want the department to perform better, and they also need to be sure the superintendent's job is one that will attract qualified professionals to run for the elected office.
Brown, however, said a special session shouldn't be tacked on to the end of the budget session.
"I just don't think we could get it figured out that quickly," he said.
Brown said his main concern going into the session is the budget. He intends to recommend a 2.5 percent pay raise for state, community college and University of Wyoming employees for each of the two fiscal years in the budget.
The Joint Appropriations Committee's $3.3 billion general fund budget bill includes a 2 percent hike for each year.
"We're losing highway patrolmen who are going to work for the counties because the counties pay more money," Brown said. "I'm also persuaded that the university is starting to get beat up a little bit on their pay scales."
Both Lubnau and Brown said the legislators also need to look at funding for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
The biggest issue, Lubnau said, will be dealing with the Affordable Care Act.
Two bills will come before the session to expand the state Medicaid program.
Much discussion also is expected over changes in the laws on involuntary commitment of people who are believed to be mentally ill.
Meanwhile, no bills dealing with the hot-button issues of guns or abortion had been filed as of last week.
Republicans control the Senate 26-4 and the House 52-8. Democratic leaders favor the 2.5 percent pay raise for employees and full expansion of Medicaid to cover 76,000 people who now are uninsured, and reduce costs for the state.
Democrats also support an increase in the minimum wage. The budget, the Democrats say, needs to focus more on people than on buildings.
Senate Minority Caucus Chairman John Hastert of Rock Springs, a member of the Joint Appropriations Committee, said every year legislators hear talk of "gloom and doom" regarding revenues and the budget. Yet the revenues are holding, he said, through 2018.
Hastert said one of the biggest problems he hears at town meetings is from special-district officials who say their aging water and sewer systems are on the verge of collapse and they have no money to fix them.
Hastert said he means people like those in the special districts when he says the state needs to invest in people, not Wall Street.
House Minority Leader Mary Throne of Cheyenne said every year she wants to talk about the revenue picture.
"Our revenue is stable now, and I want to discuss why we have been stuffing so much money away in the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account without even discussing why we are doing it," Throne said.
The account, she said, has a balance of nearly $1.7 billion.