CHEYENNE — With more than a third of lawmakers dissenting, the Wyoming Legislature approved a state budget for the next two years Saturday, sending it to Gov. Matt Mead for his review.
“I for one am not satisfied with what we did with reductions,” Senate President Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, said prior to the vote. “Is this the compromise I wanted? No.”
But Bebout nonetheless urged approval of the budget, on what is scheduled to be the last day of the legislative session, noting that the Legislature was obligated to pass a budget.
The Senate passed the budget 19-11 and the House passed it 38-20.
Two other major pieces of spending legislation regarding capitol construction and education were still being debated by press time.
The dissent stemmed from what many lawmakers believed was a failure to create a budget that significantly shrinks the state’s $850 million budget deficit, which is currently being paid for mostly out of savings, or to reduce spending on schools.
“This general fund just has so much pork in it,” said Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper.
Gray was specifically frustrated with some particular appropriations, including a new tourism website for the state and money to rescue a private vocational school in the state.
Two members of legislative leadership — Sen. Drew Perkins, R-Casper, and Rep. David Miller, R-Riverton — voted against it.
The approved budget hews closely to Gov. Matt Mead’s recommendations for how to fund state agencies, though in an attempt to find a compromise between the House and Senate’s spending plans, lawmakers removed both education cuts and state construction projects from the bill last week.
The budget keeps funding levels for most of state government largely stable, with increases in spending on social services that Mead argued were hit too hard by cuts passed during the last legislative session.
It also includes about $42 million for Endow, the governor’s economic diversification initiative, and Legislative Service Office finance director Don Richards said it increased the state’s spending gap — the difference between revenue and spending — to around $1 billion without including any of the construction projects.
Much of the Senate debate acknowledged that many state agencies had already been significantly cut and instead focused on the lack of reductions to school funding. Lawmakers cut education roughly $70 million last year and there is a proposal to further reduce school spending by about $30 million this year, far less than the Senate’s original proposal to slash around $80 million.
Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, argued that the state was spending its savings too quickly and setting the stage for future tax increases.
“We’re burning cash,” Kinskey said.
However, Senate Minority Leader Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, said it was disingenuous to balk at spending savings while rejecting out of hand any new taxes or tax increases.
“The idea that we could have miraculously possibly found $900 million of additional cuts is absurd,” Rothfuss said. “It’s impossible.”
The Legislature rejected all major revenue bills in its first week, including a statewide lodging tax that was supported by Bebout.
Divisions between the House and Senate on spending were laid bare later Saturday when members clashed over the construction spending at a meeting meant to resolve the differences.
After about half an hour of productive discussions on loan programs, Senate President Eli Bebout faced off against Rep. Bob Nicholas, who was representing the House. Bebout first accused the House of violating verbal agreements on construction spending, which Nicholas disputed.
Bebout then said that the only construction projects that the Senate would vote to approve were two healthcare facilities and a road improvement project related to coal mining.
“Then we don’t need to meet,” Nicholas said.
“Ok then we’re done,” Bebout said before standing up and leaving the room.
The House wants to fund several other projects, including a state office building Casper, improvements to the prison in Rawlins and a science facility at the University of Wyoming.
Earlier in the meeting, Nicholas had disputed that the House had failed to provide revenue to cover the $1 billion in spending, pointing to several hundred million dollars in leftover cash from last year and a tweaked model for the state’s trust funds that covered roughly two-thirds of that amount.
“We have all of it fixed in the short term,” Nicholas said.
As of press time, the committee had not met again to solve the construction spending question. Education funding also remained up in the air and several lawmakers acknowledged decisions related to construction that needed to be made before dealing with school finance. It was not clear when either of those meetings would take place.
House Speaker Steve Harshman said the Legislature was planning to meet late into the night. While Saturday is the last scheduled day of the Legislature’s four-week session, they can meet for three additional days at the discretion of leadership if necessary.
Before taking an evening break, Rep. Donald Burkhart, R-Rawlins, suggested that committees were set to work on both construction and education later that night.
“It could be a long, long evening so you might want to make sure you have a place to sleep tonight,” Burkhart said.
Given that the main budget bill has passed with full funding for schools, if the House and Senate cannot resolve their differences on the building projects or education finance, that means there will be no money available for construction until at least next year, but also that the cuts to schools being considered would not go through.
But Harshman suggested he did not want to go that route in an interview Friday.
“My motivation is not to get out of here, it’s to do it the right way,” he said.