CHEYENNE — As the 2018 Wyoming Legislature struggles to finish its business in the wild and wacky final days of the session, the lawmakers at least haven’t had to wear bulletproof vests.Two members of the Colorado Legislature said recently that they had been wearing the protective vests in the Capitol in the aftermath of a sexual harassment scandal.
The two House Democrats, Alec Garnett and Matt Gray, said they feared retaliation from a fellow House Democrat, Steve Lebsock, because they had supported the women lawmakers who accused Lebsock of sexual harassment.
Garnett and Gray revealed they had been wearing the vests for three weeks prior to a hearing before a weeping Lebsock was expelled on a 52-9 vote, according to the Denver Post.
Lebsock was one of five lawmakers accused of sexual harassment. The Legislature allocated about $250,000 to pay outside investigators to determine the credibility of the charges.
Meanwhile, though the Wyoming Legislature has not been working under a cloud of a sexual harassment scandal, the lawmakers here are under the pall of a nearly $1 billion deficit for K-12 schools.
As I’m writing this, there has been no resolution or a compromise on school financing for the current biennium or for the budget bill.
Sen. Charles Scott, the veteran Republican legislator from Natrona County, always has had a good grasp of the big financial picture.
His analysis, simply put, shows that the state is depleting its reserves more quickly than the economy and revenues can recover.
He said the best estimate came from Sen. Bruce Burns, R-Sheridan, who said that if the Legislature were to pass the budget bill as it came from the Joint Appropriation Committee, of which Burns is co-chairman, the operating deficit would be $902 million for the forthcoming biennium.
Scott said that would mean the state would go into the following biennium with reserves of only $336 million, a third of what will be needed.
“At that point fiscal reality would hit even the most dedicated anti-taxer and the most dedicated big government spender alike and we would have a crisis with the probable result we would have both a massacre of existing government programs and a massive tax increase—I think both would be required,” Scott wrote in an e-mail.
If the deficit can be reduced by $200 million per biennium for the next two bienniums the state may get by, but $300 million would be better, he added.
Meanwhile Burns predicts the state will be out of reserves in about six years, he wrote in an e-mail last week, which is akin to Scott’s prediction.
An example of how the session was at loggerheads over school funding is the fate of two proposed constitutional amendments that were intended to blow up the Wyoming Supreme Court’s landmark decisions on school financing.
In 1995, in the first of those decisions called the Campbell rulings, the courts declared the state’s entire school finance system unconstitutional.
The court directed the Legislature to design ”a state-financed basket of quality educational goods and services” and to find the money to pay for the package. Lack of finances would be no excuse.
“All other financial considerations must yield until education is funded,” the opinion said.
The decision outraged many legislators who claimed the court exceeded its authority.
One of the proposed constitutional amendments introduced this session and sponsored by Sen. Scott would have returned the decisions on school construction to the local school districts.
A second bill, sponsored by Sen. Alfie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, would have restricted the judiciary’s role in school finance.
The proposal specified that the judiciary “shall not command the Legislature to take any action to generate revenue, through taxation or otherwise, to fulfill its duties to fully fund the public school system.”
Both measures sailed through the Senate and perished in the House Education Committee.
This also was the fate of a tax break on oil and gas, endorsed by the Senate leadership.
What we have here is either an ideological conflict between the two legislative houses or a bout of kicking sand at each other.
At least the legislators haven’t had to wear bullet-proof vests.