CHEYENNE — Lawmakers grew closer to an agreement Thursday on how to fund education in the near future, striking a deal for modest cuts and some revenue diversions.
“We’ve really spent over a week trying to bring the two sides together,” said Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper. “It’s been a long and arduous process. There are just some fundamental differences in approaches, and that was the main thing.”
As legislators arrived at the Jonah Business Center on Thursday morning, the two chambers appeared to be at an impasse on how to solve the state’s $240 million school operations deficit. In the House, lawmakers favored an approach with modest cuts and revenue diversions. Down the hall, senators supported a path forward that focused on cuts and savings; at one time, the Senate bill cut as much as $150 million over the coming three years.
But by mid-afternoon, the Senate had agreed to strip the cuts it had proposed in its budget and moved the House bill after adding a cap on special education funding. Left inside the budget, lawmakers said, were revenue diversions for which the House had previously advocated — and the Senate opposed — in its original education funding bill.
Educators suspect a deal was struck between the two chambers to solve their disagreements on the budget and education funding.
“How they’re going to fund education is in the budget,” explained Kathy Vetter, the president of the Wyoming Education Association. “Where they’re going to find the money, what the money’s going to be, is in (House Bill) 140.”
Landen said the budget deal essentially hinged on education funding.
“The biggest issue though, quite frankly, was just the philosophical difference,” he said, referring to the House’s plan to use revenue diversions and the Senate’s plan to use cuts and the main savings account.
Senate appropriations chair Bruce Burns told his colleagues Thursday morning that the budget deal “split the baby.” The budget no longer had cuts in it, and it gave both the House and the Senate a chance to test their plans. In 2019, education will be funded through the House’s revenue diversions. In 2020, it’ll be paid for through the Legislature’s rainy day account.
Not everyone seemed to think that was a wise strategy. Rep. David Northrup, a Powell Republican and the chairman of the House Education Committee, was unaware of the deal as of 1:30 Thursday afternoon.
“I don’t know what they’ve done in the budget,” he said.
He said he didn’t understand the wisdom of doing it one way in 2019 and another way in 2020.
“We can’t keep doing that,” Northrup said of funding education from the legislative savings account.
He said he wasn’t aware of any deal struck between the House and Senate because he wasn’t “in that loop.”
“Yeah, that’s frustrating,” he said.
Setting the stage
Earlier in the session, each chamber took the other’s primary education bill and looked at it with distaste. The House killed the Senate bill, and the Senate stripped the House bill of its revenue provisions.
But both sides had a backup plan: their budget. The House left its revenue diversions in its bill. The Senate, meanwhile, approved a budget amendment that would institute deep cuts to schools in the coming years.
In other words, each chamber could kill the other’s education bill. But because the language existed in the budget bills, lawmakers would have to meet and negotiate.
On Thursday, Burns told his colleagues that the amendment to cut schools had been removed from the budget.
“That’s in House Bill 140,” he told the Senate, referring to the House’s education bill. “People above my pay grade are going to negotiate that.”
Educators, who for weeks have been bracing for more cuts, suspected a deal was cut between the two chambers to solve the differences in education and move a budget — and the House’s bill — forward.
Teresa Chaulk, the superintendent of Lincoln County School District No. 1, said that was the rumor going around the building Thursday.
Late action in the Senate seemed to support that theory. As the Senate took a final look at the House measure, Sen. Dave Kinskey proposed an amendment that would’ve significantly increased the bill’s reductions. Though some lawmakers questioned it, the proposal seemed to have broad support: Sen. President Eli Bebout and Majority Leader Drew Perkins both spoke in favor of it.
But when it came time to vote on his proposal, Kinskey suddenly withdrew the amendment. Chaulk said afterward that because the amendment would’ve brought more cuts, it would’ve jeopardized the deal apparently made between the House and the Senate.
Landen, who worked to resolve the budget debate, said a deal to move House Bill 140 without more cuts was not discussed in those negotiations.
“That’s what we heard was going to happen, was 140 was going to be the vehicle to determine how much education gets,” Vetter said, “and the budget would be where the money comes from.”