Educators and leading lawmakers have expressed cautious optimism that legislators can agree upon a comprehensive solution to the state’s looming education funding shortfall.
The officials’ comments came three days after a meeting Monday in Riverton between the Joint Revenue Committee and the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration. The wide-ranging discussion, which examined the litigation-littered history of education funding in Wyoming, the massive deficit the state faces to pay for its schools and what tax options lawmakers can pursue to fill that hole, brought together some of the most powerful educators and lawmakers in the state.
“Boy, that meeting was just kind of like drinking from a fire hose,” said Brian Farmer, the president of the Wyoming School Boards Association.
Rep. Albert Sommers, a Pinedale Republican and the co-chairman of the recalibration committee, said the purpose was to educate lawmakers — and the public — about the severity of the situation and what options were available, and to what effect. His committee is charged with examining Wyoming’s school funding model and, with the help of consultants, tweaking it or replacing it altogether.
Normally, that process wouldn’t happen for another three years and likely wouldn’t include a joint meeting with the revenue committee. But the school funding situation in Wyoming is stark: In the coming two-year budget cycle, which begins next July, education faces a deficit of at least $530 million.
At the meeting, lawmakers heard about the revenue that could be raised by increasing the sales tax, the lodging tax, alcohol taxes and fuel tax. But in a deeply conservative state that ranks near the bottom for most taxes, legislators appeared hesitant of asking their constituents to cough up more dollars for schools.
Speaker Steve Harshman, a Casper Republican, said Thursday that lawmakers need to have a discussion about raising revenue. A bill he helped craft in this past legislative session would have temporarily increased the sales tax, among other things. That provision was eventually killed.
And legislators should have “discussions about what kind of education system we want in Wyoming,” he said. “Do we want 48 school districts? Do we want small schools in every town?”
Harshman has advocated a five-step approach to solving the problem: a balance of savings, revenue increases, changing spending policies, cutting budgets and modifying existing funding. Sommers said Thursday that he supported that approach and helped write the original bill.
“But it failed,” he said. (The bill ultimately passed, albeit stripped of its tax increases). “We have to go back to the drawing board, look under rocks. Investigating diversions, new revenues, implications of new revenues and implications of more cuts, and then we have to make another run at it.”
Gerry Chase, the superintendent of Johnson County School District No. 1, testified at the meeting and said Thursday that he, too, supported a multi-pronged approach. He said the mood of the legislators at the meeting seemed to indicate they were becoming more amenable to potential tax increases.
“Now that they have the details and they see the time frame and the breadth of it, people are starting to swing around,” he said.
Ron Sniffin, the executive director the Wyoming Education Association, agreed.
“I think there was a recognition during the meeting – there was a lot of information that was shared that really pointed out the fact that Wyoming citizens pay very little in taxes compared to the rest of the country,” he said.
Sommers said he “had no idea” if lawmakers were more comfortable with raising taxes following Monday’s meeting. Harshman cautioned that it was hard to read the mood of his fellow lawmakers. He said that if legislators pursued tax increases, it might be a combination of smaller increases, like a 1 percent lodging tax that could produce around $6.4 million annually, primarily from out-of-staters.
That alone isn’t enough to fill a $530 hole, but taken in conjunction with other increases and the other elements of his multi-faceted plan, it could be enough tackle the deficit.
“I think there’s opportunities out there,” Sommers said. “Some taxes that we have that are paid more by out-of-staters than Wyomingites. There are ways to nickel and dime and get quite a bit of money in the end.”
Harshman added that this crisis is the product of Wyoming’s fiscal philosophy of living and dying by the energy economy.
“When the price of coal, oil and gas all go down all at the same time, that’s not a third-grader’s fault in Meeteetse or a second-grader’s fault in Casper,” he said.
“When you’ve fixed education to the most volatile sources, it sounds great when it’s good because you don’t have to foot the bill for it.”
But now, he said, the conversation about broadening the tax base must be had. He said the Legislature could spend down its primary saving account to fund education in the coming years. The LSRA, as the account is known, is already being tapped to pay for schools, but many lawmakers have balked at the idea of draining it at a consistent clip.
Sommers said that draining the savings account too far leaves the the state vulnerable to a disaster. But Harshman pointed out that telling taxpayers that lawmakers are raising taxes to preserve savings isn’t a winning strategy, either.
Several leading education lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Drew Perkins and Senate Minority Leader Chris Rothfuss, did not return requests for comment.
Nor did a number of superintendents, including Sweetwater County No. 2’s Donna Little-Kaumo and Laramie County No. 1’s John Lyttle. Both of those districts had previously passed resolutions authorizing lawsuits against the state should local educators feel budget reductions had crossed a constitutional line.
Harshman and Sommers said the possibility of another lawsuit isn’t hanging over the head of lawmakers, nor is the fear of getting booted from office should lawmakers raise taxes.
“People say, ‘Well, legislators need to lead.’ But you can only lead where people want to follow,” Sommers said. “I hear more in my community, ‘We need to maintain a robust education,’ more than any other comment. But I also hear comments like, ‘Jeez I wonder if schools could do it a little cheaper.’”