A bill finding cuts but no revenue for Wyoming’s K-12 education system will head back to the House of Representatives after passing the Senate 22-5 on Friday afternoon.
The proposal finds about $80 million in cuts to “phantom” health insurance costs over three years and redirects some state investment earnings to support the school foundation program. It also separates teacher salaries from the broader block grant paid by the state into a categorical grant with the intention of protecting those salaries from impending budget cuts.
The version of the bill passed by the House included a conditional 0.5% sales tax that would have switched on only once the state’s “rainy day fund” fell below $650 million. The tax hoped to answer a lingering question in the budget — how will the state pay for education if mineral royalties aren’t providing? Education in Wyoming is short $300 million, according to state economists. Lawmakers had hoped to find a solution this year.
But fear the Senate would reject the bill over the tax led the education committee to kill the measure before sending the bill to the full chamber. Over the course of three readings, there were multiple attempts to reintroduce a tax, but each of those failed.
Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, a long-time member of the Senate education committee made such an attempt Friday. He hoped to give members of the Senate an opportunity to consider the tax the committee killed by proposing an amendment to revert back to the House’s final proposal.
“If this amendment passes, the bill passes. Period. The end,” he said. “There’s no need for a concurrence, there’s no need for a conference committee. There’s no need for further negotiation. We’ve got a bill.”
“As I look at it, and I’ll remind the chamber I’ve spent the last decade working on education finance for this Senate, I look at the two approaches — the House position is better. It is resoundingly better.”
That amendment failed without much debate.
The other vocal opponent of the Senate’s education proposal was former education committee member Sen. Jeff Wasserburger, R-Gillette, whose main opposition was with removing teacher salaries from the block grant.
Wyoming pays for education through a block grant model called the School Foundation Program. Districts get money depending mainly on how many students they enroll, and there aren’t many strings attached. Districts can use that money for pretty much whatever they need to.
The goal of moving teacher salaries out of the block grant was to insulate them from anticipated cuts, explained Sens. Affie Ellis and Bo Biteman, both of whom supported the amendment in committee.
“We have talked extensively about who might be on the chopping block first,” Ellis said of cuts to education. “This past winter our district sent out a survey to our teachers asking if they would be willing to absorb a 10% cut in their salaries.”
She also referenced a Wyoming Public Media story about the Cody School District’s planned budget cuts, which include cutting two elementary art teachers.
“This isn’t an unfounded fear,” Ellis said.
While the amendment did ultimately stand, both Wasserburger and Rothfuss argued against it, saying it would make cutting more complicated for school districts, particularly because salaries make up about 80% of all education costs in the state.
“With 85% of the budget in people, what that means is the 15% that’s left has to be cut,” Wasserburger said. “So essentially what we’re doing is we’re going to protect the teachers and we’re going to hammer the kids.”
He worried electives like art and music and extracurriculars like sports and academic after-school programs would be among those cuts.
“All of those things that keep kids in school will have to be significantly cut to make this go,” he said.
The bill will now return to the House, where members will vote either to concur with the Senate’s proposal or to reject it, taking the debate to a conference committee.