CHEYENNE – Programs that offer financial aid and other help to low-income and elderly residents are facing millions of dollars in state budget cuts.
The two-year spending plan recently crafted by the Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee calls for defunding or reducing several of Wyoming’s public and private social services programs.
Elderly, disabled tax refunds
One of the biggest proposed cuts is to halve the state’s nearly $7.68 million tax-refund program for the elderly and disabled.
The 40-year-old program offers an annual refund of sales and use taxes, property taxes and utility and energy costs to seniors or disabled residents.
Only individuals making less than $17,500 a year or couples making less than a combined $28,500 are eligible for the funds.
About 6,000 residents got an average refund of $628 in 2014 through the program, reports the Wyoming Department of Health, which oversees it.
But if the full Legislature accepts the committee’s recommendation during next month’s session, the average refund will come down to about $314, assuming the same number of people apply.
Kim Maes is the director of Laramie County Senior Services. She said this is a significant cut for many seniors who don’t have sources of income outside of Social Security.
“It wasn’t all that much to begin with, and I know a lot of people really rely on this and really look forward to getting (it),” she said. “They use it to pay off their bills or use it on something else they otherwise can’t afford.”
The Joint Appropriations Committee also voted to defund the state’s share of the costs for an energy and weatherization program.
The Low Income Energy Assistance Program uses a mix of state and federal money to help low-income families with utility bills.
A related program provides weatherization services, such as adding insulation or making repairs, to help make homes more energy efficient.
Gov. Matt Mead supported a request to use $5.3 million in state general funds – an increase over the current biennium amount of $2.1 million – to supplement the $14.6 million in expected federal funds for the services.
But the panel voted to remove all state funding.
Sara Rhoten is executive director of Wyoming 2-1-1, a non-profit that helps connect residents with health and human services or programs across the state.
She said the energy assistance and weatherization programs are critical for many low-income residents.
“They really are preventive services to keep people out of crisis situations,” she said. “Lots of studies have shown that once someone enters a crisis situation, they have to rely on a lot of other resources to pull themselves out of that.”
Meanwhile, Wyoming 2-1-1 also is facing a cut.
The organization operates a call center that residents can reach by dialing 2-1-1. Information and referral specialists
help callers get in touch with a range of health and human services from the state, federal government or private sector.
Mead recommended lawmakers give 2-1-1 $200,000 in state aid – the same amount it got in the current biennium – for the next two years. But the committee voted to reject the request.
Rhoten said that cut would affect the group’s operations and limit its outreach efforts if an alternative funding source can’t be found.
“Not getting the $200,000 would really impact the quality of the services we provide,” she said. “It’s a significant portion of our budget, and the state’s investment over the past few years has really helped us build a foundation in the state.”
Another program set for a budget cut is the newly created Project Lifesaver Program.
A bill last year started this initiative, which provides bracelets to children and adults with mental disorders, such as Alzheimer’s, that may cause them to wander or get lost. The bands emit tracking signals that lets authorities quickly find them.
Last year’s legislation let counties apply for parts of $125,000 in grants. The governor sought $125,000 more for the upcoming two years, but that was reduced to $75,000.
Sen. Wayne Johnson, R-Cheyenne, was the sponsor of the 2015 bill that started the program. He said he hopes lawmakers can add back some of the funds.
“I hated to see that much cut,” he said. “But it really didn’t surprise me because of the state’s (revenue) situation.”
How much to cut, how much to save
The social services cuts are among many budget recommendations voted on by the committee.
It also decided to recommend about $45 million in K-12 school cuts and agreed to a plan that would slash state agency spending by 1 percent in each year of the biennium.
The panel decided to look for deeper and broader cuts than Mead suggested. But it also wants to use about $250 million less in rainy-day funds than Mead proposed.
State Sen. Tony Ross, R-Cheyenne, who co-chairs the panel, said the cuts weren’t easy to make. But he and other members added that spending cuts are needed, given the revenue shortfall caused by the downturn in the energy industries.
“The reality is everyone needs to chip in a little,” Ross said at the end of the committee’s work.
But the panel has faced criticism for making the cuts while spending millions on the University of Wyoming’s athletic programs and building projects around the state.
Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, is one of the two Democrats on the Joint Appropriations Committee. She was on the losing side of many of its votes.
“I’m concerned where we are for services and communities throughout the state,” she said.
Johnson, who is not on the committee, said he expects those like himself will be looking to restore many of the cuts during next month’s session.
In addition to the Project Lifesaver funds, he said he would like the Legislature to agree with Mead’s recommendation to continue the 2-1-1 funding.
“The (committee) obviously had their funding priorities,” he said. “But the rest of us also have our own priorities.”