CHEYENNE – The Wyoming Legislature failed to come to an agreement on tens of millions of dollars in construction spending by the close of business Thursday, compromising numerous construction projects around the state.
Even after a flurry of last-minute negotiations Thursday, the Wyoming Legislature won’t be funding $126 million in projects requested by Gov. Mark Gordon. The failure to strike a deal represents a breakdown between the House, Senate and executive branch that was fueled, in part, by unanticipated economic crisis earlier this week.
Critical projects now moving ahead without funding include upgrades to numerous community colleges (including funding for a land swap to build a college campus in Jackson), $5 million for an HVAC system replacement at the women’s prison in Lusk, and $4 million for hazardous waste removal at the Wyoming Life Resources Project in Lander. Others — with no funding to support them — will essentially be halted, including ongoing construction of a chancery court at the under-construction state office building in Casper.
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At the end of the day, it all came down to a swimming pool.
The divisions were apparent early over lawmakers’ willingness to fund projects for the University of Wyoming, with $49.5 million separating the two chambers at the start of the week.
A deal seemed close around midday Thursday, with the remaining fights over multiple items contained in the budget, particularly, projects at the University of Wyoming that included upgrades to War Memorial Stadium’s west bleachers, upgrades to the UW Law School, and a replacement for Corbett Pool – a sticking point for members of the House but a non-starter for the Senate.
Ultimately, the debate came down to three items: the law school, renovations to the west stands at War Memorial Stadium, and renovations to Corbett Pool, which proponents say cannot compete with facilities at other, similar universities around the country.
While the House eventually backed down on the west stands and reduced the sizes of its requests for numerous items in the budget to secure funding for the law school, the pool – and other projects — remained a sticking point for House lawmakers, who argued funding for it – with matching dollars committed from a number of private donors – would ultimately save the state money it might have to spend later.
The compromise created some heartburn among Senate lawmakers, however, particularly after the Legislature had just committed an estimated $1.6 billion for new dormitories and a number of various on-campus projects over the past several years. As the state continues to rapidly shed revenue, members of the Senate were clear in their position: enough was enough.
“With the declining mineral prices, we could very well be back here in two months redoing the budget,” said Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs. “With the correction in our economy and the price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia right now, it’s going to have dramatic impacts on our revenue streams. We may not even be able to fund the level of government we just passed out in the budget.”
That’s not to say the House didn’t try anyway: In one effort to reach a consensus, the House slashed the dollar amounts in a number of other projects in order to save the pool. However, the funding came from a number of projects members of the Senate never wanted to fund to begin with, Joint Appropriations Committee member Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Jackson, told reporters Thursday afternoon.
“They’re cutting something we never wanted,” Gierau said.
Some in the Senate did seem willing to play ball, however, ultimately coming forward with an offer of a $25 million block grant to the university for any number of projects. That offer was ultimately rejected by their members.
The concerns were not simply political in nature. Compounded with a novel coronavirus outbreak that essentially tanked the stock market, the talks unraveled late in the week, as the Senate found itself unwilling to make a compromise. At the end of the day, the Senate was willing to go no further, adjourning business just before 10 p.m. on Thursday night with a prayer and no deal finished.
“I worry a little bit that egos got in the way of being thoughtful about the projects that were really necessary going forward,” Gordon said in a phone call with reporters Friday.
It was an unusual conclusion for the House and Senate who, for several years, have made a habit of extending negotiations on large spending packages all the way up to the midnight deadline before eventually making a deal. This year, however, the House and Senate seemed unable to make it happen, with members of the upper chamber, ultimately, walking out of the building before an agreement was reached.
“I think it’s all right that we take a respite for a year, take our medicine, and figure out what’s going on with the economy. That seems appropriate to me,” said Sen. Drew Perkins, R-Casper. “That seemed important to me, but the House didn’t agree, and they had good reasons to do what they did. And we had good reasons to do what we did.”