Legislature Day One

A man takes a photo of the Senate during the first day of the legislative session. The House and Senate were more than $70 million apart on their separate budget bills at the close of business Feb. 1.

CHEYENNE – With both the Wyoming House and Senate chaired by two Natrona County Republicans, for the first two weeks of this year’s general session it seemed the two chambers were getting along well.

Then, last week, the placid surface of the capitol’s joyful union had a rock tossed into it.

The House and Senate were more than $70 million apart on their separate budget bills at the close of business Feb. 1. The Senate then suspended the rules to pass four new budget amendments to its version of the budget. At the same time, the Senate voted 30-0 to shoot down a capital construction bill passed by the House of Representatives, signifying the first cracks in what had been a relative peace following a bitterly-fought budget session in 2018.

“They’re just communicating with us,” Speaker of the House Steve Harshman, R-Casper, told reporters when asked about the vote in the middle of last week.

On Friday, it seemed a sort of armistice had been struck between the north and south wings of the temporary capitol in Cheyenne.

“I think it’s going to be fine,” Senate President Drew Perkins, R-Casper, said Friday morning in his weekly conference with reporters. “We’ve given it a week to let everyone settle down and think about where we’re at, and I think everything will work out just fine.”

When the budget bills hit the table of the Legislature’s conference committee this week, lawmakers’ work will be cut out for them. This is despite the fact both bodies, in a late night session, added nearly 100 amendments to the bill for the conference committee to work out and reconcile.

Most of the funding differences, Perkins noted, stem from a few key issues. Much of the difference in the House is in its budget for the Department of Revenue – an appropriation of about $15 million to $20 million, if Rep. Jerry Obermueller’s proposed corporate income tax passes the Senate. The conference committee could potentially bridge the budget gap by adding that appropriation onto the Senate side of the bill which, with some cuts to other arbitrary funding in the revenue department’s recommended supplemental budget, accounts for half of the difference in the general fund appropriations.

A large difference still exists between both chambers in the school foundation account due to a disproportionate external cost adjustment for the state’s schools. Other pieces, including $5.6 million in community college funding and $5 million in funding for a long-delayed rehabilitation project at Bitter Creek in Rock Springs, have also contributed to the gap.

“We want to be fiscally responsible,” said Perkins. “It’s a supplemental budget – the definition of which is for unanticipated needs or emergencies – and so the things that fit that profile and move the state forward are the things we’ll work out. The things that can truly wait until next time, those things we’ll look really hard at. And, at the end of the day, let’s not get stuck on $30,000 in a multi-billion dollar budget.”

For all the attention the “seeming” feud has attracted, in no part due to the grumbling of the rank and file members of the House and Senate, who feel the amendment process is being leapfrogged and bills they had fought for on the floor – like funding for food banks – could be imperiled, Harshman noted it’s important to keep the debate over the budget in perspective.

“I think it’s one of the easier, smaller supplemental budgets we’ve had in many, many years,” he said. “Less than 1 percent of the budget is in play – that’s important to realize.”

In an interview Friday, Harshman suggested the differences between the two bodies were so minor, he thought his team could go to conference committee that afternoon and resolve the differences between the two bills in “an hour.” However, the House adjourned at 3 p.m. with no actions taken, and the bills will likely be taken up Monday, though Perkins suggested the process could stretch as late as Wednesday or Thursday.

The Week That Was

Two college bills on a collision course: An interesting debate to watch over the coming weeks will be over the fate of two bills that would allow community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees. Senate File 111 – which we wrote about here – sailed through the Senate last week, and will be taken up by the full House of Representatives in the coming weeks after a committee-level victory last Wednesday.

Opposed vehemently by the University of Wyoming, SF111 would allow community colleges to offer bachelor’s of applied science degrees, in part to meet the vocal demand of far-flung communities across the state with no resources to train a skilled workforce and without the funds to pay for a degree from the University of Wyoming.

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Now in the House, that bill is opposed by Speaker of the House Steve Harshman, who has introduced a bill of his own – House Bill 263 – that would allow the state’s community colleges to institute a focused UW program on their campuses — something he described as a compromise between the two bills.

Harshman noted that while his own bill was imperfect, SF111 has the potential to be quite expensive, and that the time it would take to implement – three years – would be ineffective for what the state is trying to accomplish.

“We could start this in the fall,” Harshman said of his bill. “That bill will take years. I’m all for doing some kind of pilot – that bill will be kicked out and worked on – but I don’t think anyone has any idea of the fiscal impact that bill will have, especially as we’re facing a community college deficit now.”

Curt Meier signs onto letter to the president: State Treasurer Curt Meier signed onto a letter to President Donald Trump published in the Wall Street Journal by OpenTheBooks.org, a transparency organization that, in the past, has sued the state government for records it had failed to furnish. You can read the letter here.

Eye On Washington

Sen. John Barrasso, following the State of the Union address, appeared on several talk shows to discuss everything from the speech itself to the “hard-left” turn taken by the Democratic Party. He also spoke on the floor of the Senate to highlight a piece of legislation he is co-sponsoring to fight back against chronic wasting disease.

Sen. Mike Enzi joined a bipartisan group of legislators to introduce a bill to lift the United States’ trade embargo on Cuba, saying in a statement that “history has shown that the embargo with Cuba has not been very effective.”

Rep. Liz Cheney had her communications strategy as the voice of the Republican Party come under scrutiny this past week after an article in The Intercept leaked internal communications showing Cheney encouraging Republican members to sensationalize illegal immigration by playing up violent acts committed by undocumented immigrants.

Have any tips or suggestions to make this newsletter better? Let me know! Call me at 307-266-0634, email me at nick.reynolds@trib.com or follow me on Twitter, @IAmNickReynolds

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