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Sen. Bruce Burns, R-Sheridan, left, announced the Legislature's budget agreement reached between the House and Senate on Thursday morning.

CHEYENNE — The Wyoming Legislature reached a deal Thursday on a budget for the next two years, but it did so by stripping out the most controversial provisions.

The agreement ends roughly a week of deadlock between the House and Senate over education funding and comes just days before the Legislature is scheduled to adjourn.

“What we finally decided to do was basically split the baby,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Bruce Burns, R-Sheridan, told his Senate colleagues.

The split means that the two-year budget will use the House’s funding model for education in year one and the Senate’s model in year two.

Burns said the actual amount of money being put toward public education, which faces a $660 million deficit, will not be decided in the budget bill. The House and Senate have clashed over how much money to put toward schools and each chamber has rejected the other’s legislation setting spending levels. By stripping all school funding language from the budget, the bill can move forward while negotiations over education continue.

“People above my paygrade are going to negotiate that,” Burns said.

Deal remains fluid

But the state’s funding for the coming two-year budget cycle remained in flux even with the outline of a budget deal agreed upon.

Rep. David Northrup, a Powell Republican and the chairman of the House Education Committee, said he was “in the dark” about the budget negotiations as of mid-afternoon Thursday. He said he asked Cheyenne Republican Rep. Bob Nicholas, the House appropriations chair, what was happening. But Nicholas was interrupted while explaining, and Northrup, who is sponsoring the main education funding bill, remained unaware that a deal had been reached until he was informed by a reporter.

While Burns explained the agreement to his fellow Senators in the morning, by Star-Tribune press time the House had yet to receive a similar explanation.

The negotiations — which center around Northrup’s education bill — include an apparent deal to fund education for the next two years. In the 2019 fiscal year, schools will be paid for by moving existing revenues into education funding accounts, a strategy favored by Northrup and the House. In the next year, schools will be funded by tapping the Legislature’s primary savings account, which, coupled with cuts, is the Senate’s preferred strategy.

The Senate’s original and primary proposal cut as much as $150 million from schools over the next three years, officials said. The House, meanwhile, pushed a measure that would cut $30 million over that period and would institute a number of revenue diversions to pay for schools. Northrup said those revenue moves would have been enough to cover the $240 million annual deficit that school operations is facing.

In his explanation to the Senate, Burns said the deal was a way to give both chambers a shot at solving the education funding deficit.

When Northrup heard about that compromise, he closed his eyes, leaned back and slowly banged his head against the wall.

“The wisdom of it remains to be tested, I guess,” he said. “And if the idea is to burn the (rainy day account) up so we don’t have to make a decision, then so be it.”

Agreement reached abruptly

The deal itself was reached Wednesday night and approved by leaders of the House and Senate in a meeting Thursday morning, according to Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander, who sits on the budget committee.

Larsen said the committee met early Thursday to present its compromise to House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper, and Senate President Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, who both approved it.

“They went into the other room and said ‘Well, I think we’ve got a deal,’” Larsen said.

But Larsen said that because the Legislative Service Office has not had time to craft the agreement into bill language that can be formally voted on, it remains unclear whether a final deal has been reached.

“You step outside, the wind is coming from the north right now — three o’clock it might be coming from the south,” Larsen said. “I don’t know what will happen in the next 24 hours. The wind could shift.”

Even with a budget agreement, education and capital construction — money for state buildings — remain unresolved and it is not clear when the Legislature will solve those disagreements. Larsen said it was likely that additional committees would be appointed to work through the differences in education and construction in the House and Senate versions.

Alternately, the chambers could use “concurrence” to reach deals on education or construction, meaning that either the House or Senate amends the legislation such that the other chamber votes to accept with changed bill without a committee being required.

The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn Saturday but can extend its session for three additional days.

Differences ironed out

With school finance and capital construction up in the air, the remaining spending differences in the main budget were relatively minor.

One notable area where agreement was reached was on school construction. While funding for school operations was removed from the budget, the Legislature has agreed to fund all school construction costs including Carey Junior High School in Cheyenne, a major project that the House had voted to fund while the Senate had removed from its spending plan.

The deal to use the House’s funding model for one year and the Senate’s funding model for one year means that Harshman’s proposal to increase revenue from state trust funds and put those dollars toward education will receive a brief trial run during the fiscal year that starts in July before the Senate’s preference to leave funding models alone takes over in 2019.

Larsen predicted that negotiations and votes on the main budget bill, as well as the construction and school finance legislation, would continue through at least late Saturday.

“You’re not seeing me saying ‘we’ve got it guys, we are there and we’re going to move forward,’” he said. “I’m cautiously optimistic and think we’re heading in the right direction.”


Education and Health Reporter

Seth Klamann joined the Star-Tribune in 2016 and covers education and health. A 2015 graduate of the University of Missouri and proud Kansas City native, Seth worked for newspapers in Milwaukee and Omaha before coming to Casper.

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