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Barron: Peering over the cliff
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Barron: Peering over the cliff

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CHEYENNE — Some comments made toward the end of Wyoming’s recent legislative session capsulized the reason lawmakers are paralyzed when it comes to fixing the financing deficit for K-12 public schools.

As everyone must know by now the state is facing a $300 million hole in school funding in the next couple of years or so.

What is needed is a new or different source of money to replace the loss of dollars from the drop in coal production and fluctuations in revenue from the volatile oil and gas market.

The lawmakers wrestled mightily with proposals to cut funding for the K-12 program and ended up with zilch — no cuts and no bill.

During one debate, House Majority Leader Albert Sommers of Sublette County, explained his position on attempts to avoid the K-12 cliff ahead.

He said he could not go home and tell his voters he approved a tax increase as long as the state had all that money in the reserves.

Sommers had sponsored an amendment to the failed education funding bill that would have increased the statewide sales tax by one percent whenever the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account dropped below $650 million.

The tax increase from four to five percent would generate about $164 million per year for K-12 schools.

In the video of the debate on education Sommers came across as a sincere, concerned lawmaker.

Apparently many of his colleagues share his viewpoint.

His viewpoint is important because his leadership position allows him to decide which bills get debated on the floor of the House.

Any and all revenue bills must start in the House.

Rep. Steve Harshman, R-Casper, a former two-term house speaker said during the debate that the state is not facing an “Armageddon” and he wasn’t about to go over any cliff. Plenty of solutions, he said, are available, including an increase in the sales tax.

A sales tax would be the easiest tax to put into effect because the mechanism is already in place.

The Legislature will be back in session in July to deal with the $1.3 billion in federal money which will include a chunk for public schools.

The money will allow the lawmakers to yet again delay the hard decisions regarding the long-term financial welfare of the public schools.

Peeking over the fiscal cliff has been a pattern in Wyoming state government.

In the 1960’s the state’s general fund was down to $5,000 or so (I have heard different version of the balance). Republican Gov. Stan Hathaway finally asked for the first penny mineral tax.

The unpopular move was essential because the state was close to being flat broke and unable to make payroll. The mineral industry people were furious with Hathaway but he persisted.

During the fiscal crisis Hathaway and the State Board of Equalization invoked a state property tax of two mills of the maximum four mill state levy. The law allows the tax for the general operation of government.

Once the money from the first mineral severance tax began rolling in, Hathaway announced the two mill state property tax would end.

That is one revenue source still available today that has received little attention.

If all four mills were imposed it would raise an estimated $68 million a year. Although that’s far less than what a sales tax increase would pull in, the state levy is attractive because it does not need legislative approval.

Meanwhile, more muscle will be working on a long-term fix for K-12 schools.

Gov. Mark Gordon is going to put his people to identify options.

And the Wyoming Education Association (WEA) is getting more deeply involved. The organization intends to engage business and other entities outside the education community to be aware of the collateral damage cuts in K-12 schools can cause to cities and towns.

And perhaps the Legislature will recover from its paralytic state and sprout more statesmen who will work for the public good, not just their re-election.

Joan Barron is a former capitol bureau reporter. Contact her at 307-632-2534 or jmbarron@bresnan.net

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