CHEYENNE — A proposed constitutional amendment triggered the most lively debate this session on that relentlessly looming $300 million per year structural deficit to pay for K-12 schools.
The vehicle was House Joint Resolution 03 which would ask voters to divert two-thirds of the federal mineral royalty income from state lands to the Legislature to pay for education instead of letting it go into the state’s $4 billion permanent common school fund.
The diversion would last for six years when it would again go before voters if the Legislature wanted to extend it.
It is estimated to raise $162 million over the six years for the Legislature to spend on education..
The same bill failed to pass the Legislature last year. This year the measure passed the House 40-20.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Tim Hallinan, R-Campbell, said he wanted the diversion to last for six years because it may take that long for the Legislature to solve the budget problem.
The economy is bound to change over the six years, he said, the Legislature will take three or more session to agree on a sustainable permanent revenue source or sources to pay for education.
Rep. Clark Stith, R-Sweetwater, said the bill is a way to solve at least a piece of the problem.
Noting the diversion involves a permanent fund with a hefty balance he likened the state’s dilemma to a family that saves $500 a month but cannot afford to pay for groceries or utilities.
House Majority Leader Albert Sommers R-Sublette, said he would rather shift revenue flows before looking to raise taxes to pay for schools and their programs.
Hallinan’s bill, he said, could be a piece of the puzzle to finance education.
Several house members, including Rep. Bob Nicholas, R-Laramie, objected to putting a temporary diversion of permanent fund income in the Wyoming Constitution.
If the lawmakers want tens of millions of dollars, they should take it from existing accounts, rather than amending the constitution to capture the money before it goes into a permanent fund, he said. Those permanent funds yield interest income which is an important source of state money for spending.
The harshest criticism of the bill came from Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Laramie, who he calls the bill the “kick the can down the road amendment.”
Lawmakers have known for nine years of the structural deficit which he said is getting worse.
The ultimate question he said, is “where is the plan?”
“Now we’re saying ‘we don’t want to tax, we don’t want to cut. Give us six more years,’” Zwonitzer said.
“We know we have a crisis,” he said, and that sometime someone is going to have to make a hard decision.
But right now, he said, “There is no plan.”
The bigger question, said Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Fremont, is “what is the plan?’”
He questioned whether the plan would be to have new revenues in place in six years or to just “hunker down with our heads in the sand in hopes oil gas and coal will come back to the levels of tens years ago.”
“Maybe we should milk some other cows,” Larsen added.
He suggested the state might look at a corporate tax for income.
Rep. Jerry Obermueller, R-Natrona, said Wyoming is a wealthy state, an investment “powerhouse.”
Investment income is the second highest source of money for the state’s general fund.
“We need to be frugal but we don’t want to be cheap or cruel,” he said.
The debate centers on cuts versus saving, he said, and the current plan is to shove more money into savings. His plan, he said, is to balance the two and Hallinan’s bill is part of that.
What the debate demonstrated is that there is no plan for a long term fix and probably won’t be one very soon with more than a billion dollars coming in from the federal government.
Meanwhile, HJ03 was languishing at the end of the list of bills to be debated in the Senate Thursday, the last day for debate of bills in the second house.
Joan Barron is a former capitol bureau reporter. Contact her at 307-632-2534 or email@example.com