Following weeks of House and Senate theatrics, 14 line-item vetoes by Gov. Mark Gordon and two veto overrides by the Legislature the state’s supplementary budget bill came out of the 2019 legislative session looking much like it did going into it.
But the tensions behind its crafting remain as some senators said they compromised this year only to seek cuts next year. Senators called for changes to the rules to give themselves more power in the joint committee structure employed to produce state budgets.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) said his committee will abandon the current system if changes are not made.
“If we can’t get some parity in there … we’ll have our own budget bill,” he said. “At least we’ll have the Senate budget bill rather than dealing with a House budget bill that comes across as [the] Joint Appropriations Committee budget bill.”
House Speaker Steve Harshman (R-Casper) scoffed at the Senate complaints. “It’s called a bicameral system,” Harshman said, referring to the two chamber system of government used by Wyoming and the United States Congress.
“This is bicameralism,” he said. “If they want to get into a numbers race with us, the Constitution says you’re not going to do that.”
Minority party lawmakers and rank-and-file Republicans were also unhappy with the budgeting process, which they said treated their priorities as mere bargaining chips that were ultimately tossed aside. Funding priorities that House members with less clout pushed for Wyoming’s most vulnerable residents — like a budget boost for food banks and tax relief for the elderly — were casualties in the war between the chambers.
What’s in the budget?
The budget deal struck by the House and Senate last week is only around $200,000 above the original proposal agreed upon by the Joint Appropriations Committee before the session began. Some funding priorities were changed.
The final budget increases state spending by around $166 million for the coming fiscal year, according to a summary posted by the Legislative Service Office. The supplemental budget draws on $29.3 million more in federal funds. It creates seven new state jobs, two of which are part time.
If revenue projections hold, the Legislature will add $237 million to its savings account, the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account. But because of spending last year and a $49 million loan to the University of Wyoming for new dorm construction, all but $25.5 million of those new savings will be spent. Fiscal analysts worry future projected spending is outstripping revenues coming into Wyoming coffers, and that the state continues to draw down its savings.
Big increases in the supplemental budget came to the Department of Transportation, which saw the release of $15 million set aside last year to improve commercial air service in Wyoming by subsidizing some airlines. Another $15 million went to a wildfire suppression account Gordon can draw on and $14 million more went to a grant program for municipalities for waste infrastructure projects.
For the “external cost adjustment” for public schools — funding to match increases in costs, inflation and salary competition from other states — the two chambers agreed to the $18 million that had originally been supported by both the Joint Appropriations and Joint Education committees.
The two chambers had earlier disagreed dramatically on that amount, with the Senate halving it to $9 million and the House increasing it to nearly $37 million. Education advocates suggested shorting the external cost adjustment could spark a lawsuit, coming on the heels of years of cuts to public school funding.
Lawmakers also approved a deal to fully fund two tribal liaison positions to represent Wyoming’s two sovereign tribes in the governor’s office. Senators had originally wanted to provide only half the funding, but Gordon called for its full inclusion.
Gordon issued a firm veto message to lawmakers and struck 14 items from the bill. The vetoes did not affect overall spending levels and instead removed footnotes calling for reports and task forces that Gordon said weren’t budget related. The only significant veto lawmakers overrode was Gordon’s attempt to stop the elimination of two positions in the State Engineer’s office.
The budget compromise, as compromises often go, left few happy with the possible exception of House Appropriations Committee members and House leadership. But senators, particularly new Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Bebout, are unhappy enough that they’ve called for a change in the rules that would give the Senate more power to make cuts.
Bebout, who served as Senate president in 2017-18, suggested he had agreed to the supplementary budget, after threatening to kill it, at the behest of the new Senate leaders.
“I support our leadership in the Senate and the Senate leadership wanted us to have a bill and I agreed,” he told WyoFile on Feb. 22.
But on the last day of the session Bebout called reporters into his office for a press conference. Bebout had supported a lodging tax that ultimately failed. He initially supported a targeted corporate income tax but abandoned it as did the rest of the Senate. Senators never took a vote on the tax, which would have raised an estimated $45 million a year for public schools — the estimate was considered conservative.
Instead, Bebout suggested it is time for more budget cuts to healthcare and public education following the Legislature’s failure to raise new tax revenue.
“We tried the tax side, especially with the lodging tax and it failed, so my inclination now is we’re going to look at more reductions in spending,” Bebout said.
Bebout and the Senate Appropriations Committee are eyeing public education for cuts, as they have been for the last few years. The Department of Health — particularly programs for mental health and substance abuse treatment — is another target for Bebout, he said.
Both DOH programs have seen significant cuts, both in 2016 when former Gov. Matt Mead carved a chunk out of agency budgets and through later legislative work. Wyoming’s mental health and substance abuse treatments services are broadly seen as significantly lacking, a problem that has helped drive the state’s prison population, according to recent research.
Bebout argued the Joint Appropriations Committee’s structure gives the House too much control over writing the budget.
Today, the House outnumbers the Senate on the JAC, with seven representatives to five senators. The other major joint committees have a nine to five split, with the larger House of Representatives always outnumbering the Senate. As the Joint Appropriations Committee writes the budget bill, the committee makeup gives House members an advantage if the two chambers aren’t getting along.
By the time the JAC passes a budget bill, it has been swayed toward the House priorities, Bebout said.
It’s unclear how Bebout will pursue the changes he seeks. He suggested the House could reduce its committee size. Rules guiding JAC procedure could be changed to require that each amendment during the budget writing process receive a majority vote from both the Senate and the House members, he said. Current rules require only a majority of the full committee to pass amendments.
House leaders don’t appear interested in those changes.
Two leading House members said the dynamic goes back to the Wyoming Constitution which says the House of Representatives shall always have at least twice as many members as the Senate.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne) acknowledged there were different priorities between the two chambers. The House saw much of its spending as investments, he said. The House managed to multiply dollars spent on some projects by calling for matching funds from some of the state institutions that benefit from the investments. With matching funds, a $26 million investment by the Legislature in building projects would raise $80 million in matching funds, Nicholas said.
“Plus we’re building buildings that are going to last … and save us money [in construction] down the road,” Nicholas said. Many of those projects were in the Capitol construction bill, a separate spending bill that the House ultimately compromised on with the Senate by stripping some projects. The final version advanced $23 million in construction spending.
All five members of the Senate Appropriations Committee were new to the panel this year. Two members of the previous Senate Appropriations Committee — Senate Majority Leader Dan Dockstader (R-Afton) and Senate Vice President Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) — echoed Bebout’s call for changes, however.
The original work on the supplementary budget bill — hearings with agency heads and lengthy discussion of line items — had been conducted by the previous Senate budget writers last fall. Nicholas questioned the hard line taken by the new Senate members.
“They didn’t like what their prior appropriations committee agreed to,” Nicholas said. “They just came in and they wanted to wipe the slate clean and start all over again even though they hadn’t sat through the budget process. And you’re going, ‘Well I don’t know if that’s reasonable.’
“Why would you do that? They did it because they had their own agenda,” Nicholas said, arguing senators were more interested in ‘winning’ than in making informed budget choices.
“It’s just another example of trying to get as much as you can and win the football game,” he said.
Nicholas, Harshman and other House members defended the budget writing system. “It’s really a cool process,” Nicholas said, adding that the two sides in fact agreed on 80 percent of the budget bill.
The dramatics set the stage for a tricky fight next fall when the Joint Appropriations Committee meets to review Gordon’s first two-year budget.
‘A few heady days’
Some minority party and rank-and-file lawmakers meanwhile argued fights over the budget cut out their efforts to advance budget items on behalf of their constituents or priorities. Many amendments they pushed for on the House and Senate floor became mere bargaining fodder, eliminated by the budget negotiating teams.
Senate Minority Leader Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) criticized the budget writing as negotiations appeared to disintegrate midway through the session.
“The rest of the Legislature ends up being held hostage,” Rothfuss told WyoFile. “We sit back and we watch the majority leadership, the chairmen of the [Joint] Appropriations Committee battle it out and really nobody else that isn’t directly involved has any say in the outcome or gets their interests reflected.”
One freshman lawmaker and Democrat was somewhat shocked when she managed to push $500,000 for food banks through the conservative, welfare-averse House.
“For a few heady days, it looked like my budget appropriation of 500k for food banks facing unique or emergent needs (like our recent federal furlough) was going to survive,” Rep. Sara Burlingame (D-Cheyenne) wrote to WyoFile in an email. But at the same time, she worried House Appropriations Committee members might have seen the amendment as a throwaway increase to spending levels that could be sacrificed in negotiations to draw the budget back towards its original amount.
“Multiple old-timers warned me against being too optimistic as it was likely the House Appropriations Committee was happy to see it pass solely in order to have a bargaining chip with the Senate.”
Indeed, the amendment was cut during negotiations.
Not all budget amendments from rank-and-file lawmakers die, Nicholas and Harshman said. Like bills, some amendments need to be tried a few sessions in a row. “That’s just the process,” Harshman said. “A lot more defeats than wins in their deal.”
Indeed, Burlingame saw a bright spot to her failed amendment.
“By bringing it forth I was able to make the [other representatives] familiar with the truly valorous work being done by food banks in Wyoming and how they are impacted by plant lay-offs, furloughs, tornadoes and the like,” she wrote. “I got to soothe my own conscience, that all of our efforts would not go solely to bolstering industry.”
She will pursue the idea again as a bill next session, she wrote.
After the budget conference committee hashed out a compromise that was within $200,000 of the original budget, that deal had to be approved in each chamber. If either House or Senate had voted not to accept the compromise, the negotiators would have had to return to conference and bring a new deal back to their members.
In both chambers, lawmakers suggested their negotiators had lost out to the other side. “I kinda wonder what happened to our House position,” said Rep. Scott Clem (R-Gillette) during debate. “I almost feel like we kind of got rolled over a little bit.”
But Nicholas told House members to vote on the first compromise or risk negotiations deteriorating and the budget bill failing. “Think carefully,” he said on the floor before the Feb. 20 vote. “If you’re voting no, then what you really want is no budget at all.”
House Minority Leader Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie) disagreed and voted against the compromise.
“That wasn’t true,” she said. “Our House budget I voted ‘yes’ on, and the conference committee came back with tens of millions of dollars stripped from what the House budget was.”
Connolly said she is tired of seeing good amendments turned into sacrificial lambs.
The conference committee gave up the additional $19 million for schools the House had voted to add into the budget. Though that appeared to be House leadership angling for a good negotiating position, Connolly argued the original external cost adjustment was too low.
House members also had added $2.5 million for tax relief credits for the state’s elderly and vulnerable population, along with Burlingame’s money for food banks. “They cut out the recognition of the need to bolster up some programs,” Connolly said.
The tax relief amendment’s sponsor was Rep. Tim Hallinan (R-Gillette), a staunch fiscal conservative. He urged representatives not to concur with the compromise that shunted his proposed tax relief off the table.
“We have talked about a budget with $2 billion in it,” he said during floor debate of the conference committee’s compromises. “This has about $2 million for the poorest people in Wyoming. Send this committee back to look at this bill, take another look at it and put back that $2.5 million for these poor folks.”
Connolly said leadership of both sides were maneuvering throughout the amendment process on the chamber floor.
“Did we see shenanigans or politics being played by both sides in terms of the Senate stripping so much out and the House putting so much in?” she asked. “Sure.”
“What the House put in were things that people really valued,” Connolly said. “They were not simply negotiating positions.”