CHEYENNE – The Wyoming Senate’s Education Committee has advanced a bill that, if passed, could effectively rewrite the state’s longstanding K-12 education funding model.
Since court decisions ruled Wyoming must fund each school district equitably based on a uniform “basket of goods,” the cost of running the state’s public schools risen continuously. Wyoming’s revenues — powered by oil, gas and coal — have, however, declined. Many in the Legislature’s upper chamber have said they believe the imbalance is unsustainable and must be addressed.
The sharpest spending increases, according to an LSO policy brief, were seen in the years after the 2008 “Campbell IV” decision, in which changes were made to the state’s education funding model that have kept the cost of education going up, even as revenues have gone down. Now, members of the Wyoming Senate hope to challenge the assumptions of that model.
This week, the Senate is set to decide on a number of budget reductions that, if passed, could potentially bring the basis of the state’s cost-based funding model into question.
Rather than funding programs at levels prescribed by the model, the Senate proposes instead to fund education based on the perceived realities of how schools operate under the lump sum they receive each year. The amount of money in that lump sum, or block grant, is based on a projected figure outlined under the state’s education model which estimates how much certain services cost, and how much each school district gets to cover that cost. However, Senate leadership contends that many schools don’t operate that way, and often use dollars allocated for one portion of operations in that block grant to fund other programs.
For example, if a school is funded on the assumption class sizes are 16 students but, in reality, class sizes are 20, the Senate wants to adjust funding to reflect that reality. That would force schools to make cuts elsewhere in their budgets in areas like administrative pay, committee members say.
The Senate has also worked to protect teacher salaries by exempting the money used to pay them from the larger block grant for school operations, meaning educator positions or pay cannot be cut to subsidize other areas of a school’s budget.
“Our obligation is to fund education,” Sen Affie Ellis (R-Cheyenne) told reporters Friday. “But I think the attitude has been that we write the blank check, and then just walk away and don’t question how those dollars are spent. And so now that we’re in a situation where we see a deficit, it’s really hard for me to go to my voters and say that I want to impose a property tax or sales tax, and then look them in the eye and say the [education funding] system we’ve got is efficient. We have not done that work.”
But doing that, critics say, could bring the Senate proposal in direct conflict with the precedents established under the Campbell County court decisions, which have come to define the funding model used today. Even with the sideboards written into the bill, critics say the legislation does not reflect the realities of today’s classrooms.
“We already know that districts don’t currently have everything that they’re supposed to. So taking away additional dollars still takes money away from that district, and they’re going to have to make reductions,” Wyoming Education Association President Grady Hutcherson, a teacher of 24 years, told WyoFile. “With the amount and type of cuts that we’re seeing, the way districts will be able to achieve that is by eliminating teaching positions as well as all education employees. It’s not going to be just teaching jobs.
“On paper, for them, that makes sense,” he said of lawmakers. “But in practicality and based on what’s happening at the district level, the funding for teachers is not sufficient. This is a block grant, and there’s just not going to be the revenue the district needs to pay for the current employees it has.”
Members of the Senate Education Committee, however, are bracing for a lawsuit over those cuts, setting their proposal up to become a de facto challenge to that spending model in court.
“We’re trying to emphasize improving the quality of education [in this bill], which is one reason why the key elements are focused in on teachers,” Sen. Charlie Scott (R-Casper), said. “There will be some things that we have done, some things that need to be done, to produce the efficiency of that system. And I suppose we will probably get sued by somebody. But I think the Supreme Court is going to be reasonable. The one thing from reading the Supreme Court decisions really comes back to me is that they will not tolerate solutions that are based on the wealth of the districts. It has to be based on the wealth of the state as a whole.”
The $130 million in reductions proposed by the Senate as of Monday morning under Senate File 143 – School finance-funding model amendments, could also create friction with the House of Representatives, which enters this week with just under $40 million in proposed cuts. The House’s version is buoyed by improving oil prices and a proposal for a conditional sales tax increase written into the bill.
Legislative leadership has suggested neither bill is likely to pass in the opposite chamber as is, threatening an outcome House Speaker Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) characterized Friday as a return to the “status quo.”
However, a recent $1.9 trillion federal relief bill passed by Congress earlier this month contains millions of dollars for education, leaving the House of Representatives contemplating whether any immediate cuts are necessary, according to leadership. Particularly with the spectre of another special session for lawmakers to allocate those funds — which Barlow said is likely on the horizon.
“There’s strings that we’re still trying to figure out, and how we can use those education dollars,” Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale), the House Majority Floor Leader, said Friday. “And we’re working on that. You’ll likely see something soon. Maybe.”
A shortened week
Due to a historic blizzard that dumped nearly 3 feet of snow over the capital city, the Wyoming Legislature met for just three days last week, bumping all of the Legislature’s deadlines and leaving the body two days to make up.
According to Legislative Service Office Director Matt Obrecht, the final day to report bills out of committee in the chamber of origin was pushed back,leaving Monday, March 22 as the final day for bills to clear their house of origin from committee of the whole.
The rest of the calendar, he added, depends on when (or if) the two days that were missed due to the storm are eventually rescheduled. According to an updated session schedule, all deadlines after March 26 — the day the Joint Conference Committee Report on the budget is due — are still to be determined.
Entering Monday, both the House and Senate Medicaid expansion bills had cleared committee and were ready for consideration and votes by their respective chambers.
As of press time Monday night, however, Senate File 154 – Medicaid expansion with federal match requirements, had not been brought up for a vote, and did not appear on the leadership-controlled list of bills to be heard, seemingly sealing its fate. Bills needed to receive a majority-support vote before the fall of the gavel to survive beyond Monday.
“I’m not sure how you justify not bringing up a bill of this importance when we know how important it is to the folks in the state,” Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie), the bills sponsor said. “But that’s a question really for the Majority Floor Leader, Senator Driskill, who unilaterally chose not to have it discussed.”
In an interview following the vote, Driskill said he was not opposed to the concept of Medicaid expansion, but said that he preferred to wait to implement the program after an interim study had been completed, and the Legislature had ample opportunity to weigh the benefits of expansion with the new federal incentives.
“I’m not closed to expansion, that needs to go on record,” Driskill said. “But I don’t want it on my hands that I helped Wyoming get into a deal that breaks our budget a decade from now and causes another financial crisis for the state. And I’m not positive that’s not going to happen. It really is on my watch at this point.”
Early in the day, Rothfuss was seen walking up the stairs to the Senate chambers with Gov. Mark Gordon after discussing the bill. Gordon then met with Driskill in a closed-door meeting in the Senate Chambers.
Driskill declined to comment on the nature of that conversation.
“I can’t talk about what I talked about with the governor,” he said. “It was about medicaid expansion and a couple of other subjects. All I’ll say is that it was a good conversation.”
A spokesperson for Gov. Gordon’s office, Michael Pearlman, said he was unfamiliar with the nature of that conversation.
Advocates were optimistic that the bill would have had a chance to pass the Senate. According to three people connected to the Senate delegation, Medicaid expansion had anywhere from 11 to 16 ‘aye’ votes out of the 30-person membership, meaning the bill had a fighting chance at final passage. A similar dynamic was seen in the House of Representatives.
House Bill 162 – Medical treatment opportunity act closely resembles a version that the Senate Labor Health and Social Services Committee passed on a 3-2 vote — to the surprise of some observers — earlier this month. Though it still needed to pass the full House this week, observers believed it stood a better chance of surviving third reading than the Senate measure.
The circumstances surrounding this year’s version of the bill differ greatly from those of previous failed attempts at Medicaid expansion. The federal government is now offering to pitch in an additional $120 million.
But Medicaid expansion almost faced a similar fate in the House of Representatives.
Facing a hard, 7 p.m. stop time set by House Majority Floor Leader Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale), House leadership listed Medicaid expansion among the final few bills to be heard by the body that evening.
With ten minutes left until deadline and just Medicaid expansion left for members to hear, Rep. Mark Jennings (R-Sheridan) made a motion to immediately hear an abortion bill – House Bill 134 – Human heartbeat protection act – instead, in what appeared to be an effort to run out the clock and kill the bill. The maneuver required a two-thirds vote to pass and force leadership’s hand however, and came up short, failing on a 35-23 vote at just a few minutes after 7 p.m.
Sommers, disregarding his own time restriction, decided to keep the bill alive.
“I said we were going to quit at 7, but I don’t want to prejudice this bill,” he told members.
House Resolution 162 passed first reading by a standing vote at a quarter to eight. Thirty-seven lawmakers voted ‘aye.’
I-80 tolling passes Senate
After several years of misfires, a proposal to exact a toll on motorists traveling Wyoming’s share of Interstate 80 to help cover its maintenance costs passed the Senate by a narrow three-vote margin Friday afternoon, 16-13. An amendment by Sen. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle) to repeal the program after 2025 was withdrawn.
Following the vote, a motion was made to reconsider the bill, which failed 19-10. Senate leadership later explained that the vote was not an attempt to reverse the outcome, but to ensure the body would not renege on its vote.
“’Immediate reconsideration’ is sometimes used to cement a close vote because reconsideration can only be requested once,” Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) wrote on Twitter. “When you move for reconsideration and ask the body to vote ‘no’ you are NOT trying to reverse the outcome.”
Wyoming GOP influences legislation
The Wyoming Republican Party regularly lobbies the Legislature to support bills that represent the will of its central committee and the Republican Party platform. This year, it has used its social media pages to encourage grassroots opposition against the legalization of marijuana.
Internal conversations in the Wyoming Republican Party have also found their way into some of the bills being considered this session. On Friday, members of the House Committee on Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions considered the Wyoming GOP-backed House Bill 256 – Wyoming sovereignty act.
If passed, the bill would require the Wyoming Legislature to regularly audit federal actions impacting federal lands, the state’s criminal justice system or other realms it considers to be beyond the constitutional purview of Washington D.C.. It also gives the green light to state officials — including the Wyoming Attorney General — to actively resist such federal actions.
“This is the accumulation of many hours of work put together by a subcommittee of the Republican Party,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bob Wharff (R-Evanston), told members of the House Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee Friday morning. “We initially called this the ‘Republic Review’ but over time, it evolved to become what we call the Wyoming sovereignty act.”
When Rep. Joe MacGuire (R-Casper) asked whether Wyoming law prohibits partisan organizations from bringing forward and then lobbying for bills in its own interest, Wharff said he was not lobbying or advancing a bill written by the party — only that it was started there.
“I’m not saying the Wyoming GOP sent me here to get this done,” Wharff said.
The bill later died for lack of a motion after MacGuire raised additional concerns over the origins of the bill, even after former Wyoming GOP state committeewoman Marti Halverson — who also said the idea originated with the party — argued the bill was “not the product of the Wyoming Republican Party.”
However, one of the people who testified in favor, Big Horn County Republican Party state central committeeman Scott Brown, lobbied for a similar resolution at the Lovell Town Council on behalf of the party several years ago, while two other individuals who testified have had roles within the Wyoming Republican Party.
“If you’re presenting it, it is turning you into a lobbyist,” MacGuire told Wharff. “And I think that we have an issue here.”
Death penalty fails
For two years, an unlikely coalition of liberals, conservatives and religious groups have led a campaign to galvanize public support to repeal Wyoming’s death penalty. But that effort, like so many others before it, came to an unceremonious end Friday as the Senate defeated this year’s version of the death penalty repeal bill on an 18-12 vote after nearly an hour of emotional testimony.
Some, like Sen. Fred Baldwin (R-Kemmerer) shared their own experiences with the death penalty. Baldwin cared for the child of a murder victim, he said, which led to his own personal reckoning with permanent vengeance.
“Up until that time, I was a big proponent of the death penalty,” he said through tears. “I was adamantly for it, but my point has changed.”
What the experience taught him, he said, is that the death penalty would not have helped that young man’s situation. “And I firmly believe the death penalty is wrong,” he said.
Others, like attorney and Sen. Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne), said the death penalty offers a fitting conclusion to suffering families and for the killer who made the conscious decision to take a life. Historically, Wyoming has not taken its use of the death penalty lightly, she added, and a repeal at this point would likely not last.
“Alternatives to sentencing for the defendant? How about alternatives for the victim?” she said in her defense of the death penalty. “I know we don’t want to talk about it because it’s emotional, but someone’s dead. And it’s not the guy who made the decision to kill. It’s the victim.”
Transition bill altered
Freshman Rep. Chad Banks (D-Rock Springs) wants to begin preparing his energy-industry-reliant community for a future without fossil fuels, he said. To accomplish this, he sponsored House Bill 205 – Select committee on extractive industry transitions, with the idea of bringing together community stakeholders to define a future beyond those industries in a form similar to those created in states like Colorado and New Mexico.
But when the committee amended the bill, according to progressive advocacy group Better Wyoming, it transformed that body into a legislative study group under the Legislature’s Joint Minerals Committee — whose members have regularly sponsored bills and amendments intended to prop up the state’s coal industry.
It’s not the first attempt this session by Wyoming lawmakers to try and save the state’s waning coal industry. Earlier in the session, the Wyoming Senate rejected one of Gov. Mark Gordon’s appointees to a volunteer commission for her alleged lack of support for the state’s fossil fuel industry. And last week, a legislative committee approved $1.2 million in funding to allow Wyoming to sue other states who choose to divest from coal.
After the vote to gut Banks’ bill, those interested in a transition fear the state will continue to spin its wheels, they say.
“It’s the same conversation we’ve been having for 20 years.” Shannon Anderson, staff attorney for the Powder River Basin Resource Council, told Better Wyoming. “I doubt if we’ll go anywhere new, but we’ll see.”