The table is set for Wyoming legislative committees to begin their monthslong studies of topics in preparation for the 2019 general session.
Tax structure, revenue allocation and education spending again headline the the list of topics, which range from reexaminations of failed bill ideas to continuing evaluation of long-running challenges like criminal justice reform and economic diversification.
The powerful Appropriations Committee’ will review the state’s revenue streams and “provide recommendations to simplify the overall budget process,” according to the topics posted to the Legislative Service Office website. The mandate continues one of the key points of friction between House and Senate leaders last session — to what extent the state should shift revenue streams to cover budgeting holes, given a lack of political appetite for changing Wyoming’s energy-dependent tax structure.
The Revenue Committee and the Education Committee also will continue work on two of the state’s thorniest problems. A directive to “study and explore myriad school finance issues” tops the Education Committee’s list. The topic includes an examination of the complex formulas used to ensure equal funding among Wyoming school districts. Also on education’s to-do list is a call to “study and consider why Wyoming spends more per pupil than neighboring states.”
Legislators who believe education is overfunded often point to Wyoming’s high spending per pupil as support for budget cuts. Education advocates say the higher cost is a byproduct of Wyoming’s geography and desire to provide the same high quality education to students in rural areas as to those living in towns and cities.
Last year, lawmakers on the Revenue Committee conducted a comprehensive and at times controversial review of Wyoming’s tax structure, in hopes of finding new revenue sources to pay for public education. The review ultimately proved fruitless, as even the modest tax proposals the committee chose to back died early in the House of Representatives.
This year, while not tasked to consider tax increases, the committee will study how to better align the state’s tax system to capture revenue from the diversified economy Wyoming has pursued for decades but not yet attained. The committee will consider “modernization and reform of the state sales tax system,” with the caveat of “potentially revenue neutral reductions in the tax rate coupled with expansion of the tax base.”
The committee also will consider how to better educate the public on its findings. It’s a goal pursued by Senate Revenue Committee Chairman Ray Peterson (R-Cowley), who argues the Wyoming Legislature won’t be able to modernize its tax structure until citizens understand how much of the state’s fiscal burden has been carried by the energy industry.
The Revenue Committee also will examine the options available to county and municipal governments to raise their own taxes. Some local government leaders have asked lawmakers in recent months for more autonomy to raise money. Some state lawmakers, meanwhile, have complained about cash subsidies that the state gives cities, towns and counties.
In all there are 65 topics assigned to the Legislature’s 12 principle committees. Committees will gather in towns around Wyoming to take testimony from the public and state agencies and begin to consider bill ideas over the next eight months. Meeting dates are posted online by the LSO.
This year, for the first time, some of those meetings will be livestreamed and recordings from all of them will be archived online for public access.
The LSO has recently created a new website. Each committee’s study topics are included in a tab on the committee’s webpage, which also holds links to the committee members contact information and their meeting schedules.
WyoFile has combined all of the committee topics into a single document, which is accessible below.
Topics for study are submitted to legislative leaders by each committee’s chairman, and may come from public input, committee-member suggestion or at the behest of state leaders. The Legislature’s Management Council at an April meeting voted on the topics and how much taxpayer money to budget each committee for meetings and study.