UPDATE: This story was updated twice Friday March 13 with comments from Gov. Mark Gordon at a press conference and comments from Wyoming Department of Corrections Director Bob Lampert. —Ed.
Infighting between the House and Senate sunk $162 million in building projects around Wyoming after both chambers refused to give ground on a disagreement over replacing a swimming pool at the University of Wyoming.
Construction projects for community colleges, UW, highways, state parks, the state’s military department and its prisons — all significant contributors to local economies and employment — will go unfunded this year as leadership of the two chambers failed to reach a compromise.
Late on the session’s final night Thursday the Senate offered a limited bill for building projects deemed critical by the governor. That body ultimately walked away — adjourning and leaving the Capitol while the House still gathered — after House leaders again sought to push funding for UW building projects the Senate did not want in the deal.
It appears some projects that are already in progress will have to halt. Money is needed to complete a state office building in Casper that is under construction, according to the governor’s office. Land swaps pursued by community colleges may also go unfinished.
All this week, House leadership pushed for the UW funding as Senate negotiators said their chamber would simply not vote for it. Both sides accused the other of jeopardizing the year of state construction projects — including a number of maintenance and infrastructure projects Gov. Mark Gordon told the Legislature were “critically needed” — over its refusal to budge on the pool proposal.
In a press conference on Friday afternoon, Gordon said he was frustrated by the failure to fund even that limited list of projects. “I worry a little bit that egos got in the way of being thoughtful about the projects that were really necessary going forward,” he said.
The University of Wyoming’s Corbett Pool has been long seen as ready for replacement. The project’s House proponents argued UW can’t raise money for the project on its own — unlike more glamorous athletic facilities or buildings. But senators argued the Legislature has allowed an unending stream of tens of millions to UW for projects in recent years, and it is time for austerity.
Events of the week — the rapid and escalating spread of COVID-19 and subsequent stock market crash, plummeting oil prices — entrenched their reluctance.
“Over the weekend the world changed,” Senate President Drew Perkins (R-Casper) said.
Contentious debates and games of chicken have become routine in recent years between House and Senate leadership, whose members have largely gone unchanged. Those debates have always been resolved with compromise. But this year and on this bill, the disagreements — and perhaps the interpersonal dynamics — were too deep-rooted.
About the only thing the two sides seemed to agree on was the importance of continuing state building. Both chambers’ negotiators said the influx of cash and construction jobs to small economies all over the state is crucial during a period of economic uncertainty.
“It’s a lot of jobs,” Rep. Mike Greear (R-Worland), a member of the negotiating committee on the capital construction bill, said on Wednesday..
“It’s good economics to spread those construction projects around,” Sen. Mike Gierau (D-Jackson), another negotiator, said Thursday.
The majority of the $162 million estimated by the Legislative Service Office in the initial version of the bill, Senate File 119 – State funded capital construction came from state funds, but there was almost $17 million in federal funds and almost $34 million in private funds for the projects as well.
There was likely more money that was not captured in that fiscal estimate, however. A number of the projects — particularly at UW — required funds to be raised or paid by the institution to match the state spending.
The dispute began in earnest on Monday afternoon. That’s when House negotiators for the state-funded capital construction bill, which is an annual piece of legislation that allots tax dollars towards construction projects and also approves matching funds, traveled across the building for a meeting with their Senate counterparts. The meeting was not publicly announced.
The Senate had allotted only $500,000 to UW for remodeling a facility for students in ROTC programs. The House’s bill spent $55 million on building a new pool, replacing the west side stands in the football stadium and remodeling the law school.
The Senate didn’t offer a middle ground. The Republican supermajority of the body had caucused and decided it would not budge from its position, Senate Majority Floor Leader Dan Dockstader (R-Afton) told WyoFile on Tuesday.
Several other lawmakers said Dockstader wasn’t there for the meeting with the House side, where Senate Vice President Ogden Driskill (R-Devil’s Tower) delivered the “no-deal” message to the House.
Along with other senators, Dockstader had left the Capitol early and headed south for a professional basketball game in Denver. “That has nothing to do with it,” Dockstader said when asked about the game. The Senate’s position was the same, “whether the message comes from me or the Vice President,” Dockstader said.
On Thursday with the end of the session looming, the sides continued to meet, but no viable compromise emerged.
Senate negotiators said their chamber had no interest in spending on UW building projects. The university has come to the Legislature over and over again for tens of millions of dollars in building projects, and the Senate had enough, they said. “We tried our best to sell that idea on the floor and the body could not vote for it,” Sen. Gierau said.
Even as the House rearranged dollar amounts to bring the total down, Senate negotiators refused to consider the deal. The House, meanwhile, dropped other construction projects from the wishlist to bring the total amount under what the Senate had endorsed, while still funding the pool project.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne) argued his side had made a number of offers but the stubborn Senate refused to budget toward middle ground. His chamber’s leadership found support for a compromise within its chamber, he said. “That’s what we consider good faith representation,” Nicholas said.
Senators pushed back. “It’s really offensive when you challenge the way we’ve done our leadership,” Driskill said. “Maybe you guys manage it a different way and you tell your body what to say. We don’t.”
At that point on Thursday afternoon, the meeting fell apart. “We’re posturing now and it’s time to get another group in here to look at this,” Greear said. He was referring to a legislative procedure triggered when the chambers can’t agree on a bill. If one negotiating committee fails, another is appointed by the senate president and speaker of the house.
Perkins appointed a fresh team, but Speaker of the House Steve Harshman (R-Casper) did not.
Whatever unfolded next did not play out in public, but new negotiators also failed to reach a compromise.
On Wednesday, the governor’s office circulated a letter listing projects he described as critical. The letter was addressed to Perkins and Harshman. Copies were visible on senators’ and representatives’ desks on Thursday evening as the Legislature neared its close.
“While I understand there is a difference of opinion as to the extent of construction we can afford at this juncture in our state’s fortunes. [sic] I assure you my intent in writing is not to interfere with the course of your conversations,” a copy of the letter reviewed by WyoFile read.
Gordon listed 12 projects that would be “problematically affected” and that the state’s construction management department considered “critically needed.”
Projects named in the letter included removing hazardous material at the Wyoming Life Resources Center in Lander and critical infrastructure projects at a community college building in Rock Springs. There was also funding for the HVAC system at the women’s prison in Lusk. Former and current inmates of the prison described winter nights so cold they were forced to huddle together for warmth, though the Wyoming Department of Corrections claims to have made some repairs.
The problem today is with the cooling system, WDOC Director Bob Lampert wrote to WyoFile in an email. During high heat and humility, temperatures in cell blocks “occasionally rise to the top end of the comfort level,” Lampert wrote. “As the ambient temperature rises, any inmates who might be at risk from higher temperatures due to medical conditions will be moved to another location. If the temperature ever reached an unsafe level we would move all inmates from the area to the gym or some other cooler space.”
Other projects on Gordon’s list didn’t require funding necessarily but were ones he considered necessary. The Wyoming Military Department needed legislative authorization to access some federal funds.
Central Wyoming College and the Northwest Community College District sought approval for budget neutral land swaps. Other community colleges sought approval to move projects into the next phase of planning and begin seeking donors.
The infighting that derailed the construction bill disappointed lawmakers and some lobbyists alike.
“What we’re doing here is really more a fight between two chambers than what makes economic sense,” Senate Minority Floor Leader Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) said. “It seems like it’s about winning and losing more than what really is right for the state.”
Savings aside, there are financial costs to not approving construction funding, Rothfuss said. Institutions around the state go through lengthy approval processes by various boards and commissions to even get their building projects in front of the Legislature. Construction costs increase with time. Institutional leaders hold off on maintenance if they think there’s money for a new building or major remodel incoming, Rothfuss said.
Rothfuss described a pattern that has emerged in House and Senate negotiations over the last few years. “First step in the Senate is strip everything out,” he said on Wednesday. “Then it goes over to the House and they load it up with everything plus. Then they come together and try and negotiate from these ridiculous extremes and we are here now, where we don’t have any agreement because both sides seem to be offended by the other’s position.”
After entering the session with $162 million in spending, the Senate had knocked the bill down to $135 million, according to Perkins. The House had increased the bill to $218 million, he said. It is now at $0.
According to both sides, repeated efforts to save the bill were made behind the scenes as senators and representatives traversed the Capitol.
The Senate’s final offer to the House was to fund only Gordon’s critical projects, Perkins told reporters. But House leadership countered with added funding for UW and some additional community college projects. Neither side accepted the other’s offer.
At around 9:45 p.m. Thursday, with the House still in session, the Senate adjourned.