Lawmakers have overwhelmed the state’s legislative research staff with budget questions as they scrutinize state finances before what promises to be a difficult session, Legislative Service Office Director Matt Obrecht said in December.
Comments from conservative anti-establishment lawmakers suggest some of the increase comes as they work outside traditional channels to try and reduce government faster than the Joint Appropriations Committee.
Obrecht described the increase at a Management Council meeting Dec. 19, where he worried about wear and tear on his research staff.
The research requests are confidential, so it’s impossible to know exactly what the increased requests seek. Facing long-term deficits, legislative committees have conducted deeper examinations of school funding and the state’s tax structure than in past years, which could account for much of the increase.
But divisions also persist in the Legislature between those easing the state into an era of reduced energy revenues and others who pursue a faster, more drastic reduction of state government. Comments from the Management Council meeting, along with comments from two conservative lawmakers, suggest some requests result from that ideological divide, as lawmakers not seated on powerful committees seek data with which to stake out positions.
“The majority of our legislators are treating our budget fiscal division like it’s a Google search engine,” Obrecht told the Management Council. What’s more, he said, lawmakers will continue to make requests if they don’t like the initial information. “They just put in a request and they keep typing different requests in until they get what they want from the numbers … that supports whatever their position is,” Obrecht said.
One member had a request that took three weeks for senior fiscal analysts to complete, Obrecht said. “It wasn’t the outcome that member was looking for,” he said, “so they tweaked the request to try to get there and they kept doing it until they got the information that supported the position they wanted.”
The admission from LSO sparked debate by the Management Council, which is composed of leading lawmakers from both legislative houses and political parties. Some committee members, including Speaker of the House Steve Harshman (R-Casper), questioned whether all lawmakers should have unfettered access to research staff. But beyond wearing down LSO’s fiscal division, Harshman also appeared worried that the high volume of fiscal requests might mean challenges to the budget are coming from lawmakers outside the Joint Appropriations Committee.
“To have kind of an ad hoc appropriations committee out there working another agenda while we have our own appropriations committee, I think is an unhealthy thing,” Harshman said.
Hunting data, and cuts
Comments to WyoFile by two members of an informal bloc of far-right lawmakers in the Wyoming House of Representatives show some want deeper cuts than those pushed by the Appropriations Committee last week. They’ve been conducting their own research, and intend to bring their own bills to slash budgets.
“I’ve spent a great deal of time in the interim [between legislative sessions] researching and asking questions to develop my ideas about how we can fix our budgetary issues,” Rep. Chuck Gray wrote in an email to WyoFile. The first-term Casper Republican has consistently called Wyoming’s government oversized and sought to drastically cut budgets. On a conservative talk radio show he hosts in Casper, Gray often criticizes “insiders” in Wyoming’s government and Legislature, whom he says grow government and will eventually try to raise taxes.
The current legislative process inevitably grows government, he wrote to WyoFile. The JAC met for four weeks over December and January, interviewing agency heads at length about their budgets. The committee hunts for cuts but also takes testimony on how past cuts have affected state services. Members did not make steep cuts in their first draft of a budget bill, but did ask Gov. Matt Mead to suggest 50 state positions for elimination.
“Right now, JAC has a monopoly on the budget and that’s wrong,” Gray wrote. “That needs to change.” Committees should look for efficiencies in the budgets of agencies they deal with, he said. For example, the Minerals, Economic and Business Development Committee he sits on should scour the Department of Environmental Quality’s budget to find areas to cut, he said. The Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Committee should do the same for Wyoming Department of Transportation, he said.
“Instead, Management Council assigns those committees topics to grow government,” Gray wrote.
Based on the independent budget analysis he’d been conducting since the session that ended in March, Gray intends to bring a “Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights,” he wrote. “I’ve also been working on a formula that would limit year-to-year growth in the Wyoming state budget.”
Gray did not respond to a request for more information about what the two bills would entail. Drafts had not been posted on the LSO website by the time this story went to publication.
On Dec. 7, Rep. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle), another conservative House member, sent an email to an “all legislators” email address.
“During the interim LSO prepared a research document for me which provides a ‘snapshot’ of State Government by comparing what Wyoming General Fund Agency Budgets looked like the last time revenues were at similar levels to those we face currently,” Steinmetz wrote. WyoFile obtained a copy of the email, and Steinmetz also provided the data she used to write it.
In the email, Steinmetz compared today’s government to that at the beginning of the 21st century to demonstrate growth. She compared the current 2017-’18 budget to that of the 2001-’02 biennium and the 2002-’03 biennium. In those years, the state saved money despite reduced revenues, Steinmetz said, while in the current biennium the Legislature spent money out of its chief “rainy day fund,” the Legislative Reserve Stabilization Account.
In 2001, the state’s revenue ticked slightly upward following Wyoming’s last big bust, in the late 1990s. From there, it rose steadily, peaking in 2014, before dropping off in the 2015-2016 biennium and making a more precipitous fall for the current one.
“The numbers tell us that the growth of State Government is outpacing the private sectors ability to sustain it,” Steinmetz wrote to her fellow lawmakers. “This kind of growth is both unhealthy and unsustainable.”
On the other hand, Gov. Mead argues that government has shrunk, beginning in 2008. Since he cut $245 million out of state budgets in June of 2016, Mead has repeatedly told lawmakers he believes government, excluding education funding, has been trimmed appropriately. The introduction to his proposed budget this year included a note that overall spending is down $400 million from 2008, with 357 fewer agency positions.
Last week, JAC members worried repeatedly about the gap between proposed spending and projected revenues, but they found themselves largely unable to find deeper cuts without hurting agency functions. Instead, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne) told WyoFile, the committee sought to continue slowly trimming government. During that transition, they could rely on savings like the rainy day fund, which has a balance of $1.6 billion, while the Legislature worked to adjust government, he said.
“But on the other hand we don’t want to turn off the state,” he said. Nicholas wasn’t too worried about bills coming on the floor that would cut government more aggressively than the JAC sought to. “Lots of things can come on the floor,” he said, but the Legislature was designed to check itself from anything rash.
“We’ve got two Houses and we’ve got the governor and we’re not going to do things that impede the growth of this state,” Nicholas said. Lawmakers “all mean well and really we all have the same goal in mind, it’s just that there are different ways that people want to get there.”
Steinmetz did not specifically respond to a question from WyoFile about whether she intended to introduce bills based on her research. But she wrote that “Wyoming needs fiscal policy beyond what is currently in place.”
Debate on how to deal with increased requests
The increase in requests, and the overload it was putting on LSO’s fiscal division, generated vigorous debate for the Management Council. The LSO assigned two staffers from different divisions to deal with the increase in fiscal requests, but Obrecht said that still was not enough. When Harshman asked him how many staffers would do the trick, Obrecht suggested the fiscal division may have to double to meet the amount of requests — counted at 163 since July. The LSO did not previously track the number of requests.
Beyond increasing staff, lawmakers also discussed changing policy to somehow balance the worthiness of legislator requests against limited staff time.
Gray expressed alarm over that idea. “The idea presented at Management Council to limit budget requests is wrong,” Gray said. “Members like myself know that there are efficiencies that haven’t been explored and we want to find them.”
In her email to WyoFile, Steinmetz sent an excerpt from statute governing the LSO with several passages highlighted. The LSO is “subject to the ultimate control of the entire membership of the Legislature,” and has a duty to “provide information during the legislative session and interim periods for any [lawmaker or committee],” the excerpt states.
If conservative lawmakers left out of leadership were concerned, so too were the Legislature’s leading Democrats. Senate Minority Leader Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) argued against any system that put filters on data requests: “We’re supposed to have 90 legislators that have access to staff and can get their jobs done on behalf of their constituents that elected to put them there,” he said. While Democrats serve on the Management Council, there are no Democratic committee chairs. “I understand that there’s an awful lot of probably absurd requests being made,” he said, “but at the same time there’s a political process here which is supposed to make sure that minority viewpoints do get researched and expressed.”
Fair enough, Harshman said, but “this is really an abuse of staff time as I see it … somewhere there’s a middle ground.” Management Council members also noted that as agency budgets go, the one most directly under their control had taken some of the steepest cuts. Most state agencies had taken a 12 percent cut before this year’s budget writing. LSO had taken a cut of around 15 percent.
Obrecht asked Management Council to consider a process change, more staff or new technologies.
“If we don’t have a process where we can say that’s an unreasonable request,” he said, “and if I don’t have a management council policy to back me up … I can’t really push back because it’s an elected official.”
The committee took no action in December, but asked LSO staff to bring back some recommendations for its next meeting, Feb. 10.
CORRECTION: This story incorrectly reported that Gov. Mead had taken office in 2008. Mead was sworn in Jan. 2011. He has maintained that government today is reduced in budget and number of employees from the budget adopted in 2008. -Ed.