CHEYENNE — In 1984, children’s book author Dr. Seuss published “The Butter Battle Book,” a story of two warring factions of creatures, the Yooks and Zooks, who allow their disdain for one another’s preferred method of buttering bread to escalate into an arms race culminating in the threat of mutual annihilation.
Last week, Rep. Lloyd Larsen (R-Lander) compared the Yook versus Zook conflict to the perennial power struggle between the Wyoming House and Senate.
In the Wyoming Capitol, the friction between the two chambers is so well established as to resemble the natural order. Some members even claim to enjoy it.
“I remember one time meeting the media outside a meeting and they were asking about this conflict between the House and Senate,” Larsen said on the floor on Wednesday. “I asked, ‘what meeting were you in?’ I’m here because I like this stuff, I like these guys, and I pity the guy sitting across the table from me.”
The House and Senate are set to work on their versions of the supplemental budget bill this week, a process that starts with two, identical “mirror bills” and is likely to end with emissaries from each chamber sitting across the table from another trying to reconcile wildly divergent spending plans.
Senate’s austere approach
Budget deliberations between House and Senate are purposefully combative, a product of a constitutional order galvanized by conflict.
“There’s a fundamental difference between the House and the Senate,” Senate Vice President Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) said in an interview Friday morning. “That’s how our constitutional process was supposed to be set up. They’re supposed to be the passion, while we’re supposed to be more deliberate. And we take that very seriously.”
As the state faces one of the most dire fiscal crises in its history, the upcoming deliberations on ratifying a third round of budget cuts are likely to be intense. The Senate — buoyed by steadily increasing oil prices, large amounts of savings and the anticipation of beginning a new budget process in December — has in its talks pushed efforts to implement the tens of millions of dollars in cuts proposed by Gov. Mark Gordon and the Joint Appropriations Committee. The aim is to find a “floor” for the level of services Wyoming residents are willing to live without and eventually, rebuild.
The strategy involves no new taxes, continued spending from savings and significant cuts to government and the state’s K-12 education system in order to decrease stress on the state’s savings accounts and begin rebuilding Wyoming’s economy from the bottom up.
“We’re really at a time where Wyoming is going to have to redefine itself,” Sen. Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) said.
House seeks to restore some cuts
After the first week of in-person session work, it’s clear that the House of Representatives, while also emboldened by a brightening fiscal outlook and a savings account that still measures more than $1.3 billion, sees things differently than the Senate.
On a bill proposing a cut of roughly $100 million from the state’s education funding model, the House of Representatives trimmed those reductions down to roughly $32 million: a change prompted by concerns the reductions were not supported by evidence as required by the Wyoming Constitution.
“Where we fund students on average, we just took $1,082 off of that,” House Minority Leader Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie) said of the original bill, House Bill 173 – School finance funding-2, during a video call about the state’s education funding model on Wednesday. “That bill just took $100 million and lopped it off. That’s not evidence-based.”
Wyoming reevaluates its education funding model every five years in a process known as recalibration. Recalibration utilizes outside expert consultants to, among other things, ensure that proposed changes are backed by evidence.
Many in the Senate saw recalibration as an opportunity to reexamine the mission of the state’s K-12 education system and potentially, use the process to create millions of dollars in efficiencies and changes to its budget.
While Senators have preached the need for programs to “take a haircut,” House members have sought to restore tens of millions of dollars to programs that are popular with constituents and that, in some cases, actually save the state money, advocates say.
Earlier in the session, Rep. Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne) suggested that representatives could put tens of millions of dollars in reductions back into the budget when the House convenes to amend it next week, likely setting up a battle with the Senate.
Numerous advocacy groups — like the Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Centers — have argued reductions in funds could actually cost the state money in matching federal dollars. Legislators too have said some plans to prioritize limited dollars (such as House Bill 38 – Community behavioral health-priority populations, which passed the House this week) could ultimately lead to increased recidivism — a far more expensive outcome.
Representatives also have plans to pay for it all. In a narrow vote of the House Education Committee Friday, lawmakers voted 5-4 to advance House Bill 173 – School finance funding-2, a sweeping K-12 finance bill that would generate an extra $300 million per year for schools by diverting income from the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund to the School Foundation Program and the state’s rainy-day account. Under the measure, once the rainy-day account drops below a certain level — $650 million — a new and permanent 1-cent sales tax would kick in, essentially giving the state a path into a more sustainable funding model.
The House is also considering a constitutional amendment that would allow two-thirds of the income from state school lands to be used to fund schools rather than the current allocation of one-third. House Joint Resolution 3 – State lands mineral royalties-constitutional amendment, would generate an estimated $30 million annually for K-12 schools without raising taxes. The resolution passed second reading in the House on Friday.
Both of those solutions, however, are unlikely to pass muster with the Senate. Like Gov. Gordon, leadership of the upper chamber maintain that the state has a spending problem and that revenue-generating legislation is premature while service cuts remain to be made and the education funding model remains unsustainable in Wyoming’s current economy.
The House of Representatives has also expressed a greater willingness to make up those deficits by dipping into the state’s savings accounts while the Senate, leery of an approaching fiscal cliff, has favored cuts.
“We’ll have our approach, and they’ll have their approach,” House Speaker Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) said. “We’ll see where we go from there. I don’t think it’s so dire that we have to solve it [the Senate’s] way. I’d rather have the right solution this session, but we also understand we have a backstop.”
At the start of the first week of the in-person session, Gov. Gordon told lawmakers that in Wyoming’s current financial state, their biggest challenge would be discerning what both chambers consider “wants” versus what they consider “needs,” and to act on those priorities.
“Undeniably, we are entering more frugal times and we will have to continue to temper wants and emphasize needs,” he said in his State of the State speech. “It is now your turn to consider how best to meet the needs of our people without burdening the generations to come. That is the tradition of Wyoming people: to build for the future, and not just take for today.”
Both chambers have set to work sharpening their knives for the fat-trimming to come. But without new revenues or substantial cuts to education, they might be better suited with saws. Significant cuts to healthcare and education are all on table, while reductions to other programs — like in-home services for senior citizens — have proven a challenge for House lawmakers to part with as they face cuts in the Senate.
“Wyoming is in a really tough fiscal place right now, and there are a lot of decisions that are having to be made that are hard,” said Ramsey Scott, policy director for the Wyoming Alzheimer’s Association. “When it comes to these in-home services, we see this as a decision that not only is going to hurt people immediately, but it’s also going to hurt the state’s budget down the road. And so when you’re having to make tough choices, it’s really important to be making those choices with the eye of not only how this will affect you in the short-term, but in a year, two years, five years. We don’t want to see this program go away.”
The House — the chamber of “passion,” as Hicks put it — sees things similarly.
On Wednesday, it voted down a rule change that would essentially bind the House to a spending limit set by the Joint Appropriations Committee. In essence, the change would strip away power from rank and file members to vote for more spending than the JAC recommends, consolidating power to fund or defund programs with the 12 members of that committee. Brought by Rep. Chuck Gray (R-Casper), the bill was designed to tie the House to a philosophy of fiscal restraint and force lawmakers to defend their priorities, forcing them to choose to fund mental health care versus something like University of Wyoming football, for example.
Speaking in support of the amendment, Rep. John Bear (R-Gillette) said the bill is necessary to help the state ration its savings accounts, which have become indispensable as the cost of services remains high, taxes remain low and mineral revenues have continued to decline. He said there is pork in the budget, and though he didn’t name any examples, he said lawmakers just needed an opportunity to find it.
“The answer is not in our revenue,” said Gray. “It’s to rein in our spending.”
The rule change was resoundingly rejected.