Every Wyoming legislative session contains fireworks, and this year was no exception. Lawmakers added to the drama this go around by saving the pyrotechnics for the very last day, grand finale style, when House and Senate negotiators let the gavel fall without reaching a compromise on the education finance legislation, House Bill 173 – School finance funding-2.
House Bill 173, in its original version, was the legislative product of the education recalibration process that normally occurs every five years. That process, in turn, is the product of a series of Wyoming Supreme Court decisions — the last one closing about 20 years ago.
Close observers of the Recalibration Committee during the 2020 interim were doubtless unsurprised to see the sparks fly when the committee’s work met the full Legislature. Verbal friction had dominated the committee’s meetings all year.
A critical element of the calibration process is to receive input from education experts on the evidence-based status of the state’s public education model. The state shelled out about $1 million for education consultants to review and survey a sample of districts to determine the quality and uniformity of education opportunities among all public school districts in the state.
Typically their analysis comes back very similar to those of each previous recalibration. Lawmakers on the committee then prepare a bill reflecting any changes recommended by the consultants and supported by the members.
This latest process, however, was a little different given the focus on the present and growing fiscal challenges faced by the state.
During the interim, committee members from the House generally advocated for a different set of solutions than their Senate counterparts. House members were oriented toward minimizing the scale of budget cuts by finding new revenues. Senators on the committee were, by contrast, focused on making significant spending cuts to close the budget gap. The result of their months of work was an initial recalibration bill advanced by the committee that contained elements of both.
Then came the real test, the 2021 legislative session and the scrutiny of the full Legislature.
The House got first crack at the draft measure and amended it by eliminating some spending cuts and adding some revenue measures, including a new sales tax and several revenue diversions into the education foundation program.
Once the House had its way with HB 173, it crossed over to the Senate, where members of that chamber’s education committee expressed disappointment that the cuts remaining in the House version were so low.
They also took issue with the added revenue sources for education. The Senate contemplated a gradual elimination of transportation reimbursement as a separate item in the model. They also amended in further cuts to central administration, removed unused health insurance reimbursements to each school district and increased class sizes.
Against this backdrop, and well into the wresting match, Congress enacted the American Rescue Plan, making available a significant amount of money for public education. The Senate then focused on using as much ARP money as possible to reduce foundation program expenses — as reflected in several Senate amendments.
The lack of clarity concerning appropriate uses of ARP funds caused even more disagreement among legislators and is a primary reason that the Legislature is planning for another special session to be held in mid July.
When Senate and House amendments reflect sharp disagreements between the chambers, the next step is for leadership to appoint a conference committee made up of three members from each chamber. You can think of a conference committee as a group of hand-picked negotiators tasked with hashing out a compromise on behalf of their respective bodies.
Normally the initial conference committee meeting involves the key points each side is particularly concerned about. Past patterns demonstrate that the initial meeting of conference committees is marked by an affable and cordial atmosphere. The next meeting is more serious and starts to get down to brass tacks. As a rule, ensuing meetings, if there are any, grow increasingly assertive and less amiable.
This pattern was mirrored in textbook fashion during the three conference committee meetings on HB 173. The impasse was formalized when the Senate reported no additional conference committee meetings would take place.
Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper), the conference committee co-chair and a 42-year veteran of the Legislature, explained the lack of resolution to his fellow chamber members by describing House negotiators as “tax and spend liberals.”
Now that the bill failed, let’s consider who were the winners and losers in the months-long effort to stabilize the fiscal imbalance for Wyoming public education.
Members of the original interim recalibration committee have to bear the biggest letdown. After considerable time spent during the year trying to craft a solution, coming up empty evaporates optimism on all fronts.
However, those who wanted school financing to avoid further cuts can take solace in the reality that existing school resources will be maintained for at least one more year.
Similarly, those who are adamantly opposed to the state’s residents paying more to support their schools as mineral-industry fortunes fall can also appreciate the bill’s failure.
In the short run, school district administrators and governing boards can feel temporary relief in that they won’t need to deal with any new funding changes in the 2021-2022 school year.
All stakeholders, though, must worry about the growing fiscal crises in education and what it portends in the long run.
In reality, as everyone knows, kicking the can down the road, particularly as conditions worsen, only makes problems more difficult to resolve.
And even though the solution sounds trite, all sides must compromise if they are truly interested in the welfare of state education in Wyoming.
The drama surrounding a bill’s failure because of differences between the chambers is not new or surprising to veteran legislators. As recently as 2018, a conflict concerning capital construction projects around the state nearly failed. In that instance, conflicts brewed among legislative delegations from various communities in their quest for larger expenditures in their region. This dust up cost two additional legislative days as conference committees battled. Then, in 2020, the capital construction bill failed altogether in a last-minute implosion that looked a lot like this year’s battle over HB 173.
These kinds of theatrics cause legislators to reconsider the length of their legislative tenure.