CHEYENNE — Leaders of both houses in the Wyoming Legislature say lawmakers face four major issues in the session that kicks off Tuesday: crafting a supplemental state budget; voting whether to increase fuel taxes; addressing federal health care reform; and wrestling with school accountability.
“Of course the budget will be the overriding concern,” said House Speaker-elect Tom Lubnau, R-Gillette. “With the decrease in income that the state has, there’s not a lot of room for legislative initiative.”
Compared to most other states, Wyoming’s in fine shape financially. It has billions in savings and continues to operate largely on taxes on energy production, imposing no corporate or personal income taxes.
Nonetheless, state financial analysts are warning that Wyoming needs to brace for flat revenues for years to come given the slumping national demand for coal and increasing natural gas production in other states.
Senate President-elect Tony Ross, R-Cheyenne, said many lawmakers haven’t served long enough to remember the days when Wyoming had to cut back on spending.
“Because budgets are tighter now, we don’t have the luxury of having the kind of budgets we had, or supplemental budgets, that we had from 2000 through 2008 or 2009,” Ross said. “With things tighter, there’s going to be more scrutiny, and more discussion about allocations of funds and where they go.”
Gov. Matt Mead presented a budget proposal to lawmakers last month calling for cutting state agency budgets by an average of 6.5 percent, saving more than $60 million in the coming fiscal year, not counting one-time project spending. The cuts would apply to the $3.2 billion, two-year state funds budget the Legislature approved in early 2011.
Mead has called on lawmakers to redirect a $130 million annual stream of state energy revenues that’s currently going into permanent savings. Instead, he’s calling for putting more money into the state’s “rainy day fund,” where the state could spend it later if necessary.
Mead also has called on lawmakers to approve a 10-cent a gallon increase in fuel taxes, which he said would raise about $70 million a year for state and local road projects. If lawmakers balk at the fuel tax increase, he asked them to use some of the energy tax revenues for road construction instead.
The Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee started hearings on Mead’s budget proposal last month. It will continue to work on the budget starting Wednesday, with hearings scheduled to last at least a couple of weeks.
Although the session officially kicks off Tuesday, lawmakers won’t truly get down to business until after Mead presents his state of the state address at 10 a.m. Wednesday. The 40-day session is set to run through March 5, but could go a few days longer if necessary.
Mead has recommended that the Legislature reject $50 million from the federal government to expand eligibility for Medicaid, a cornerstone of the federal Affordable Care Act. Mead also has declined the invitation to set up a state health insurance exchange, an Internet marketplace that would allow state residents to shop for the cheapest deals on insurance, leaving the job for the federal government.
Lubnau said he believes the majority in the House is opposed to expanding Medicaid, a move that could extend coverage to some 30,000 Wyoming residents. He said he needs to get more information on the issue before deciding his personal stand.
In the Senate, Ross also said it would be premature for him to say whether he will agree with Mead’s recommendation to reject the Medicaid expansion.
Both Ross and Lubnau said they expect lawmakers will wrestle with an ongoing conflict between the Legislature and state public schools Superintendent Cindy Hill. The Select Committee of Education Accountability recently recommended stripping the Education Department of some of its duties and transferring them to the state Board of Education.
The Legislature last year specified that Mead’s office needed to oversee some aspects of Hill’s budget and the Legislature also retained liaisons to monitor her department’s operations.
Lawmakers are anxious to see student test scores improve in line with the state’s heavy investment in public education. Some lawmakers maintain Hill’s office has failed to complete some of its tasks for the accountability effort and hindered the work of other boards and panels working on education reform.
“For whatever reason, there’s tension between the Department of Education and the Legislature, and the Legislature set forth a specific plan and wanted items implemented in a specific order. The Department of Education hasn’t done that,” Lubnau said. “That tension will be resolved in one fashion or another.”
Ross said the Legislature’s conflict with Hill is unprecedented in his experience. “I’ve been in since 1995, and quite frankly, we haven’t had that kind of issue,” he said, adding he expects resolving it will generate a major debate.