$3.3 billion budget passes third reading

By Patti Carpenter

A video camera on every school bus, an 80-mile-per-hour speed limit on certain roads, increased funding for senior centers, the entire budget for the state and an abundance of other items were considered this week during the current legislative budget session.

Rep. Elaine Harvey of Lovell reported that it’s been a busy week in the House of Representatives, with many bills passing that will now be considered by the Senate.

Among those passed include a bill that will require video cameras on school buses. The camera will be used in part to record incidents where drivers ignore warning lights and pass a school bus illegally.

“Fly-bys are huge all over the state, creating a danger for school children,” explained Harvey. “Right now, bus drivers write down license plate numbers when cars that pass illegally. The problem is the license plate number only identifies who owns the car, not necessarily the driver. The video will provide better evidence for court cases by showing who was actually driving the car.”

Additionally, the House passed a bill that could increase speed limits on certain roadways. The bill will allow WYDOT to study which sections of Wyoming’s highways could best handle increased speed limits of up to 80 miles per hour.

“Several studies of interstate roads have shown that increasing the speed actually cuts down on fatalities,” said Harvey. “This will allow WYDOT to make changes where they think an increased speed limit makes sense.”

Budget Bill

The House also passed the budget bill on its third reading on Friday, Feb. 21. Harvey said that although there are several areas of difference in the budget’s amendments, the overall message on the budget remains one of “fiscal prudency.”

“The legislature is committed to moving forward a fair, but conservative, budget that prioritizes Wyoming’s needs and invests in Wyoming’s people, jobs, communities, responsible mineral development and education,” said Harvey.

She added that the bill strikes a balance between current needs and long-term planning, appropriating $3.32 billion, which is a slight decrease from the previous budget, due in part to 300 fewer state employees and a requirement to hold back on the growth of state agencies.

“The budget contributes to the growth of the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account (LSRA), commonly referred to as the ‘rainy day fund,’ while the Permanent Wyoming Mineral Trust Fund (PWMTF) also continues to grow,” explained Harvey.

Significant amendments include an increase from 2 percent to 2.5 percent pay increase for executive, judicial and University of Wyoming employees and changes to the state employee compensation package based on the Governor’s recommendations. Harvey noted that the Senate opted for a revenue neutral version that would ask state employees to pay for a share of their pension contribution increase.

Other amendments include added funding for the state’s community colleges to compensate them for enrollment growth. A funding increase for senior centers of $480,000 was added to the budget. Harvey said the increase would restore funding cut previously by the Division of Aging.

The amount of $5,000 was added to the budget to keep the state capitol open on Saturdays during Cheyenne Frontier Days.

Funding of  $125,000 was added to establish and administer grants to counties with search and rescue teams trained to find a persons suffering from dementia related disorders like Down Syndrome, brain injuries, autism, Alzheimer’s or other conditions that cause wandering behaviors.

Other amendments include increased funding to counties from $81 million to $105 million and increased funding for local capital projects from $54 million to $70 million, a grant of $110,000 to Wyoming public television for the purpose of producing a Native American online education curriculum for Wyoming students, a budget of $25,000 to mint and market coins celebrating Wyoming’s 125th anniversary as a state and increased funding for early childhood programs.

The budget also provides for the Select Committee on Statewide Education Accountability to continue through Dec. 31, 2014. It also allows for a strategic investments and projects account of $70 million if earnings in the PMTF exceed projections. It budgets for a University of Wyoming “Top Tier” science program and increases funding to the Community College Commission to $5.3 million.

Medicaid expansion

Several bills failed earlier in the session that would allow Medicaid expansion, and a first attempt to expand it through the budget also failed. Harvey said although the first Medicaid expansion amendment failed another one is expected to take its place for consideration.

Special session

A special session is  being considered to review statutes impacted by SF 104, also known as the “Hill Bill.”

“With more than 37 statutes impacted by the passage of SF 104, including the fiscal year 2015-16 budget, legislators need sufficient time to deconstruct all of the interwoven statues and work with the Joint Appropriations Committee and the Joint Education Committee to manage the workload,” explained Harvey. “The short, 20-day session is focused on delivering a conservative, forward-thinking budget that plans for Wyoming’s future. For that reason, a special session was needed.

“SF 106, which provides for a process to address the 2014 Supreme Court decision relating to the structure and oversight of the state’s public school system, passed the Senate Rules Committee by a vote of 5-0 and has been referred to the (House) Appropriations Committee.”