Legislature passes halfway mark with work on budget

By David Peck

The 2016 Budget Session of the 63rd Wyoming Legislature passed the halfway mark this week heading toward a March 4 adjournment by doing some heavy lifting on the 2016-18 fiscal year budget, Sen. Ray Peterson reported this week.

Friday – Day 10 of the 20-day session — was the last day for bills to be considered in the committee of the whole (first reading) in their house of origin. Monday was the last day for second reading, and Tuesday was the final day for third reading, the so-called “crossover” day of the legislative calendar.

“Last week was pretty brutal,” Peterson said. “We worked late but got most of our Senate files out, and we had second and third reading of the budget. There must have been 90 or so Senate files we sent over (to the House).”

Peterson said the Senate expected to see a lot of House bills this week but only saw about four on Monday and five on Tuesday. He said his first Revenue Committee meeting on House bills this week had only one bill from the House to consider.

“We know more will be coming,” he said. “We have another (committee) meeting scheduled for Thursday. But we expected a whole boat load of House bills on Monday morning.”

Peterson said the budget bills were worked concurrently in the Senate and House on second and third readings Thursday and Friday, with many amendments considered. The bills will now go to a conference committee for reconciliation of the two versions.

Some key differences are that the House gave local government $105 million to spend, $15 million more than the Senate’s $90 million. And the House is handling school financing differently than the Senate.

Peterson said the Joint Appropriations Committee recommended a 1 percent cut in the education external cost adjustment in the first year of the biennium and 2 percent in the second year, but the House went with 1 percent each year while taking money out of transportation in year two and putting it into the cost adjustment.

The Senate stayed with the recommended 1 percent/2 percent formula and “didn’t backfill anything,” Peterson said.

Peterson noted that House Bill 52 establishing appropriations for school facilities includes money to lease modular buildings for Greybull Elementary School, which has caused him to wonder whether the School Facilities Commission has, over the years, built some new schools too small.

“Questions are going to be asked about transportation and other school costs,” Peterson said, noting that some school officials have been “screaming like smashed cats” over the education budget.

He said he understands some of the concern among smaller schools, noting, “They’re afraid of losing student enrollment and seeing a reduction in funding. That affects smaller schools more so. I have suggested looking at the funding formula for the small school adjustment.”

Even as the 2016-18 budget is worked in conference committee, legislators are concerned about the years to come, Peterson said, noting that during the downturn in oil, gas and mineral production that solons are asking how long the downturn will last. If prices stay low and production remains flat, the legislature may have to do some more “backfilling” next year, he said.

Peterson also expressed concern about the future of the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account, the savings account the legislature is dipping into to balance the budget.

“Our burn rate is about $108.7 million per year,” he said. “One bill that has been introduced gives notice to state departments to plan for 5 or 10 percent cuts next year – planning for the worst and hoping we don’t have to go that far.”

The session is winding down, with Friday being the last day for bills to be reported out of committee in the second house. The last day for committee of the whole work is Monday, second reading Tuesday and third reading Wednesday, with adjournment set for Friday, March 4.