As the deadline to introduce new bills passes and the Wyoming State Legislature approaches their halfway mark, state lawmakers begin to double down on their legislative agenda. For Representative Jamie Flitner (R-Shell), the flurry of bills and actions has far outpaced her prior work weeks.
“Every week is busy, this one has been particularly so – it’s definitely crunch time,” she said.
On Monday, Jan. 30, 2017, the House Committee on Education hosted a special open meeting regarding House Bill 236 — the omnibus education funding bill introduced last week. Touching on everything from enrollment, to salaries and even transportation, the bill addresses education funding through revisions of the existing formula while providing suggestions to further mitigate the funding crisis.
“House Bill 236 is a moderate move toward the kind of reductions we need to do,” Flitner said, calling the bill the “first move” in addressing not only the funding crisis, but also the state of education in Wyoming.
In order to partially-mitigate the funding crisis, the bill proposes a temporary, half-percent increase on the statewide sales and use tax. According to the language, the taxation rate will increase to four-and-a-half percent “only after the treasurer first certifies to the governor and the Department of Revenue that the amount in the legislative stabilization reserve account (LSRA) is less than $500 million.”
Flitner emphasized that the tax increase is not permanent — it is less about increasing state revenue streams and more about replenishing the LSRA after its funds are utilized to bolster the school foundation account. According to her, the state revenue committee is currently exploring non-tax proposals to increase revenue streams.
Legislators have begrudgingly accepted the reality and necessity of education funding cuts. The estimated $400 million yearly education shortfall raised more questions than answers, and legislators have taken to modifying the school foundation formula as a means of chipping away at the deficit.
Flitner recalled the testimony of an Air Force family raising a child with special needs. According to her, Wyoming was the only state that was capable of providing their son with a level of service that was “second to none.”
“It’s hard when you have to make budget cuts,” she said. “You know it will impact everybody at some level. For me, that’s what’s the hardest having to make those very difficult decisions — none of us want to have to do this, but we’re bound to.”
In addition to reducing services, the bill proposes cutting back the number of school days from 185 to 180. First proposed in the Deficit Reduction Subcommittee’s white paper, the specific idea drew criticism from educational professionals and district representatives. For many districts, if the reduction in school days is approved, the number of professional development days would most likely be reduced — not only impacting training but also affecting salaries.
“When you cut days you cut into their salary,” Flitner said. “You also know that professional development days are important to classroom instruction.”
In a previous interview with the Standard, Big Horn County School District 3 Superintendent Barry Bryant expressed disapproval regarding the legislature’s willingness to cut development days. He said it not only challenged the autonomy of districts to determine their schedule, it would come as a detriment to instructional planning.
Bryant provided comments regarding bill 236 to the Standard, saying there was “too much to list what [he] disagreed with [on] the bill.” Rather than the targeted cuts the bill outlines, Bryant proposed a flat, acrossthe-board reduction for all districts, arguing that some have already scaled back programs the bill promises to slash.
“It is a block grant model for a reason — every district is a little different and an across the board cut allows districts to prioritize cuts based on their unique position.”
Bryant also used the opportunity to speak out against the proposal to adopt a state salary for school employees.
“I for one, am not against a state salary scale for [employees] – Greybull is already at the bottom of the entire state. For high cost districts it just [won’t] work. It has to be somewhat [based on] market value.”
Guns in School
Flitner has co-sponsored House Bill 194, a measure that, if passed, would relegate authority to the board of trustees in each school district regarding possession of firearms on district property.
Per the bill’s language, any district employee with a valid concealed carry permit may “carry a concealed firearm on or into any facility of the school district… or on school property” provided the district has adopted rules and regulations governing possession. The district must approve an employee before they can carry, and their firearm must be kept on their person at all times, or be securely concealed within a biometric container or other lockbox.
Proponents of the bill tout it as a compromise between second amendment rights and general opposition by educators. For Flitner, the decision to co-sponsor the bill was largely rooted in her experiences and desire to support her constituents.
“There are a lot of people in Wyoming who fully believe in the second amendment” she said. “When I grew up, boys went to school with rifles in the gun racks in the back of their pickups — now it’s completely unheard of.”
Flitner attributed the prohibition of guns on school campuses to a national shift in policy, possibly sparked by the rising number of school shootings. According to her, the debate to restore the right to carry guns in schools has almost a decade — prior bills have been introduced and passed by the House of Representatives, only to be stopped in the State Senate.
“I think that there’s a faction that will always continue to push for their rights — rights they feel have been impeded,” she said. While Flitner does not profess to be a hunter, firearms were deeply ingrained in her upbringing due to life on the ranch. “While I personally don’t hunt, I don’t believe in stripping any of us of our right [to carry].”