As budget debate begins, Flitner grapples with education funding

Representative Jamie Flitner came to learn that serving on the House Education Committee during an ongoing fiscal crisis is no easy task. For the freshman Rep., balancing a dwindling budget with a mandate to equitably and adequately fund education has proven increasingly difficult.

On Tuesday, House Bill 236 — the education committee’s omnibus education spending bill — was approved 43-16-1 on third reading and is moving on to the Wyoming Senate. The uncertainty regarding the solution for the funding crisis — from additional cuts to a sales and use tax increase — continues to challenge Flitner’s ideological stance.

“I’ve been really struggling with that,” she said during a Tuesday morning interview. “We just can’t make enough cuts to make up the budget shortfall — it’s like being between a rock and a hard place.”

In addition to her own ideological battle, Flitner must balance the dueling interests of her diverse constituents, preventing her from adopting a singular solution to the budget crunch.

“I’ve heard from a couple of educators…that say ‘please don’t cut’ or ‘don’t undo the good that’s been created in schools.’ I’ve also heard comments requesting [cuts] be made at a local level — that district be allowed to make their own cuts. On the other side of the coin, people are saying ‘you need to cut more and not tax us.’”

As of now, Flitner prefers that districts retain control over the direction of any potential budget cuts. “Rather than making a mandate at the state level,” she said, “I’d rather that the districts be allowed to do that.” Flitner said the sentiment is common among educators when given the choice.

Additionally, she believes the number of professional development days should not be reduced as it results in an estimated $5,000 reduction in pay. “I don’t think it’s fair to ask people to take a cut in pay, especially when [our district] has such great educators. We’ve done such great things in our district, I’d hate to have to undo anything.”

In addition to the continuing education debate, this week the Joint Appropriations Committee released their supplemental budget bill, outlining roughly $30 million in additional cuts to the 2017-18 biennial budget.

Originally approved by the legislature in 2016, Gov. Matt Mead reduced the state budget by $245 million prior to approval. With no immediate relief in sight to the state’s economic situation, the bill calls to reduce government spending by cutting roughly 135 full-time and 10 part-time state employees. In addition to the mandated cuts, the bill requires Gov. Mead to identify 75 additional positions to be cut prior to the end of the biennium.

Gov. Mead warned against future cuts to programs and offices, arguing that the impact of the last round of cuts has yet to be fully realized. Flitner has yet to adopt a position on the issue, as she desires to fully evaluate the merits of additional reductions to state government and other programs.

“Wading through the budget bill is completely new to me,” she said. “I’ve made some inquiries [regarding] consolidation of state offices – I would much rather they continue to cut from the top than services which reach the public.”

Flitner equated her role within state government to that of an armchair quarterback – while she may not participate in many of the programs and or work in the offices, her decisions and judgements still impact them.

“I see a lot of state workers [at the Capitol] and, while I’m sure they’re probably important, you start to wonder if all the offices we have statewide are absolutely necessary,” she said.

The House will continue to debate the budget bill with action expected in the coming weeks.