State supplemental budget still up in the air

With just about a week and a half left in the 2017 general session of the 64th Wyoming Legislature, lawmakers remain far apart on funding education, Sen. Ray Peterson said in his weekly report Tuesday.

The Senate has included a cut of some $91 million in K-12 education funding for Wyoming schools in its version of the supplemental budget, while the House has taken a more gradual approach in House Bill 236, the omnibus education funding bill that passed the House on Feb. 7 and has been in the Senate Education Committee. School funding in Wyoming is facing an estimated $400 million revenue shortfall in the next biennium – 2018-20 – due to a decline in the mineral and oil and gas industry.

The Senate and House are at loggerheads over the supplemental budget bills, which start simultaneously in each body and are then undergo consensus work in a joint conference committee.

“The rumor is that we might leave here without the Senate and House agreeing on a supplemental budget,” Peterson said. “If that happens we would go back to the original budget for the biennium (passed a year ago). I hope they’re just playing hardball with each other. I don’t know what it would take to get them off dead center. We have to do something to get a jump on the education (funding deficit) and the sooner the better. I would hate to kick the can down the road.”

Peterson said both the Senate and House have spent countless hours on the education funding issue, and if the funding issue cannot be resolved, he said, “It’s just been a waste of time.”

He said HB 236 was to come up on committee of the whole (first reading) in the Senate on Wednesday, and during work on the bill this week he will try to amend back in language in the bill that was removed by the Senate Education Committee to define a fulltime student as a pupil who attends “at least 80 percent of a fulltime equivalency basis,” which allows students who have release time for seminary, work release, an apprenticeship or other reasons to be considered fulltime for the purposed of the block grant funding model.

“We’ll try to amend that back in,” he said. “Schools are being selectively punished. They figure they can save $7 million per year in education block grant funding by not reimbursing schools for time out of class for whatever reason.”

Cigarette tax

Peterson said he’s disappointed that House Bill 151, which would increase the cigarette tax by 30 cents per pack (from 60 cents to 90 cents) failed in his Senate Revenue Committee on a 3-2 vote this week. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Mike Madden, R-Buffalo, who Peterson said based the 30-cent increase on the rate of inflation.

Peterson said anti-tobacco lobbyists didn’t support the bill because they felt the tax increase wasn’t high enough, while others believed the increase would hurt small retailers and was a regressive tax that would affect only people who smoke.

“There’s the general attitude down here that citizens don’t want to see any increase in taxes until more cuts have been made,” Peterson said. “It’s cutting, cutting and more cutting. But there have been several increases in fees for services provided by county and state government.”

Gun bills

Peterson said he was skeptical of a pair of gun bills that were passed in the House and were to be considered in the Senate this week, saying he prefers local control for the issues.

HB 136 would repeal gun free zones on any public college or university campus in Wyoming and allow concealed firearms to be carried on campus, including athletic events, and HB 137 would allow concealed weapons to be carried at any meeting of a governmental entity on public property or at any meeting of the legislature or legislative committee.

Peterson noted that House Bill 19, which requires sales tax to be collected on Internet sales to Wyoming residents passed the Senate last Wednesday and the House voted to concur with minor changes Tuesday.

He said the bill may not lead to the immediate collection of sales tax due to pending litigation regarding the commerce clause, but he said the bill in essence allows Wyoming to join forces with other states to force the hand of the federal government to deal with the issue.

Peterson said sales tax laws are being inequitably enforced and local businesses are being punished as a result.