House, Senate end legislative session with last-minute education compromise

After eight weeks of discussion and deliberation, last Friday, March 3, the Wyoming Legislature reached a compromise regarding House Bill 236 — the House’s education omnibus bill — to cut education funding by $34 million starting July 1.

Introduced in late January by the House Education Committee, the bill went through several rounds of amendments and deliberations before ending up on Gov. Matt Mead’s desk.

“I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t completely turned upside down,” said Rep. Jamie Flitner, (R-Shell), “it still had some pretty important elements left in it from the original.”

As written, the cuts join the estimated $22 million in reductions to the K–12 foundation account approved in the 2016 biennium, totaling $56 million in reductions during the 2017–18 school year.

“When you look at a $400 million annual shortfall, [the cuts] are still just a drop in the bucket,” she said. “While it is a start, the cuts don’t even come close.”

According to the education funding white paper released last December, every one percent increase to the statewide sales tax (currently at four percent) could have increased funding by $150 million. While Flitner expressed her opposition to general tax increases, she believes that the gravity of the situation calls for careful consideration of the proposal.

“I’m not in favor of raising taxes — I don’t want to do that and don’t want to pay them — but we need to fund education and we’re going to have to figure out how to do that,” Flitner said, adding that addressing the budget shortfall under the current funding model will be difficult.

HB 236 originally called for gradual cuts with slight revenue enhancements. The bill originally included a conditional, half-percent sales tax increase; dependent on the balance of the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account (LSRA), the tax increase will be conditionally imposed should the balance of the account fall under $500 million. After making it through the House with its tax increase intact, state senators struck the proposal from the bill, calling for steeper cuts with no tax increase.

“It’s very frustrating,” Flitner said of the Senate’s unwillingness to temporarily increase the statewide sales tax. “When I was asked that [whether or not I support tax increases] during my campaign I thought it was silly — why would you hamstring yourself when you don’t have any idea what you might be faced with in the future?”

“Most reasonable people are willing to pay a little bit more to help education,” she added.

Flitner emphasized the need to diversify the state’s revenue streams, citing the economic downturn of the mineral extraction industry as the call-to-action.

“I think we’re just delaying the inevitable,” Flitner said. “I think people are going to have to wake up and realize that we’re going to have to do something. We’ve got to find another source of funding for education than what we presently have with the [mineral] severance tax — it just doesn’t make sense to put all our eggs in one basket.”

While Flitner does believe progress has been made, she cautioned against getting too comfortable with the situation now that a stopgap measure has been implemented. Although the bill is a step in the right direction for the state, it does not address revenue needed for capital construction projects.

“I don’t think anybody is unaware that it’s looming over our heads,” she said, “it’s something that’s deferred at this point.”

While the funding cuts address the immediate need for a budget balance, the bill establishes a select committee tasked with evaluating the situation and formulating responses to the state’s long-standing funding shortfall.

“[The committee] is going to have to reevaluate the cost of educating a child in Wyoming, and get that cost down,” Flitner said, adding that a recalibration of the funding model should be the group’s number one priority. “We need to find out how we can cut our costs when we’re operating at a loss. From there, priority number two will be finding new sources of revenue.”

The composition of the committee has yet to be announced according to Flitner, but she remains optimistic that they’ll be able to draft a more comprehensive solution to the issue.