Peterson to chair Senate Revenue Committee

by david peck

Sen. Ray Peterson has a new assignment in the Wyoming Senate – a chairmanship.

Peterson (R-Cowley), in recent years a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, was assigned by Senate leadership to become the new chairman of the Senate Revenue Committee, and he has also been named to the Senate Labor, Health and Social Services Committee, the same committee Rep. Elaine Harvey (R-Lovell) is chairing in the House of Representatives.

Incoming President of the Senate Tony Ross of Cheyenne called Peterson to give him the news, and all assignments were announced during a recent GOP caucus in Casper. Phil Nicholas of Laramie is the majority floor leader, and Eli Bebout of Riverton is the vice president of the Senate, as well as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“It’s an interesting committee,” Peterson said of the Revenue Committee. “All of the revenue bills start in the House, and most don’t make it out, so once a backlog exists in the Senate we’ll get to hear all kids of bills.”

Peterson spent last week in Cheyenne for hearings with the Joint Appropriations Committee (JAC), and he then sat in on the Labor and Health committee on Thursday and Friday to get a feeling for what his new committee will be handling.

Labor and Health will be busy, he said, sponsoring eight or nine bills this session and dealing with important issues like Medicade expansion and health insurance exchanges.

“We’ll be right in the thick of things,” he said.

Gov. Matt Mead presented his recommendations for the supplemental budget to the JAC on Monday, Dec. 11, and the JAC then began hearings with various state agencies for their supplemental budget requests.

Wyoming is in the middle of the two-year 2012-14 biennial budget that was passed during the 2012 budget session.

Peterson noted that the governor has called for an 8 percent cut in the second year of the biennium due to an anticipated decline in revenue due to continuing low natural gas prices, but he said the execution of the cuts has been “hit and miss.” The University of Wyoming, he said, has been asked to make only a 6 percent cut and has been given under the governor’s recommendation additional revenue for salary increases.

“I was frustrated,” he said. “I told Phil Nicholas that I don’t think we’ve had one agency come in with true 8 percent (cuts). But at least cuts are being made.”

Peterson said the latest Consensus Revenue Estimating Group report was better than anticipated, but not much better. He said spending increased with budget surpluses, and now the legislature is “trying to level that off or even reduce spending and reverse that trend a little bit.”

Among the proposed cuts is a recommendation to close the circuit court in Lovell, and Peterson said he made his pitch to keep the court open, citing the average income of the local population and the distances – 40 miles or more – that people in the north end of the county will have to travel for court or to file paperwork.

“This is just a proposed budget,” Peterson said. “It still has to go through the legislative process.”

Highways

Gov. Mead told the JAC last week that he would like the legislature to establish a steady funding source for highway construction and maintenance rather than always going to the general fund as a funding source. He has proposed a 10-cent increase in the fuel tax or diverting a portion of the mineral tax revenue that flows into the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund for highways.

“I’m against the (fuel) tax,” Peterson said. “I’d rather divert some of the flow away from what we’ve been stockpiling to catch up on road maintenance. I agree with the concept (of a steady stream of revenue for the Wyoming Dept. of Transportation), but I’m still not convinced that WyDOT is spending money as effectively and efficiently as it could. I’d like to take a shot at prioritization first, for all agencies.

“I have a hard time with increasing taxes for highways when we’re putting money away in an account for a rainy day. Some people say it’s raining, but it’s not like it was 20 years ago. We’ll see how it comes through the House. I don’t think a tax will survive the House.”

The 2013 session will begin Tuesday, Jan. 8.