Senate President Eli Bebout (R-Riverton), left, and Speaker of the House Steve Harshman (R-Casper) sit together on the opening day of the 2018 Legislative Session. Disagreements between the men over how much to change revenue distributions to fund Wyoming’s education system are helping drive a stalemate between the House and Senate. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Negotiations on the state’s budget and education funding have boiled down to disagreement between the Speaker of the House and the Senate President, who have been meeting with Gov. Matt Mead in an effort to resolve their differences.

A conference committee formed to negotiate the budget has not met in public since Monday. On Tuesday, a planned meeting was cancelled just before it began by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Bruce Burns (R-Sheridan), according to a Legislative Service Office staffer and education advocates who had hoped to attend the meeting.

Instead of public votes by the conference committee, offers and counteroffers are being made by each chamber’s leadership behind closed doors, thus far without success. The closed door meetings leave the public without details about the proposed compromises and what items — the new Carey Junior High School in Cheyenne, for example, or paying for the University of Wyoming’s science initiative — are being offered as bargaining chips.

The Carey Junior High School project in particular appears to be in dispute. Last year, the Legislature refused to fund the school. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne) maneuvered before this session to find a way to pay for it, even loading members of the Joint Appropriations Committee on a local school bus for a tour of the current school in order to win their support.

The Senate removed funding for the junior high school from its version of the budget bill. The school appears to have become a bargaining chip in the continuing budget negotiations.

“Carey hangs in the balance,” said Marguerite Herman, a trustee on the Laramie School District #1 board and director of the League of Women Voters of Wyoming.

Governor meets with Bebout, Harshman

In a Facebook Live interview with the Casper Star-Tribune this morning, Gov. Matt Mead said he had met with the two chamber leaders that morning. “I think we’ll have some compromise,” he told the Casper Star-Tribune. “Some days it seems like we’re getting a little closer and some days we get a little further apart.”

Mead told WyoFile Monday that he supports the House’s position on education. The House approach entails lower cuts to education — around $27 million over two years, as opposed to $75.5 million in cuts advanced by the Senate.

The two chamber leaders remain far apart on whether to earmark investment earnings for education funding or capital construction. On Tuesday, Speaker of the House Steve Harshman (R-Casper) argued before the Senate Rules Committee for diverting more investment earnings from the state’s trust funds towards school construction and maintenance.

Under the charge of Senate President Eli Bebout (R-Riverton), the committee agreed with Harshman’s use of investment earnings but stripped his proposed diversion of the money into the School Foundation Program. Instead, the committee amended the bill to divert those earnings to the state’s general fund, where the Legislature would determine its use each session.

Harshman wanted to earmark the money to maintain schools. Bebout said putting it in the general fund would keep lawmakers aware of a structural deficit driven by an expensive education system.

“If you’re going to make a choice to spend millions of millions of dollars for the School Foundation Program,” Bebout said, then putting the investment earnings into the general fund means “you see it in the general fund and people understand you’re making that choice, rather than earmark and earmark and earmark.”

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The resistance by the Senate Rules Committee was emblematic of the dispute over how much to rely on investment earnings, and whether to earmark that money for education in order to avoid a repeat of the last two sessions’ debates in future years. With no new taxes on the table to raise revenues, Harshman hopes to protect education by finding new money for it through earnings from the state’s $7 billion trust fund.

Bebout and Harshman were with Mead again at midday, when they met with a visiting Taiwanese trade representative, Harshman said on the House floor. He arrived late for the chamber’s afternoon session. It was unclear whether his differences with the Senate president over how much to cut education funding and whether to rearrange the state’s investment earnings and savings accounts were discussed.  

Andrew Graham

Andrew Graham is reporting for WyoFile from Laramie. He covers state government, energy and the economy. Reach him at 443-848-8756 or at andrew@wyofile.com, follow him @AndrewGraham88

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  1. Speaker Harshman is a Natrona County educator who has a conflict of interest when it comes to education funding. He should recuse himself on education funding.