As the Legislature sputtered its way to the end of the budget session last week, House and Senate leaders pointed to their work and pronounced it good.
They admitted coming up a little short in some areas, but overall gave the impression that while the state’s glass of water may not be full, it’s still pretty close to the top. Boundless optimism prevailed yet again.
After all, they want voters to send them back to the Capitol. It’s difficult to make that case by admitting failure.
I have a different view. I think they overturned the glass completely, and we’re all getting soaked.
The Legislature balanced the budget by dipping into reserves deep enough to fund education for two more years. The budget deal the House and Senate compromised on barely passed the latter chamber; it took last-minute vote changes by Sens. Charlie Scott (R-Casper) and Mike Gierau (D-Jackson) to make it happen.
Like their recent predecessors, the co-chairmen of the Joint Revenue Committee — Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) and Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne) — had called for the Legislature to find new revenue sources.
Their plea was met with one measure, a 5% statewide lodging tax. It will raise $18 million a year, a tiny step in the right direction but not the bold action that’s needed.
However, it was the sole tax measure Gov. Mark Gordon said he would sign. After the Legislature left town, he told reporters, “I do not think that raising taxes is necessarily in order unless we have made the kinds of adjustments that we need to make in our programs.”
Wyoming and South Dakota are the only two states that don’t tax either personal or corporate income. House leaders refused to even vote on a proposed corporate income tax this year. The Department of Revenue conservatively estimated it would generate $45 million per year from out-of-state corporations, earmarked for education.
While debating a municipal sales tax bill, Scott said an alternative like a personal income tax would be a “disaster.”
House and Senate Democrats offered a progressive income tax at a modest 4% rate in 2019. With constitutionally mandatory credits for sales and use taxes and property taxes, it wouldn’t have cost anyone making less than $350,000 annually a cent. Yet the bill would have generated at least $200 million per year.
Republican leadership immediately killed it, proving that “income tax” are the naughtiest two words ever uttered at the Legislature.
The Joint Revenue Committee sponsored a Medicaid expansion bill this year that the House stopped dead in its tracks. It would have provided 19,000 low-income residents health insurance, put more than $100 million a year in federal taxes back into Wyoming’s economy, created scores of health industry jobs and significantly reduced the $100 million uncompensated care costs that hospitals are stuck with annually.
That was also a non-starter. I’d suggest that a livable wage bill would both boost Wyoming’s economy and create less dependence on social services, but fiscal conservatives who claim to also want that outcome would chase me out of the state with pitchforks and red-hot pokers.
Restructuring a tax system dependent on a waning fossil fuels industry for nearly two-thirds of state revenue should be the top priority of the Legislature and governor. Instead, this session they were united in their commitment to prop up coal, oil and natural gas by giving them mineral severance tax breaks and other absurd measures.
In the midst of a state budget crisis with no end in sight, Wyoming will forego tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue with the blind hope that it might somehow spur minerals production. But the state can’t afford to spend $2.5 million on a tax refund program to help the elderly and disabled? That’s hard for me to swallow.
For me, the session’s nadir came when the Legislature adjourned without passing Senate File 119 -State funded capital construction, which contained $162 million in projects.
What derailed the bill was, of all things, a University of Wyoming swimming pool.
The House approved $50 million for UW construction, including replacing Corbett Pool, renovating War Memorial Stadium’s west stands and a College of Law addition. Meanwhile, the Senate — unhappy after agreeing to more than $500 million dollars in new UW construction over the past four years — ponied up only $500,000 to remodel a ROTC facility. The university didn’t even request that one.
Posturing ensued on both sides. House and Senate negotiators resorted to what they often do to resolve differences: a game of chicken. Oddly, that generally works, but not this time.
After both public and secret talks over several days, the Senate agreed to fund a shortened list of projects.
The House responded by adding funding for UW and community colleges. The pool stayed in. Then, while the House was still in session, the Senate folded up its tent and went home.
Lost in the shuffle were critical projects like the removal of hazardous material at the Wyoming Life Resources Center in Lander, community college infrastructure work, repairing the HVAC system at the Women’s Corrections Center in Lusk and state parks, military and other construction projects.
What did the governor do to avert this disaster? Gordon wrote Senate and House leaders a letter that essentially asked them to play nice, including a list of 12 projects he’d really like to see done — not exactly decisive action from the top.
Flushing SF 119 down the drain is symptomatic of larger problems in the legislative and executive branches, which need to be addressed head on. If Wyoming leaders’ dysfunctional governing is left unchecked, our state’s fortunes are headed off the proverbial cliff.
I’m generally unsympathetic to Senate budget hawks who claim they can cut their way out of all fiscal woes. Yet, the Senate Appropriations Committee is correct when it says it’s always going to be outgunned by its House counterpart, which has seven members to the SAC’s five. This system sets up endless, needless showdowns and power plays.
One-party rule has proven increasingly ineffective. With a make-up of 13 Democrats and 77 Republicans, the GOP squabbles among its own members: representatives vs. senators, moderates vs. conservatives. It can be fascinating to watch, but it’s not any way to run a state government.
Just “throw the bums out,” you say? Sorry, that’s not the way Wyoming works. Incumbents keep getting re-elected as long as they want to run. In far too many races, they are unopposed.
I’m optimistic enough to believe that if more voters shared my view from the cheap seats in the House and Senate galleries, things might change.
That’s why I’m glad to see an appropriation in SF 2 – Legislative expenses that I wholeheartedly endorse. It provides $525,000 for video conferencing and video streaming in the renovated Capitol Building’s 10 public meeting rooms.
People from all over Wyoming will be able to watch all legislative committees at work, live and via archives. Fully televised floor sessions should be next, backed by popular demand.
Maybe there’s a little water left in the Legislative glass after all.