Community colleges a priority for House representatives

In this Wyoming Capitol Outlook post (published on March 2, 2012) Geoff O’Gara of Wyoming PBS and Mike Morris write about the the emerging priorities of the short budget session, which includes community colleges:

Fiscal discipline has been something of a strait jacket on the legislature this year, with declining natural gas tax revenues inclining legislators to tighten purse strings that have been fairly loose in recent boom years.

As a House-Senate conference starts work on the differences in the two chambers’ budget bills, there are only two notable differences: the Senate wants to put $3.5 million toward reducing that waiting list for services for the developmentally disabled; and the House invested $8 million to help community colleges cope with increased enrollment.

The waiting list for DD services involves the state’s waiver program, which provides alternative services such as home-health care for DD adults, children and victims of brain injuries. There are roughly 550 people waiting to get into the program, some of them for years, and the Department of Health estimates it would cost about $28 million to reduce the average wait to six months.

But Senate Appropriations Chairman Phil Nicholas was reluctant to spend so much in a lean revenue year, noting that the Wyoming-designed waiver program was a “Cadillac” that might need to be trimmed. With Health Department Director Tom Forslund in his first year on the job, legislators want to give him another year to devise ways to control burgeoning health care costs.

(Wyoming PBS’s Capitol Outlook examines the life of a DD adult on the waiver waiting list in tonight’s program.)

Support for community colleges carries forward a decade-long effort to improve education in Wyoming – everything from the Hathaway scholarships to a school building boom to generous teacher salaries.  House conferees are hopeful they can carry it through to the final budget bill.

The House voted for the $8.8 million last week as an amendment to the budget bill (H.B. 1), and supporters fought off efforts to cut the amount in half, reminding colleagues that Governor Matt Mead’s initial request of $15 million in funding had already been halved.

“Eighty percent of students enrolled in Wyoming community colleges are from Wyoming,” said Rep. Sam Krone (R-Cody), one of the authors of the amendment. Krone noted that, despite 27 percent increases statewide in community college enrollment since 2004-05, funding for future enrollment growth had been slashed from $11.4 million to nothing.

“Community colleges have done their job,” added Rep. Patrick Goggles (D-Ethete), also an author of the amendment. “The levels of growth at our community college reflect this. These are the students that will provide the backbone of workers for the state, and many of these students do not go on to universities.”

“We have industries that need workers, we have students that need classes,” said Rep. Sue Wallis (R-Recluse). “We are always shoveling money into our four-year institution, and the community colleges are a worthy recipient for this money.” Rep. Bernadine Craft (D-Rock Springs) noted that twice as many students attended community colleges as the University of Wyoming during the last year.

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