When House-Senate negotiations on a school finance bill — one of the most crucial issues facing Wyoming — collapsed on the final day of the session, it became clear any long-term funding solution must be brokered by the governor.
In his comments the following day, Gov. Mark Gordon announced he will take up the issue. But his response was so lukewarm, it inspired no confidence that what he does will be either timely or impactful.
“Start to take a role?” Governor, are you kidding us? Wyoming has a $300 million deficit in education funding spiraling out of control, and we should be comforted that you’re finally getting into the game?
Gordon said he’ll form a working group to survey communities on what they want the state’s education model to include. The governor said he anticipates it will be “a long endeavor.”
Let’s use Gordon’s fiscal-cliff metaphor to illustrate why his response is so exasperating.
At the top of the cliff, the House and Senate engage in a predictable tug-of-war. The House wants to balance modest cuts to education with a sales tax increase to ensure a stable revenue source. The Senate insists on deep cuts and no tax hikes whatsoever.
By killing House Bill 173 – School finance funding when it walked away from a late-stage negotiations, the Senate let go of the rope. In an actual tug-of-war match, that would have meant victory for the House.
But the legislative game is different; there were no winners in this contest. Wyoming’s School funding model remains the same as before the session, and that $300 million shortfall still exists.
The same legislators who couldn’t agree on a school finance bill will be at the Capitol in 2022. So it’s logical to conclude that without a strong push from Gordon, the stalemate will continue.
Fortunately, the federal American Rescue Plan will provide Wyoming with an estimated $273 million for education. The state can use some of that money next year plus tap its “rainy day fund” to keep schools from falling off the fiscal cliff, for now.
But a one-time influx of federal dollars can’t fix a deficit that isn’t born of one-time causes. Our deficit is structural, a long time in the making and will have long-term consequences. The shortfall is expected to nearly double for the 2023-24 biennium.
In his State of the State address to lawmakers, Gordon acknowledged that Wyoming’s education funding system is broken because mineral tax revenues that have largely paid for schools have significantly fallen. However, he offered no solutions to fix it.
The Legislature, not the governor, decides how much the state will spend on education. Gordon, understanding this, and has taken a hands-off approach during his first two years in office.
But education has an enormous impact on the health of Wyoming’s economy. Schools are one of the top employers in every community. If teachers lose their jobs, they will move to other states. As classroom sizes grow, the quality of education will decline. Eliminating programs and activities may not save a school district enough money, leading to the closure of some schools.
And all this is happening as Wyoming’s ability to attract new industries depends on having an educated workforce.
Education funding may not be the executive branch’s responsibility, but the state’s chief executive has an obligation to use the office not only as a bully pulpit, but to work to ensure a healthy state, which among other factors depends heavily on a solid school system. That obligation includes finding a sustainable education funding source.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. Wyoming has a constitutional mandate to provide a quality, equitable education to all students. School districts have sued the state four times and won every case. Lawmakers lacking the political will to raise taxes to fund schools is not an excuse the Wyoming Supreme Court will accept.
Since 2000, Wyoming has hired a consultant every five years to recalibrate in painstaking detail every aspect of the school funding model.
In good economic times, the Legislature has provided even more money for schools than consultants recommended. Those days are gone, exemplified by what unfolded during a special recalibration in 2017. That year, the consultant determined the state needed to spend an additional $70 million. The Legislature decided to cut $30 million.
In the past four years, lawmakers have reduced school funding by a total of $100 million. The 2020 recalibration resulted in a recommendation to spend $100 million more on schools. Instead, a select committee sponsored a bill that cut $100 million.
House Bill 173, which emerged as an alternative to that bill, cut administrative costs by $80 million over the next three years. But it also provided a revenue solution: If the state draws down its $1.2 billion rainy day fund below $650 million, it would trigger a half-cent state sales tax hike. That tax would raise an estimated $160 million per year.
It wasn’t a surprise to see a doggedly anti-tax Senate say forget about it. Everyone, especially Gordon, could see it coming.
Every governor handles crises in different ways. I have no doubt Gov. Ed Herschler, for example, would have called House and Senate leaders to his office and figuratively banged a few heads together to get a deal. He didn’t hesitate to apply pressure when things didn’t go his way.
Obviously that’s not the way Gordon has decided to govern. But when he’s taken a strong public stand on other issues, the Legislature has followed his lead.
Gordon made incredibly tough budget decisions, recommending $500 million in cuts for the next year. The Legislature approved most of what he called for.
Gordon has steadfastly continued to tie Wyoming’s economy to fossil fuels. The Legislature passed his “clean coal” initiative and has delayed coal-fired power plants from converting to cheaper renewable sources. It approved a $1.2 million fund so Gordon can sue other states that impede the use of Wyoming coal.
Gordon’s statements about education, by contrast, are tempered. He told legislators the state has a moral obligation to “ensure that the next generation of Wyoming students will graduate with the tools necessary to succeed in this modern economy.”
To put those tools in students’ hands, Wyoming must find ways to stabilize education funding. It will likely require a complex combination of revenue diversions from other funds, savings, increasing taxes and making cuts.
Those options won’t be politically popular, especially if Gordon supports any tax increase, and he could pay a price in next year’s election. But he has much to gain if he helps avert an education funding disaster.
The governor has started calling his proposed working group a “strike force,” but simply making it sound tougher isn’t the answer.
Gordon needs to take firm control of the situation. It’s time for leadership, and it needs to start at the top.