A July special legislative session to allocate more than $500 million in federal aid is off, Gov. Mark Gordon’s office announced Friday, delaying any plans to spend the American Rescue Plan Act support until next winter.
In a joint announcement with legislative leadership, Gordon played down urgency to distribute the new funds from President Joe Biden’s pandemic relief package, saying he preferred to allocate the funds in a methodical and balanced manner. As state officials have previously told WyoFile, that process would emphasize projects with long-term beneficial impacts, rather than backfilling cuts made by the Wyoming Legislature in recent years.
“These are dollars borrowed by Congress from many generations yet to come, and if we are going to use them, in my mind, those future generations that will be paying for them must also benefit from them,” Gordon said in a statement. ARPA funds, Gordon said, “must be for the greater benefit of Wyoming citizens, not for a few shiny distractions.”
The deadline to appropriate the dollars is 2024, with the end date to spend them set for 2026.
According to a letter to state legislators co-signed by House Speaker Eric Barlow and Senate President Dan Dockstader, the session’s anticipated July start date was “too early” to appropriately allocate the funds. A second $500-million installment will become available for distribution spring 2022, they wrote. Additionally, guidance from the United States Department of Treasury is still pending, leaving lawmakers little direction on how ARP dollars can be spent.
“A product developed with months of deliberation will be significantly better than any legislation compiled in a few days of hearings and a week-long session,” they wrote in the letter. “Governor Gordon has identified enduring funding objectives that we believe will be best achieved through existing legislative processes.”
It is also unclear what impacts the relief package will have on state agencies.
Gordon announced he had assembled a “strike team” to strategize how to spend the dollars. The team also shaped the outlining of a public comment process to help guide allocation. The team is scheduled to present a preliminary report to the Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee at its June 15 meeting.
That strike team will consist primarily of executive branch advisors, heads from agencies like the Department of Health and the Department of Workforce Services and representatives for both the Wyoming Association of Municipalities and the Wyoming County Commissioners Association, Gordon’s policy advisor Renny Mackay said.
Though the governor cannot unilaterally create new programs without legislative approval, Gordon will have significant leeway on how to spend ARPA funds, much as he did with the 2020 CARES Act support. The cancellation of July’s special session gives Gordon even more discretion to distribute the millions of dollars remaining from last year’s relief package.
Legislation passed during the 2021 General Session cedes the Legislature’s authority to create programs to Gordon on Sept. 1. Distributing the unexpended funds from that legislation, Barlow and Dockstader wrote, would likely be the governor’s main priority.
“… the Governor has committed to work diligently to conserve general funds, which can be appropriated by the Legislature at a later date, to prioritize the expenditure of the remaining CARES Act and to inform the legislature of any limited portion of ARPA funds that may be potentially utilized,” they wrote.
Mackay said Gordon currently has the authority to appropriate up to $18 million from the state’s leftover CARES Act funds for new programs, and the ability to access the full $67 million balance to fill immediate needs via existing programs like unemployment. On Sept. 1 however, that authority expands, giving Gordon the ability to set up new programs to meet any emergent needs with CARES dollars and potentially, tap into some of the ARPA money. However, Gordon’s office believes it will not be necessary to tap into those new dollars until next year’s budget session.
“Everything that we think is kind of an urgent need we think can be addressed with CARES Act dollars,” Mackay said. “But the governor does have the authority to create new programs on September 1 where anything urgent that came about could be addressed.”
The July session cancellation also means the tabling of two controversial pieces of legislation — Medicaid expansion and a federal gun law preemption bill. Both were expected to be debated this summer. Barlow and Dockstader said one of their reasons for cancelling the session was to keep special sessions “special.
“To preserve our traditions as one of the very last true citizen legislatures in the nation, the Wyoming Legislature has always treated special sessions as the name explicitly states, for only very ‘special,’ well defined and truly necessary purposes where a pressing issue is upon us and addressing it in a timely manner is paramount,” they wrote.
Orgs in limbo
The delay in appropriating funds confounded some advocacy groups.
AARP Wyoming, for example, was planning to propose a number of pro-senior programs that could have been bolstered by ARPA dollars, according to a copy of testimony planned for a future legislative meeting. These proposals included a means to leverage federal funds for the state’s Medicaid program, a long-desired “adult foster care” stipend and for the establishment of an Aging and Disability Resource Center, which the Wyoming Legislature defunded in 2015.
“Since ADRC funding was removed, the Wyoming Center on Aging and the Wyoming Department of Health’s Aging Division are trying to maintain a website with this information on it,” the testimony reads. “However, there is no staff trained in counseling options. We feel CMS guidance on permissible spends for this FMAP increase specifically cite expanding or strengthening ADRC’s as a fully qualified spend of these funds.”