(Opinion) — This year’s hypocrisy session — oops, I mean budget session — of the Wyoming Legislature will begin Monday, Feb. 8.
I sit in the gallery and committee rooms at the Wyoming Legislature year after year, listening to lawmakers talk about how they don’t have enough money for programs that help disadvantaged people. Based on some pre-session decisions it looks like more of the same this year, and perhaps even worse.
The Joint Appropriations Committee recommended spending $8 million in the next biennium for a sports program to help get better University of Wyoming athletes. They’ve approved such funding for the past three years without many complaints, but that was when the state budget was flush.
At a time when the state is looking at a $619 million budget shortfall over the next three years due to steadily falling energy prices, the university’s program should be on the chopping block. It isn’t, though, and the continued appropriation will likely pass the full Legislature.
Wyoming residents generally supported UW sports. But many draw the line when times are tough and other programs are being jettisoned or trimmed. How can anyone justify pumping more money into a non-essential sports program that is already being funded with private money?
I doubt any of the UW supporters on the committee lost any sleep over the now high-profile decision. Only three members of the 14-member panel — UW professor Rep. Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie), Sen. John Hastert (D-Green River), and Sen. Jeff Wasserburger (R-Gillette) — voted against the athletic expenditure.
Meanwhile, one of the JAC’s budget-cutting victims was the Family Literacy Program operating in eight cities. The committee yanked the program’s entire $3.3 million budget, killing a highly successful program that has helped thousands of Wyomingites.
In the fallout, supporters of the athletic program point out that the UW and literacy funds come out of different budgets. Indeed they do, but the public only sees one big pot of money, and funding athletics over literacy just doesn’t sit right with most people. Coupled with the $45 million the JAC slashed in K-12 spending for the state’s 48 school districts for the next biennium, the committee is deservedly hearing an earful from residents who believe cutting education funds should be the last resort, not among the first.
State lawmakers decided to give the UW sports department an extra helping hand in 2014 when they approved $1 million in matching funds for a Cowboy Joe Club program aimed at improving the quality of athletes’ lives. For every $1 the boosters raised, the state kicked in 50 cents. The program’s goal is to improve “athletic competitiveness.” It includes money for recruiting, nutrition and concussion technologies. The fundraising drive was so successful lawmakers upped the state’s subsidy to $5 million annually, which is the level it’s been until this year.
Republican Gov. Matt Mead recommended a 20 percent reduction to the $5 million a year spending on the program, to $8 million over the next two years. Cowboy Joe’s well-connected members contend, “See, we’re already taking a 20 percent hit, just like many state departments and agencies.”
But Mead also said public education should not be cut at all. Many legislators disagree, but the governor is right.
If the state was doing better financially, perhaps the athletic program could be deemed worthy enough to continue. But when quality educational programs that affect far more people are getting trimmed or axed, the question that should be asked is if this athletic program needs any state assistance at all.
My answer is a resounding no. It’s not because I don’t enjoy UW sports, because I love attending football and basketball games. And I have no quarrel with the notion that athletes need to eat better, but so do we all.
What happened to the legislators who every session hammer home the idea that the private sector should be funding programs, not the state? The Cowboy Joe Club has demonstrated it is perfectly capable of raising millions of dollars on its own. If the public values the program, people can contribute on their own. Their “donations” shouldn’t come from tax revenues.
On the other hand, family literacy is something everyone should get behind. Supporters shouldn’t have to hold bake sales to pay for a valuable program that improves the quality of life of individuals, families and the entire statewide community.
Funding sports but not literacy reminds me of a common refrain among Wyoming lawmakers, that programs must be essential or the state can’t afford them. Here are a few examples:
— The Wyoming School for the Deaf, which lawmakers closed primarily because it was never cost-effective in its 39 years of existence. All but one student had been mainstreamed into regular, hearing classes whether they should have been or not. It was also argued that deaf students could get the same services from private specialists or go out of state (and away from their families) for help.
— The services waiver program for the developmentally disabled and those with acquired brain injuries. In 2013 legislators told Wyoming Department of Health to make cuts to the program, and to not expect resources dedicated to reduce wait times for the disabled. At the time there were about 600 people on waiting lists, and some couldn’t get on the program for up to seven years. Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper) claimed the system allowed people to get funding for more services than they actually wanted or needed.
— Scott is also the leading legislative opponent of Medicaid expansion, which would enable an estimated 20,000 of the working poor in Wyoming to get health insurance. This would save the state’s Medicaid program $30 million a year and during the next biennium pump about $260 million in federal funds into the state’s economy. Scott said he was worried that too many people would take advantage of the system and get unnecessary health services.
That’s why I say it’s a hypocrisy session. When state lawmakers meet to approve a budget, almost no program is too big to be exempted from cuts. Except, of course, if influential legislators want to keep or expand a program at the expense of some others. Then, as in the case of UW sports, they disingenuously argue they are actually saving money because the $8 million the state spends will be matched by a private booster organization.
If the Legislature is intent on giving the boosters money, I have a modest proposal to at least make things more interesting. Let’s base the extra funding on how many games the UW football team wins. For example, if it is has seven victories, the state would have to pitch in 70 percent of the previous year’s state subsidy.
Some may say this is unfair. The team has struggled, and with just two wins last season it would only get 20 percent of the money. But if the athletic competitiveness program performs like it should and brings in talented, well-fed, mostly out-of-state players, it should start racking up victories in no time. That’s a path to self-sufficiency lawmakers love, especially if they are talking about the poor.
What happens if UW plays a 12-game season and it wins 11 of them? Does it get an extra 10 percent? No, because if you haven’t heard, we’re in a budget crisis. But as a Cowboys football fan, I know that having too many wins isn’t something we should bother worrying about.
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