The House chamber, crowded with representatives during normal legislative sessions, was nearly empty as lawmakers kept their distance and spread throughout the Capitol during the May 15-16, 2020 special session. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

State government will soon experience “profound” budget cuts because of a global pandemic and oil market crash, Gov. Mark Gordon said on Wednesday, though to what degree, when and how they will be applied remain to be seen. 

Gordon has told lawmakers those cuts could be in the range of 30% of current agency budgets, a figure that would have severe ramifications across the state. On Wednesday, he told reporters he has asked agency heads to consider 20-30% cuts in “contingency plans” and that the numbers should come into focus in the next few months.

Wyoming lawmakers, who write their state budgets based on projected revenues, do not yet have a clear picture of just how much they’ll need to cut. But it’s certain to be dire, several said. 

“By all accounts it looks really bad, incredibly bad,” said Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) a member of House leadership and the House Appropriations Committee. 

Senate President Drew Perkins and Speaker of the House Steve Harshman (both R-Casper) have pointed to an estimate made by the Legislative Service Office earlier this summer that would knock $600 million a year out of the general fund, which supplies state agencies besides public education. The school budget, which is already running at a deficit, faces a $200 million a year drop of its own under that projection.

Two boys hurry to Sunrise Elementary School in Cheyenne in January 2017. Public education funding has been in a deficit in Wyoming for the last few years, and now a global pandemic might lead to the additional loss of $200 million a year or more in revenue to fund schools. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Lawmakers in early March passed a budget that spent $2.9 billion on general government for the next two fiscal years. A $600-million-per-year cut would equate to well more than a third of that budget. 

The state should let the fate of volatile oil markets — which energy-dependent Wyoming has been relying on in the face of a sustained coal downturn — become clearer over the summer before it makes cuts, Sommers said. But the impacts of $600 million a year less in state funding will impact state residents, he said. 

“There’s no way to hide it,” Sommers said. “That’s like we get rid of all the mental health services in every county and that’s just a start. You could go so far as to say maybe we don’t do Medicaid. We don’t take the federal dollars. There’s some really hard decisions to be made.”

Perkins likened cutting $600 million a year to “basically cutting everyone that works for the state government,” he said, “The entire payroll.”

Wyoming’s last experience with emergency cuts — though not nearly as sizeable — happened in 2016. When energy markets suddenly crumpled that year, Gov. Matt Mead sliced an emergency cut of almost $250 million from state budgets. Those cuts drove hundreds of private-sector job layoffs by companies that do business with the state. 

Neither coal nor natural gas revenues have significantly recovered since then, and both industries are in deep trouble today. 

Lawmakers have since replaced some of the money Mead cut in areas where the cuts were budgetarily counterproductive or hurt state goals too deeply. They have also made trimmings of their own. 

The state does have significant savings. The Legislature’s “rainy day fund,” its most accessible pot of money, held $1.4 billion even after lawmakers again drew on it during the 2020 Legislative session to cover ongoing budget deficits. 

In its April memo, which was obtained by WyoFile, the LSO forecast three scenarios analysts characterized as rough estimates. The numbers cited by Perkins and Harshman come from the middle scenario. The pessimistic scenario, which included the potential of a resurgence of COVID-19 cases in the fall and a slower economic recovery, was for a $2.8 billion loss. 

The figure is approximately $100 million shy of the entire general government budget for the next two fiscal years. 

Federal help mired in partisanship

The Legislature did not address declining tax revenues in its May 15-16 special session, which focused on distributing federal CARES Act funding. The federal government restricted that money to spending on impacts of combatting COVID-19 over the last few months, leaving it unavailable for general government spending even as state revenues tanked in the wake of a pandemic-related economic slowdown.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a new, $3 trillion relief plan on May 15 that includes $1 trillion in aid for tribal, state and local governments. The House narrowly passed the measure along partisan lines, but the bill has little chance of passing the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate as it stands, the New York Times reports. 

The House bill is full of “irresponsible proposals that would reward illegal immigrants, release prisoners, and fulfill other liberal priorities that have nothing to do with combatting COVID-19,” Rep. Liz Cheney wrote in a May 18 website post. “We should be focusing on helping our frontline workers, providing additional support for our communities and rural hospitals, and reopening our economy.”

Republican leaders, including Trump, have indicated further relief of some fashion will come for the nation, but have not yet put forth a counterproposal to the Democrat’s sweeping spending. Conservatives have decried the idea of aiding Democrat-leaning states hit hard by the virus, suggesting those states are seeking bailouts for fiscal irresponsibility.

President of the Senate Drew Perkins (R-Casper) listens during a special legislative session Friday, May 15, 2020, inside the state Capitol. (Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle/Wyoming News Exchange)

Harshman and Perkins said they are communicating with Wyoming’s congressional delegation and had previously joined other state legislative leaders to ask the U.S. Congress to provide more flexibility for the CARES Act funding. Harshman is optimistic for additional relief legislation, he said. 

It was unclear at a Friday press conference if the men had asked Wyoming’s congressional delegation to support more direct aid to stave off dire budget cuts. 

Will Gordon take the lead? 

Lawmakers are gearing up for additional special sessions, with the next one likely to come at the end of June, according to legislative leaders. They offered mixed predictions on how the process could proceed. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) said he wants the Joint Appropriations Committee to begin examining options before the next special session but that committee leaders are still deliberating. 

Others said it’s likely the executive branch would begin cutting sooner than lawmakers can act. 

“The governor’s office is going to have to take the lead on this and get a handle on it,” Perkins said. “At that point the Legislature will take some action.” Perkins suggested legislative budget hearings are more likely in August or September. 

Though lawmakers pride themselves on being the state’s appropriators, several recent governors have guided the process when it came time to slice deep into agency budgets.

Gov. Mark Gordon wears a University of Wyoming face covering before pulling it down to begin a media briefing Wednesday, May 20, 2020, inside the Capitol. (Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle/Wyoming News Exchange)

“The executive branch is the only [one] with enough resources to go in and make any kind of strategic and focused cuts on things,” Perkins said. “The Legislature has very little ability to do anything other than a blunt instrument.” Across-the-board percentage cuts handed down by lawmakers “never work out the way you hope they will,” Perkins said. 

Gordon did not offer a clear answer as to when he might start making cuts during Wednesday’s press conference. 

“This isn’t the sort of thing you can go in and lop off an arm and a leg and say that’s good,” he said “It is really systemic and it’s going to take a really concerted, thoughtful effort at how we reduce the size of government.”

Gordon was looking at short-, mid- and longer-term reductions, he said. “Short term there may be some things we absolutely have to do,” he said, “Long term it’s a little bit unclear.”

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Andrew Graham

Andrew Graham is reporting for WyoFile from Laramie. He covers state government, energy and the economy. Reach him at 443-848-8756 or at andrew@wyofile.com, follow him @AndrewGraham88

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  1. What a shame that Wyoming leadership has conditioned itself to preserving tax shelters for the wealthy and assuring corporations get an easy ride at the Assessor’s office….above all else. Wrongheaded Wyoming still believes that by being a financial sanctuary state of the wealthy class, that is somehow good for the whole state’s economic health. Except we disproved that ridiculous ” trickle down ” theory of social cash flow decades ago. DIdn’t take long after the Reagan tax reforms for everyone to realize what the one percenters long knew and utilized since Old World Medieval times : that wealth does not trickle down , it gets sucked up.

    The problem in Wyoming is that the monolithic one party rulers— the Cowboy Conservatives of the Republican hegemony – would rather fall on the sword of Never Ever Taxers than bring themselves to reform the entire state tax system from the sagebrush roots up . So we are doomed to continue living in the waking nightmare of our own creation by allowing the wealthy to use Wyoming as their financial fiefdom, while the other 99 percent suffer skrimp and starve while trying to reinvent the wheel and the Steam Engine.

    I have no firm number for how many individuals claim Wyoming as their place of residence for tax purposes can be reckoned as ‘ billionaires ‘ but it’s probably only a handful at best . Three I know in my own Park County from their ritzy ranches upcountry but cannot speak to the magnitude of their holdings ensconced in local banks ( none of which are owned locally either ). Teton County is Lichtenstein in the Rockies and has a good many more oligarchs . But as the snarky saying goes : Warren Buffet walks into the Cowboy Bar in Jackson and suddenly everybody in the room is a millionaire judging by average income. But does he ever buy a round of drinks ?

    If Wyoming -at-large were not the Cayman Islands in the Sagebrush sequestering wealth by reverse offshoring it on paper from the rest of the nation , Wall Street , and the global vaults , we could probably get all the revenue we need to operate Wyoming comfortably from those wealthy expatriates we wrung it out from , who would hardly miss it, using fair taxation. If only such a thing were allowed to gestate here. Let’s put the ‘ state ‘ in Estate taxes for starters.

    Tax Reform . If you haven’t got it, nothing else matters

  2. Speaker Harshman has had his two years as speaker. Two years only as speaker goes back to 1905 when Speaker Atherly broke tradition and sought two terms. New ideas and giving others a chance has been a bedrock of our successful legislature. The last two sessions have been marked by house senate discord. I hope Representative Harshman follows Senator Bebouts example in 1999-2001 or the other 57 speakers before him and puts the interest of the state over his own. His input as a teacher has been valuable, but the long standing tradition of two years as Speaker is important. Look at Illinois with life time Speaker Madigan.

    We spend more than most per student on education and have middle of the pack results. The state has had significant cuts with education not taking a hit (less growth is not a cut). Education admin (48 school districts but 23 counties) has to be reduced to get buy in for more taxes from me and some may feel similar.

    Increased property taxes have less fluctuation and could use current administrative infrastructure for raising the additional revenue. Removing exceptions like the veteran exception could raise revenue. I prefer increased property taxes for needed revenue and stability. Property taxes are also efficient with less economic distortion and harm.