The Wyoming State Capitol lit up at night during the 2020 session. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

Gov. Mark Gordon last week sent proposed budget cuts to the Wyoming Legislature that slash public services and weaken the already thin safety net supporting Wyoming’s most vulnerable.

In a press release accompanying his budget proposal, Gordon said his government took a “strategic” path to reducing programs instead of recommending indiscriminate percentage cuts. The goal is to manage the state’s fiscal crash with the least impact to citizens, the governor said. 

But given the scale of the savings budget writers must find, cushioning the public from harm is no longer possible: “It is a harsh reality that at this point every cut will hurt,” Gordon said in a press release.

For example, in a round of budget cuts earlier this year, the executive branch sought to protect the state’s mental health and substance abuse treatment programs. 

Gordon’s new proposed budget, however, slices millions of dollars from four programs funding residential and outpatient treatment for those suffering from mental health and substance abuse issues. The cuts will directly decrease the amount of treatment Wyoming will provide. 

“On a cut of that magnitude, it’s virtually impossible to not see service reductions,” said Stefan Johansson, the deputy director of the Wyoming Department of Health. 

Some lawmakers have criticized the cuts as being deliberately painful — designed to make a point and force the Wyoming Legislature to raise new revenues. Gordon has countered that he has no choice, and programs for the state’s most vulnerable residents are often expensive.

Let me emphatically say that these proposals are not meant to inflict pain on the public or diminish economic opportunity,” Gordon wrote. “On the contrary, we did our best to avoid that.”

But the proposed budget changes will “erode Wyoming’s gross domestic product” and eliminate jobs, Gordon wrote. State employees live in Wyoming communities well beyond Cheyenne, the governor noted. 

“There will be fewer people shopping on the Main Streets of hometowns, eating at restaurants, or coaching kids in youth sports,” he wrote.

As for the state’s most vulnerable, “it is a harsh reality that we cannot reduce spending without inciting further hardship on seniors, people with disabilities, and those suffering from mental illness and substance addictions,” he wrote. 

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 blows to those programs come as many expect demand for public services to increase. The pandemic’s grip on Wyoming continues to harm the economy and experts say its social consequences will likely increase mental-health and substance-abuse issues.

Some in Wyoming politics believe there are other options. Though the governor claims he has no choices, he has not outlined a vision for the state to escape the cycle of budget cuts, a leader in Wyoming’s minority political party said. 

“The governor’s budget cuts will produce a Wyoming that I do not want to live in,” House Minority Leader Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie) wrote to WyoFile. “It throws our most vulnerable under the bus, those with the least voice in the policy making process. It ignores our obligations to each other and our communities; obligations that make us a better whole. Given our dire economic situation, could the Governor have done differently? Yes.”

Next steps still uncertain 

The Wyoming Legislature must pass Gordon’s proposed cuts before they can take effect. While Gordon earlier this year instituted more than $250 million in spending cuts through executive action, this next round of $114 million in agency cuts is put forth through his supplemental budget proposal to the Legislature.

Wyoming lawmakers write two-year budgets — the most recent having been passed in March 2020 — but review and tweak the budget law at the one-year mark. 

Normally the Legislature would consider Gordon’s proposals in January, however, lawmakers have not yet decided when or how they will convene as COVID-19 surges in the state. 

The Legislative Service Office has reviewed a number of ways to hold a safe in-person session in January but has not found a solution, director Matt Obrecht wrote in a Nov. 19 memo. The memo suggested lawmakers could delay the session until as late as May in order to wait for distribution of a vaccine or another change in the state’s dire virus situation. 

Without legislative action, the government must continue spending on programs at the level set by lawmakers in last year’s statute. Making spending cuts earlier in the two-year budget period leaves the state more money and options for the long term, the state’s fiscal analysts say. 

The House chamber was nearly empty as lawmakers kept their distance throughout the Capitol during the May 2020 special session. Lawmakers have not decided how they’ll handle the 2021 session, which is scheduled for January. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Lawmakers meanwhile continue to lack comprehensive plans — at least ones made public — to raise new revenues as oil and gas prices stay depressed and the state’s coal mining industry continues its downward spiral. 

Days after Gordon unveiled his sharply reduced budget, the Legislature’s Joint Revenue Committee rejected more tax measures. Major and minor proposals failed including a two-cent beer tax, an income tax on the state’s wealthiest residents and a tax on property sales of over $250,000. By slim margins, the committee did advance a fuel tax increase whose revenues would go to local governments and the Wyoming Department of Transportation, along with an increase to the state’s tobacco tax. 

The budget proposal slices into programs for public health and public safety across a number of agencies, notably in DOH, the Wyoming Department of Family Services and the Wyoming Department of Corrections. Budget documents, written by agency officials, suggest some of those cuts could have stark consequences.

Connolly wrote that instead of continued cuts, Gordon could suggest a path to pull Wyoming out of the hole and right its fiscal course. 

“He could have centered who we are as a state, our vision for the future, and the need for the revenue to accomplish those goals. He could demand of the legislature efforts to secure that needed funding,” she wrote. “That’s true leadership. Instead, we are left with a balanced budget at our own peril.”

At-risk kids

In the Department of Family Services, the governor proposed cutting the rate paid to group homes and residential treatment centers for children in the custody of the state, whether through a child protection case or the juvenile justice system. These reductions will save Wyoming $678,400 a biennium. 

The cuts could make it more difficult to secure placement for youth in custody — including those in the midst of mental health crises, who may sit longer in juvenile detention centers where they don’t receive treatment. 

Less money for treatment and “appropriate placement options” could increase costs at the Department of Corrections and juvenile detention centers, the budget document says. 

Another $2 million cut to a related DFS program could increase the likelihood that children need such placements in the first place. That program provides services to children the department is monitoring either because of abuse and neglect or because the child has run afoul of the justice system. The cut will reduce the funding available for ankle monitors, subsidy payments to foster parents and other expenses that can keep such children in family homes and out of community placements. 

In both cases — as well as many other of the spending cuts in health and family services — the state’s cut will also cost it money the federal government kicks in on a matching basis. The $2 million cut, for example, will cost Wyoming another $657,102 in federal dollars for that program, according to the agency.

The cuts proposed across four DOH programs for inpatient and outpatient-mental-health and substance-abuse treatment total $15 million. The cuts will eliminate 83,323 hours of outpatient-mental-health treatment, 15,079 hours of outpatient-substance-abuse treatment, 40 inpatient beds for mental-health treatment and 39 substance-abuse residential treatment beds, according to the budget document.

Law enforcement officials, researchers and corrections officials have said for years that a dearth of treatment options in Wyoming increases incarceration rates and subsequent costs. Substance abuse and mental-health issues underlie many crimes. 

In 2018, outside researchers found that people failing the conditions of probation and parole were driving an increase in the state’s prison population. From 2014-2017, only slightly more than half of the people out on probation and parole who needed treatment received it. Of those on felony probation or parole during that time, 86% had some need for substance-abuse or mental-health help.

Another proposed cut, in the Department of Corrections, will increase the caseload for parole and probation officers. Another cut eliminates funding for some of the alternatives to incarceration lawmakers passed into law in a 2019 criminal justice reform effort

Dental care and delicate Medicaid balance 

At DOH, 90% of the budget goes out to the state’s healthcare providers through grants and contracts, Johansson said. Of the 10% that stays within the agency, the majority goes toward staffing and operating the state’s two facilities — the Wyoming State Hospital in Evanston and the Life Resource Center in Lander. 

“We could terminate every single employee in Cheyenne and not get to anywhere close to what the cut targets were,” Johansson said.

One cut of particular concern to Johansson reduces what the state reimburses healthcare providers for taking on Medicaid patients. Wyoming pays such providers a high rate to ensure they’ll take in Wyoming’s low-income residents. In a rural state with limited healthcare, the payments are important to providers and keep healthcare available, Johansson said.

“Our strategy for years and years as a state has been to pay really high rates to ensure that access,” he said. “The more we trim… you can start to tip the balance of providers that accept Medicaid patients.” 

Another $750,000 cut will eliminate optional vision and dental care for adults on Medicaid. Matching federal funds will also vanish, according to the budget document, erasing a total of $1.5 million. 

“This may result in these individuals having their vision and dental health issues become more severe, and these individuals seeking care in the emergency departments (ED) of local hospitals,” the document reads. “Adults could see an increase in ED visits for emergency dental extractions and dental injuries.” 

Around 9,000 adults used the dental and vision programs in 2019, according to a Medicaid report maintained by the Wyoming Department of Health. 

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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. A lot of interesting points raised by readers, I wanted to share a few impressions as a life time resident with generational roots in the state. Everyone will have a different definition and concept for what constitutes a “sacred cow”. I think what we really mean when we employ that type of rhetoric is an expense valued by one constituency and less so by myself personally. Some of these ideas are interesting but don’t hold up under scrutiny. For example, elimination of the supplemental expenditure fro municipalities and implementation of a local option proposal are good ideas except for one big problem. The sales tax generation capacity varies widely from community to community. This might elicit a shrug and a “too bad for them” type of comment, but consider just one of many complications. Requirements from the state and the feds dictate a lot of spending and for good reason. Certain environmental, as well as health and safety requirements cannot be ignored, for example water and sanitation services. These are not cheap projects, neither are good schools with good teachers. Another issue will be the capital asset investments that school districts and municipalities will have to divest themselves of when revenue inevitably shrinks to smaller levels. These assets may or may not sell, but if they are shuttered, schools and towns will save money. What will the additional costs to a community be though? School district consolidation is another oft cited potential solution but my guess is it will prove to be wildly unpopular and widely rejected by even the most conservative legislators. Some counties have fairly spread out populations with comparatively large groups of pupils throughout the population centers. Just how early should a kid have to get on the school bus to go to school? Problems in Sweetwater, Fremont, and Carbon County immediately come to mind. Legislators usually want to be re-elected to further their policy goals and philosophical vision. They will likely not be if they consolidate school districts to any degree that would impact the funding problem. They won’t be if they raise taxes either, it’s an intractable problem for the fine elected representatives of the people in Wyo. Maybe the suggestion would not be the elimination of schools but a reduction in administrators, as has been alluded to in other comments. Sounds good but what is the expectation that a reduced administrative staff system, state wide, across rural areas, will be attractive to skilled professionals who can receive more competitive pay somewhere else? Who do we want running our schools anyway? A final thought on education spending. It has been asserted we don’t get our moneys worth. What is the metric being used for comparison? Statewide assessments? Drop outs? Graduation rates? What are we comparing to when we argue that we spend a lot and don’t receive results? Another reader pointed out that services cost more here in Wyoming than elsewhere. That is a feature of a very small population spread out across vey large distances, this has been evaluated at length. Everyone seems ready to advise their legislator, local government people, and neighbor about what should be done. A wide ranging set of proposals is offered for consideration. The unifying theme? Everything is on the table as it long as it never under any circumstances includes the consideration of increased revenue through a tax structure different than the one we have today. Fear not fellow Wyomingites! Take heart! New taxes are not on the horizon any time soon. Reductions in services and attendant impacts on quality of life however, definitely are.

    1. Mr. Weaver asks some great questions and without the typical backhanded comments – an opportunity to have a real conversation. Thank you.

      I’m not sure I would advocate closings schools, but I think it’s ridiculous what we spend on administration in the schools districts. A quick internet search notes that Washakie #2 is the smallest school district (Ten Sleep) followed by Sheridan #3 (Clearmont). Both of those districts are smaller than the over 100 individual schools in this state. Again, not advocating closing the schools, but do we really want/need to pay for the administrative costs?

      School performance is based on standardized testing. While not a great measurement, the best we have make some level of comparison. You can easily do an internet search for this information and there are several reputable organizations that track this information. For the dollars we spend, we are not getting the performance.

      And before someone jumps on the we are a small state so the costs are higher, take some time and do the actual math. Look at the financial information for what our neighboring states spend on education per capita – drill down to the local districts – for example, Laramie County #1 vs Billings, Scottsbluff, Rapid City…..it’s pretty interesting to see how high certain costs are compared to similar rural districts in our region.

  2. Where are contextual data points, like what % cut in funding, which programme or department is going to take the biggest cuts as a % of their entire budget.

  3. LOL. Conservatives will be conservatves. And backward Wyoming will continue to return them to office, continuing the state’s 19th Century mentality of “western tradition” and cutting its own throat. Grow up people.

  4. Another good example of a sacred cow I ran across today. Why is the State in the Liquor business? How many state resources get absorbed in running the liquor distributorship in the State? Warehouses, state employees managing the business – state health insurance, state retirement benefits, real estate not on the tax rolls, etc, etc, etc. Now some of you may argue that we cannot afford to lose those jobs, but in effect the State is subsidizing those positions when in fact we may create more tax revenue and less overall cost to the state coffers by putting this back in the hands of private business where it belongs. Just one of many sacred cows we need to look at as taxpayers and ask why before we jump right to new taxes, taxes the wealthy, tax this, tax that. Maybe we need to drill down on all of these “services” and ask what we really want/need government to provide.

  5. I believe the State still has fat to cut and cut some of the sacred cows. For example, we spend the second most per capita in this country on Education for test scores that are middle of the road at best. We have bloated school administrations with no incentive to cut costs because their funding is mandated by the State constitution. We have 48 school districts in this state – 48 school districts with one of those districts having 150 kids – followed by the next smallest district with 235. There are well over 200 schools that have more than 235 kids and yet you have two stand alone districts? And that is just one example. Before you go raising taxes, let’s start talking about the sacred cows – and before you say this is small potatoes, there are a lot of scared cows out there that need to be taken care of that add up to big dollars.

    Sure, it’s easy to say “let’s just raise taxes.” Sure, we have ridden the golden goose for many years and it’s time we finally tightened our belts and lived within our means. The State of Wyoming Budget for 2011-2012 was $3.2 billion. For 2021-2022 the Supplemental Budget is $8.2 billion. Granted, some of that increase is capital construction, but we spend more than double what we spent 10 years ago?

    More than happy to increase my tax burden when government can become better stewards of the funds they have. To date the state has been unable to do that. Guaranteed, raise taxes and we will be having this same discussion year after year as Government spends more and more. Maybe when we get serious about reining in costs we can have a serious discussion about raising more revenue.

  6. I Googled state expenditure and learned that Wyoming spends around 60% more per capita than the average state expenditure.
    Obviously complicated, but the one thing so called balanced reports excel at, is leaving out information that harms their position (bias?).
    Saving the planet from plant food has consequences.

    Sydney Australia

  7. When the Joint Revenue Committee won’t even raise a tax on beer, allow legislation to tax those with incomes in excess of $250,000 per year or save $150 million by cooperating with the Affordable Care Act, then they don’t leave the governor with many options.
    Kim Love may be correct, but to cut the funding for cities and counties before approving alternate revenue sources are available e won’t work. Both counties and cities are already cutting back on services because of budget shortfalls.
    All this is going to do lasting damage to Wyoming’s economy, quality of life and future.

    1. A key component of my suggestion is giving cities and counties the flexibility at the local level to levy taxes at the local level to pay for the services people in their communities want. A couple of fairly simple changes would be to relax the rules on the capital facilities tax to allow monies to be spent on operations and/or to allow what is now the 7th penny to be levied without voting in a capital facilities tax.
      Jim is absolutely correct about the beer tax and getting funds from the Affordable Care Act. I believe passing any sort of personal income tax is a bit more problematic and complicated.

  8. Cathy Connolly is a very bright woman and it might be interesting to hear her ideas for the kind of state Wyoming could be. Her comment suggests that she does have some thoughts.

  9. If the state wants to save some real money why not eliminate the $105 million that goes to cities and counties and at the same time give cities and counties taxing flexibility so that services individual communities want to maintain can be maintained. That would be the local control legislators so often talk about.

    1. Kim — you are somewhat o0ut of touch if you believe that c0unties and muicipalities will step up to fill the gap in funding their own public services when the State draws down. That is one of those ideas that looks good on paper and qualifies as ” feel good ” common sense politics, but in the real Wyoming world it never bears any fruit. In my experience as a lifetime native resident Wyoming folks are so conservative they will die poor buried in a pauper’s grave with this great big grin on their face from having voted against each and every tax on the local ballot. They never grasp the fact that potholes don’t fix themselves. To them the notion of people taking more personal responsibility stops at their own fenceline . They really don’t see why they should pay for all the streets and snowplows and state services if they personally aren’t directly recieving them . Pride goeth before the fall, and Wyoming is falling.

      The real issue is not one opf how much more should we cut the state budget and where, but why we won’t reform the tax system. It’s a revenue issue, not an expense issue. Wyoming residents have gone too long with a light tax burden. Time to step up.

      1. Dewey,
        I think you may be looking at this just from your perspective in Cody. Look at Cody and Sheridan as a tale of two cities. It is my understanding that in the most recent election, the voters in Cody declined to levy the fifth optional penny. In Sheridan, the voters overwhelmingly voted to renew the Capital Facilities Tax, which is a 6th penny. As I said, cut the $105 million that is being distributed to cities and counties, but allow the cities and counties to increase their taxes at the local level if there is a need. If the residents of Cody continue to decide locally they would rather have fewer local services after the state eliminates its share of the $105 million, so be it. Similarly, when Sheridan passed the Capital Facilities Tax, there was, in my opinion, a lot of unnecessary spending in what was being proposed. For example, one of the proposed projects was $3,5 million to fix the pool in Kendrick Park, in spite of the fact that Sheridan just built a new $15 million aquatic center at the YMCA. If Sheridan were to lose its share of the $105 million, that $3.5 million could be re-directed to fixing basic infrastructure such as water, sewer and roads without doing much harm, but of course this would entail taking on a sacred cow, such as the pool in Kendrick Park. The problem is that our political leadership has so far failed miserably at taking on some of the very expensive sacred cows, such as school consolidation, for example.