In her third grade class at John Colter Elementary school in Jackson, Natalie Lyon teaches about the theme of a story during a literature exercise. Wyoming's bleak revenue picture has lawmakers, parents, teachers and administrators debating the fate of education in the Equality State. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr/WyoFile)

Update: Friday, the Senate “laid back” Senate File 117, a procedural move that delayed further consideration of the bill. The measure proposes $114 million in cuts to the  public schools over three years. Identical cuts were included in the  Senate version of the pending budget bill. The Senate placed SF-117 on its reading list for a second vote today, Feb. 27. 

 

The Wyoming Senate advanced two measures this week that would cut more than $114 million from public school funding over three years.

Senators also proposed bringing a constitutional amendment before voters to keep judges from interfering with legislative decisions on school funding.

The Senate Rules Committee, chaired by Senate President Eli Bebout (R-Riverton), passed Senate File 117 on Wednesday that would cut between $36 million and $39 million a year from school spending over the next three years. The bill would increase class sizes and change formulas for calculating health insurance and retirement benefits, among other things.  

The Senate also added the bill’s language to the separate two-year budget bill, which passed its second reading Wednesday. The budget bill will be debated for a third and final time Friday.

Senate President Eli Bebout works at a Senate Rules Committee meeting. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

If the Legislature cuts education too sharply, it could spawn lawsuits from school districts. District officials feel certain that the Wyoming Constitution is worded in their favor. But alongside the cuts, the Senate is advancing a measure to remove that hurdle, too.

To remove that hurdle, the Senate on Thursday gave initial approval to a resolution for a constitutional amendment to give the Legislature authority to cut education without fear of lawsuits from school districts. The resolution, SJ-4 – Public school financing, will face two more votes on the Senate side before moving to the House, where Speaker of the House Steve Harshman has spoken against it. The proposed amendment would be placed before Wyoming voters in the 2018 General Election.

Over two days of legislative maneuvering, debate on the measures demonstrated that a majority of the Senate stands opposed to the convictions expressed by those in the House’s Republican leadership. Wyoming’s public education system is overfunded, senators such as Bebout and Sen. Dave Kinskey (R-Sheridan) say, and in places wasteful.

Various senators have said the state’s court-enforced spending on education is preventing lawmakers from meeting other responsibilities, like healthcare and public safety. As lawmakers, senators said, it is their duty to balance the broader needs of the state with education.

Many of those senators have fought tax increases that would have generated new revenue, matching Bebout’s vocal opposition to most tax-raising measures. (Bebout did attempt to bring a lodging tax this year; however, it died when the House failed to consider it along with a variety of other tax reforms).

The Senate is acting largely as one

Action on the duplicate budget amendment is a strong indication the chamber supports the cuts. Kinskey brought the amendment. Bebout co-sponsored it.  

The amendment did run into some opposition. Significantly changing the state’s education system through the budget bill is poor legislative process, said Senate Minority Floor Leader Chris Rothfuss, (D-Laramie). Even some senators who voted for the measure agreed they wouldn’t support using the budget bill for the maneuver, but said they needed the amendment as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the House.

Senators work through bills on the chamber floor in the temporary Capitol on Thursday evening. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

“Under ordinary circumstances I would agree that this is not the sort of thing we like to do in the budget,” said Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper), the longest-serving member of the Senate. “But I am absolutely convinced that it is politically necessary to do it this way.”

The House could kill SF-117. But after both chambers pass their versions of the budget, the differences will be negotiated by a conference committee made up of five lawmakers from the House and five from the Senate. Putting the cuts from SF-117 into the budget will give the Senate another front to negotiate on, Sen. Ray Peterson (R-Cowley) said in debate on the measure.

The amendment passed 24-6. The Senate’s three Democrats voted against it and were joined by three Republicans — Sens. Affie Ellis (R-Cheyenne), Sen. Brian Boner (R-Douglas) and former educator Sen. Jeff Wasserburger (R-Gillette).

Speaking to reporters Friday morning, Speaker of the House Steve Harshman (R-Casper) said he wasn’t aware of the amendment.

“Seriously?” he said. “I don’t think anybody’s serious about that.” The Senate was just maneuvering to establish a negotiating position, he said. “I don’t operate like that.”

Education consultants hired to examine the state’s public school funding model over the last year concluded the state could increase classroom sizes as SF-117 proposes. But, the consultants said, that increase in classroom sizes needed to be paired with an increase in funding — specifically an increase in teacher salaries. The Senate is trying to implement only half the recommendation, Rothfuss said, and risks violating the Constitution in doing so.

“There’s an assurance, an actual assurance in this last recalibration we did, that this is actually unconstitutional,” he told the Senate. “It’s explicitly included in the report that this is not a suitable funding model for our education system.”

Tension between Senators, education advocates

Ellis’ Senate Joint Resolution 4 would ask voters to change the Constitution to make the Legislature responsible for setting education funding levels. It directs lawmakers to take revenue levels into account when it does so. Under current language, the Wyoming Supreme Court has determined that the Legislature must finance a quality and equitable education regardless of the revenue situation.

On Tuesday, Bebout took the resolution from the Senate Education Committee and placed it in the Senate Revenue Committee. It may have died if he hadn’t. Two of the five senators on the Education Committee had voted against introducing the bill. A third, Sen. Stephen Pappas (R-Cheyenne), said he voted against the amendment when it came up on the floor Thursday. Pappas told WyoFile that he does not know how he would have voted on the resolution in committee; however, he opposes proposing an amendment to the Constitution with what he sees as little public input so far.

Sen. David Kinskey successfully proposed a budget amendment that substantially cuts state spending on education and includes changes to the K-12 system, among them increasing class sizes. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

“I don’t have any of my constituents clamoring to me to change the Constitution,” he said.

Bills were shuffled to ensure they would all be heard by committees before a Thursday deadline, Bebout said. While committees have specific areas of expertise, senators are always equipped to take public comment and work a bill, he said. “If you look at the load and what we’re trying to accomplish,” he said, “we’re trying to give [SF-117 and SJ-4] a chance to be heard.” The public had an opportunity to comment on both of the bills, Bebout said.

The amendment proposed in SJ-4 comes in response to an entrenched education community that is refusing to accept cuts and has hung the threat of lawsuits over lawmakers’ heads, Ellis said during a Senate Revenue Committee meeting Tuesday that quickly turned tense.

“I naively thought that the education community and the Legislature would work together,” said Ellis, a former lobbyist in her second year as a lawmaker. Instead, she found educators unwilling to accept even “one dollar” in cuts, she said. “I’m frustrated and I don’t know a way around this situation.”

Education advocates in the committee room contested that assertion. Schools have absorbed $77 million in cuts over the last three years, they said, and have yet to turn to the court. Education advocates  watched lawmakers conduct recalibration two years ahead of schedule, and then saw the hired consultants’ report tossed aside when it recommended a higher price tag, not cuts as some educators thought senators were hoping.

“It takes trust” for lawmakers and educators to move forward, said Janine Bay Teske, a school board member from Teton County School District #1. “From both sides.”

As tensions rose in the committee meeting, which had begun around 6 p.m., Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) suggested lawmakers move quickly toward a vote. “I think we’ve all had a long day and it’s starting to show,” he said.

The committee voted 4-1 to advance SJ-4 to the Senate floor.  

Like lawmakers, school board trustees take an oath to the Wyoming Constitution, said Brian Farmer, director of the Wyoming School Boards Association. “When they see that the state is not meeting its constitutional obligation,” he told WyoFile, “they feel they have a duty to question that, to challenge that.”

Ellis was emphatic that her amendment is not an attempt to diminish education’s status as a right enshrined in Wyoming’s Constitution. She argued her constituents won’t accept tax increases until there’s a closer look at education, beyond the reports from two different sets of education consultants in the last few years. Senators have called the latest report flawed for not taking a deep look at administrative costs or comparing Wyoming’s costs to neighboring states’. The consultants were not asked to do either in 2017.

Ellis serves on both the Senate Revenue Committee and the Senate Education Committee. Ellis voted against tax reform bills considered and ultimately abandoned by that committee over the months between legislative sessions. Many of her constituents are poorer, she said Tuesday, and would be unable to handle the taxes needed to make up an education deficit estimated at $661 million per biennium. That estimate does not include any efforts to rearrange the state’s revenue streams to find new money elsewhere.

“These are big dollar amounts,” she said. “I think we have a lot of work to do before we ask our Wyoming residents to come up with that money.”

Ellis’ proposed amendment would make changes to a section of the Constitution that deals with raising taxes to fund schools. It would direct the Legislature to “rationally” determine school funding. The Legislature would take into account available revenue and other demands on the Legislature like health and public safety. It would also make sure the judiciary branch couldn’t force the Legislature to raise taxes to pay for education,

If the Senate wants to bring a constitutional amendment before voters, it should be more honest about its intent, said Marguerite Herman, who sits on the Laramie School District #1 board in addition to being director of the League of Women Voters of Wyoming.

Brian Farmer, director of the Wyoming School Boards Association. (courtesy photo)

Herman suggested it would be more honest for the Senate to amend Article I of the Constitution, Wyoming’s version of the bill of rights. Article I guarantees Wyoming citizens the right to an education with the following language.

“The right of the citizens to opportunities for education should have practical recognition.”

That’s the language voters should decide on, Herman said, and SJ-4 is just an attempt to undermine that language indirectly.

“To subject it to ‘we’ll decide what it costs, we’ll decide what’s adequate,’ you’ve really obviated at that point the guarantee in our Constitution,” Herman said. “It sounds like what you really want to do is put that guarantee before the public. And they might say, ‘you’re right, if there’s a tax increase in our future then it’s not that important.’”

The amendment was approved on the first of three readings Thursday on a voice vote. It must receive support of two-thirds of the senators, 20 votes, to pass the Senate on its third reading. The final vote should occur Tuesday.

Education advocates endorse House proposal

After Wednesday’s Revenue Committee meeting, Kinskey repeated Ellis’ assertion that lawmakers and educators were unable to compromise because school districts keep threatening to sue.

“It’s all about the threat of litigation,” he told WyoFile. “What’s needed is an honest conversation where people sit down and say, ‘where can we really do with less and how do we really make sure we’re focusing our resources on the classroom teacher, which is where it all happens?’ We can’t get to that honest conversation because we’re just in a standoff.”

With the Senate increasingly recalcitrant in its demand for cuts, that conversation is happening to some degree in the House, education advocates say.

Thursday morning, the House Education Committee considered House Bill 140. The bill combines a smaller cut of a little more than $33 million over the next three years with changes to the state’s revenue streams that direct more money toward schools. The bill has Harshman’s support and has been developed by many legislators in House leadership, he said.

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To find money for education, HB-140 would take revenue from an internet sales tax passed last year, from business filing fees in the Wyoming Secretary of State’s office, and by changing the uses of investment income from some of the state’s savings accounts.

Harshman has repeatedly asked members of his chamber to “trust the trust funds,” referring to the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund and other accounts that hold billions of dollars and earn investment income for the state. “It’s why we saved all this money,” he said.

The bill is not perfect and the cuts would still hurt school districts, said Farmer, with the Wyoming School Boards Association. He offered suggestions on places in the bill that affect workers compensation insurance for special education workers and money for groundskeepers. But mainly he appreciates the bill, he said.

“If we look at this bill versus down the hall” in the Senate, he told lawmakers, “I’m going to express kind of a preference for what you’re doing.”

In making an effort to rearrange revenue streams, Farmer said, the House recognizes that education funding problems aren’t simply a balancing act between an expensive education system and diminished energy revenues.  

“We’ve heard about a structural deficit,” he said. “That, in part, points to the structure as part of the problem.”

Tammy Schroeder, a lobbyist for the Wyoming Education Association, put it more directly. “It’s been a delight to be in this part of the building,” she said of the House.

After the Joint Appropriations Committee had crafted an early budget that balanced deficits using savings and diversions, education advocates hoped there would be no cuts to education, she said. Instead, the Legislature would have used savings to buy another two years to work on the problem.

“But if this is the bill we have to work with,” Schroeder told the House committee, “we can work with it.”

 

Correction: This story was updated to note that Senate File 117 will likely be heard in the Senate after being laid back on Friday. The update at the top of the story previously stated that the Senate’s education cuts would advance only through the budget bill.  -Ed.

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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