Wyoming lawmakers pass 74 budget bill amendments, more come

By Gregory Nickerson
— February 21, 2014
Gregory Nickerson

In a marathon debate session Wednesday, Wyoming’s legislature considered 142 amendments during the second reading of the budget bill. At the end of the day, the Senate amendments totaled $7 million more in proposed spending, while the House proposed $12 million in additions. When those numbers are added to general subject bills that contain appropriations, the total is about $30 million more in General Fund spending than Wyoming is expected to collect in revenue.

“The good news is we did better than the House, but not by a lot,” Sen. Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) told his colleagues.

Lawmakers will now seek to balance the budget during the third and final reading of the budget bill today. They could balance the budget by a combination of cutting spending, reducing savings, or directing some spending to come out of the 2013-2014 budget.

Wednesday’s amendments favored some parts of government more than others. “Those who did well were senior citizens, government employees getting pay raises, and community colleges,” Sen. Drew Perkins (R-Casper). The Senate proposed putting $480,000 for senior citizen centers, while increasing the enrollment growth funding for community college by $5.25 million.

The Senate also revised its package of compensation increases for government employees and teachers by eliminating a proposal to cover employee contributions to the state pension fund, while increasing salaries by a corresponding amount. “We put the same amount of money plus a little more and just put it into salary increases and employees would pay their own share of retirement increases,” Perkins said. “If people opt in or opt out of the retirement program it’s their choice.  In the end it gives people their money and quits making them do stuff with it.  It ends up being 2.5 percent (pay raise) like the governor recommended.”

“Ultimately the budget balances will most likely result in a reduction the appropriation for the School Foundation Reserve Account, and that means there will be a little less for the anticipated shortfalls in school funding three to four years from now,” said Perkins, who sits on the Joint Appropriations Committee. “We will still be making strides in securing the ability to pay for our kids education in the future.”

Following the budget balancing in each chamber, joint conference committee will meet to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the budget bill, then send the revised measure back to each chamber for a final vote. The budget bill goes to Gov. Mead’s desk where he may veto some provisions before signing the law to fund Wyoming government and schools in 2015-2016.

Amendment rundown

Out of the 142 amendments proposed on Wednesday, 34 of 59 passed the Senate, while the House passed 40 of 83. The amendments covered everything from the minting of a coin for the 125th anniversary of Wyoming statehood, to adjusting the formula for allotting state aid to city and county governments.

University Amendments

Some 15 amendments in the House dealt with the University of Wyoming. The successful amendments included one that freed up $5 million in funding for UW by shifting that amount in scholarship matching money from the university’s block grant to a General Fund appropriation.  Another amendment would set up a task force for bringing the university’s science education departments and facilities to top-tier status. In particular, it will initiate planning for renovating the Aven Nelson Building, the Biological Sciences building, and the Physical Sciences building on the Laramie campus. The amendment expands upon Gov. Mead’s charge that the university become a, “Tier-1 academic and research institution in areas of excellence appropriate for Wyoming,” namely energy, engineering, and STEM (Science/Technology/Engineering/Mathematics).

In the Senate, Joint Appropriations co-chair Bebout introduced a successful amendment to remove more than $2 million in university funding for upgrades to the campus wireless network. The House passed no similar amendment. Another Senate amendment eliminated a budget footnote created by Bebout that would provide a $1.25 million bonus appropriation to the university if it boosts enrollment by 400 students in 2015 and 2016, but would create a $2.5 million penalty if the school didn’t.  The House passed a similar measure sponsored by Rep. Kermit Brown (R-Laramie) that eliminated the penalty, but left in the funding for the enrollment bonus.

Separately, Rep. Matt Greene (R-Laramie) and Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) introduced identical House Amendment 11/Senate Amendment 47 to make $150,000 in funding effective immediately to hire a project manager for expanding the engineering school. Both measures passed.

Each chamber withdrew identical House Amendment 54/Senate Amendment 44 to require deans to meet with standing legislative committees during the interim to collaborate on academic planning. New university President Dick McGinity, attended the debates over the amendments along with Vice President for External Affairs Chris Boswell, and Mike Massie.

Education amendments

Both the House and Senate passed amendments to reauthorize the Select Committee for Education Accountability. Rep. Matt Teeters (R-Lingle) successfully introduced a bill to convene advisory committees to create emergency crisis management plans for schools.

The passage of House Amendment 33 reauthorized the appropriation of $75,000 for a new position in the Wyoming Department of Education to coordinate early childhood programs within the Department of Health and the Department of Family Services. A general subject bill with a similar appropriation plus a $1 million grant program for encouraging the development of pre-K programs failed to be introduced. 

Senate Amendment 22/House Amendment 66 increased enrollment growth funding for community colleges from $9 million to $14.3 million. It passed both chambers and restored the funding to the levels requested by the Community College Commission. Gov. Mead had originally cut out all funding for enrollment growth, while the Joint Appropriations Committee increased the amount to $9 million.

Other Amendments

Sen. Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) sponsored a $900,000 boost in funding for tourism promotion. Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper) introduced a successful amendment that would spend $70 million to continue the Strategic Projects and Investments Account into the next biennium, providing that the money becomes available from the state’s investment income.

The longest amendment of the day was Senate Amendment 50, introduced by Senate majority floor leader Phil Nicholas (R-Laramie). The measure consolidated a variety of appropriations for the development of deep water ports, liquid natural gas exports, carbon capture, and an industrial energy campus into section 334 of the budget bill titled “Wyoming Value Added Energy and Industrial Plan.” The measure allocates some $17,275,000 to Gov. Mead’s office for these projects.  The amendment passed.

Update: As of 4 p.m. Friday the Senate had passed 23 of the 34 proposed third reading amendments to the budget. The House was still debating amendments on the bill.

For a listing of House amendments to the budget bill for second reading and third reading, click here.
The Senate Amendments are available here.

— Gregory Nickerson is the government and policy reporter for WyoFile. He writes the Capitol Beat blog. Contact him at greg@wyofile.com.

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Gregory Nickerson

Gregory Nickerson worked as government and policy reporter for WyoFile from 2012-2015. He studied history at the University of Wyoming. Follow Greg on Twitter at @GregNickersonWY and on www.facebook.com/GregoryNickersonWriter/

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2 Comments

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  1. Bob,

    Thank you for reading WyoFile and for commenting. You are right that state employees in the executive branch are required to contribute to the Wyoming Retirement System. Sen. Perkins didn’t elaborate on the statement you mentioned above, and so my quote didn’t give more detail on his level of understanding. I might have avoided this by adding a clarifying line about opt in/opt out policies for higher education employees. For example, University of Wyoming employees have the option of contributing to the Wyoming Retirement System or a TIAA-CREF retirement plan.

    As a member of the Joint Appropriations Committee Sen. Perkins has regular access to information about the various categories of employees and the conditions of their contributions to their retirement funds. Such topics are discussed and debated in depth during budget hearings before each session.

    Greg Nickerson
    WyoFile.com

  2. There is a quote in this article by Senator Perkins defending the Senate’s reasoning behind eliminating the JAC’s suggestion that the State pay for the latest increases in the State Retirement System (WRS) contributions for state employees versus all of the allocation of funds going to raises. He apparently said. “If people opt in or opt out of the retirement program it’s their choice.” That statement (if it is what he actually said) shows that he has little or no understanding of the requirement that state employees must contribute to the WRS; they cannot opt in or opt out. They have no choice in whether they are enrolled in the WRS (they are automatically enrolled) nor how much they must contribute to their accounts as that is determined by the legislature and it is the same for most of the other enrollees in WRS. It worries me when certain Legislators are voting on issues where they obviously have no understanding of how the process actually works, but they do not research the issue before they vote. If they don’t understand the process than they should avoid making comments which expose their ignorance. The say goes, “Better say nothing and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”