Budget to dominate legislative discussions
CHEYENNE — Learning how to balance a budget for a family can be tricky. Imagine attempting to build a budget for the entire state.
Wyoming’s Legislature faces the daunting task this week of agreeing on an amended biennium budget that extends to June 30, 2022.
It’s not a typical year for lawmakers to be wrestling over the state’s budget, which operates on a two-year cycle.
At the end of last year’s budget session, in March 2020, Wyoming lawmakers had approved a $2.97 billion general fund budget.
But almost simultaneously, the pandemic reached Wyoming, the economy nearly froze and a global oil price war broke out. Prices for oil unexpectedly tanked, and mineral production slowed.
“When we left in March of last year, we had a balanced budget, because we’re required to basically kick out a balanced budget. So we had one,” House Appropriations Chairman Bob Nicholas, R-Cheyenne, said on Monday. “Then, COVID showed up.”
Wyoming relies overwhelmingly on revenue from fossil fuel production each year, meaning the downturn in energy markets last year had a disproportionate effect on the state’s purse.
State forecasters and energy experts initially estimated a $877 million shortfall in the state’s general fund budget as a result of the recession and pandemic.
“It’s the biggest drop in state government in our history,” Nicholas said. “Boom, just like that.”
In response, Gov. Mark Gordon instituted a series of budget cuts. During two rounds of cuts, the governor trimmed state agencies’ budgets by about 15 percent.
The dark fiscal forecast first reported by state economists has significantly brightened, thanks in part to energy and tourism sectors exceeding expectations.
Yet Wyoming isn’t entirely in the clear.
The state still needs to find out how it will survive, likely by identifying additional streams of revenue beyond fossil fuel industries.
What’s more, Gordon has another set of reductions in mind to ensure Wyoming stays within its means. But first, he needs the Legislature’s help approving his recommended budget.
Wyoming’s Joint Appropriations Committee took the supplemental budget pitched by the governor. The 14-member committee then made some amendments and presented an appropriation bill to the rest of the Legislature.
Both Wyoming’s House and Senate now need to agree on the bill introduced by the appropriations committee. For that reason, discussion on budget-related bills will dominate time on the House and Senate floors this week.
Both chambers received identical budget bills to debate and amend. But only one of these “mirror bills shall be enacted into law,” according to Wyoming’s Constitution.
On Monday, the House and Senate heard an overview of the current fiscal troubles Wyoming is up against.
Wyoming’s budget has been chipped away at for several years. If this new budget is adopted, the Legislature will have slashed the state’s general fund budget by roughly $1 billion since the 2015- 2016 biennium budget, according to Nicholas.
For the most part, the general fund includes severance tax revenue, sales and use tax, federal mineral royalties, and some investment income.
State government positions have declined over time too — from 8,234 positions in fiscal year 2009 to 7,846 in fiscal year 2020.
Many lawmakers here have long advocated for a leaner government. Others worry the austerity measures will hurt already marginalized residents, especially as funding for essential public services disappear.
In addition to the main budget bills proposed this session, other appropriation bills will likely stir debate.
That includes a trio of bills that would reduce local government funding, allocate funding for capital construction projects and adjust how much money public schools receive.