CASPER — After debating for much of the afternoon, the Wyoming House of Representatives passed a bill to fund K-12 education Tuesday. That bill will now go before the Senate, and the House now must consider the Senate’s education funding proposal, which that chamber passed last week.
The House bill generates revenue through a 0.5-percent sales tax imposed only after one of the state’s reserve accounts falls to a certain threshold. A cap is written into that tax, that would remove the additional half percent once that account reached an acceptable level.
The bill also increases how much school districts can keep in their reserve funds for a limited time before the state recaptures that money.
The House bill finds cuts largely in “phantom insurance plans,” or plans no longer in use, through an amendment proposed by Rep. Eric Barlow, R-Gillette.
Barlow told lawmakers that cut will save roughly $60 million, with the savings increasing over several years.
While both chambers may have passed their initial proposals, the debate on how Wyoming should pay for its schools and what should be included in that package is far from over.
Both the House and Senate must still hear the bills passed by their counterparts, and the amending process may be extensive. House lawmakers heard 23 amendments to House Bill 173 before passing it Tuesday.
The Senate is not allowed to write revenue-generating bills and so is more limited in what it can propose. The Senate’s bill still includes roughly $30 million in cuts to the School Foundation Program in the first year, $20 million in the second and more than $100 million in the third.
Where lawmakers land remains entirely uncertain going into the last week and a half of the 2021 session.
Lawmakers are tasked with reevaluating school funding roughly every five years in Wyoming, but many have said this year is different. The fossil fuel industry that has paid for Wyoming’s education system for decades is in a structural decline. Experts don’t believe the state can continue paying for K-12 education the same way.
Lawmakers initially proposed a $100 million cut to the school foundation program to balance a $300 million overall shortfall in education funding. Those cuts have been whittled down by both House and Senate members.