CHEYENNE — After the Wyoming Legislature gave its final approval earlier this week to a supplemental budget that includes roughly $430 million in cuts, Gov. Mark Gordon signed the budget bill into law Thursday evening, largely commending state lawmakers for their work on it.
Gordon, who also issued a few vetoes of specific items within the gargantuan budget, described his decisions in a letter to leaders of both chambers Thursday, stating “these are not easy decisions to make, but this discussion on the fundamental question of the role of government has been a necessity.”
“Despite an epic decline in revenue, we are able to maintain some crucial programs while making some modest, but integral one-time investments,” Gordon wrote in the letter.
The need to cut from Wyoming’s biennial budget, which will last until June 2022 after lawmakers approved it with roughly $3 billion in general fund spending last spring, emerged due to downturns in the state’s economy amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic’s effects brought about one of the largest revenue declines in state history. In his letter, Gordon said the supplemental budget, combined with the initial rounds of cuts he authorized last summer, “reflect our shared commitment to the goal of living within our means.”
While Gordon instituted the initial rounds of cuts as the pandemic raged on last summer, lawmakers were left to decide on the final round of reductions. Ultimately, members of the House and the Senate reached an agreement that includes roughly $430 million in cuts and the elimination of 324 mostly vacant state positions, with negotiations made easier by the roughly $1 billion in federal aid that Wyoming will receive under the American Rescue Plan.
Lawmakers agreed to restore roughly $13 million in funding to a handful of Wyoming Department of Health programs, including one that provides in-home services to elderly residents and another that offers certain health care waivers to people with developmental disabilities.
However, the proposal still includes substantial cuts to the health care sector, such as a roughly $28 million cut to Medicaid reimbursements for private providers and the elimination of a Laramie County program that provides wide-ranging services to elderly residents. Gordon acknowledged some of those reductions in his letter.
“The budget does set our state back by eliminating valuable programs and services, and some of the impacts of the cuts we have had to make will be felt by those who are already struggling; but it is our constitutional duty to right-size our government based on revenues,” Gordon said. “We are not adding debt for future generations with this budget.”
The two chambers also agreed to restore roughly $8 million in state aid for both the University of Wyoming and the state’s community colleges, and Gordon thanked lawmakers “for giving our higher education system a minor reprieve from deeper cuts for this year.”
“Your action recognizes the importance of a collective, organized post-secondary education system embodied in the new Wyoming Innovation Network (WIN), which was created in collaboration with our community colleges and the University of Wyoming,” Gordon said. “WIN is an ambitious effort to supercharge all of Wyoming’s post-secondary work by combining the best ideas across Wyoming’s institutions that can strengthen the state’s workforce, promote entrepreneurship, and actively support economic growth and diversification.”
Gordon also authorized a few vetoes of specific footnotes within the 73-page bill, though most of them were relatively minor. The reasoning behind many of the vetoes was that the items were either unnecessary or could be considered “lawmaking within the budget bill,” which is not allowed. State lawmakers could try to override any of those vetoes with a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers, though with plans to completely adjourn Wednesday, there is little time to do so.
With the Wyoming Legislature’s next budget session less than a year away, attention will now turn to approving the state’s first full budget since the COVID-19 pandemic began. While Wyoming’s revenue projections aren’t as dire as they were last spring, Gordon told lawmakers to prepare for the possibility of additional cuts in his letter Thursday.
“I believe we all agree that some of the programs considered for elimination this year, but spared, may need to end next year,” Gordon wrote. “Unhappily, some of these services will weigh heavily on the elderly and the disabled. One cannot relish that chore, but as we continue to see our revenues decline, we must continue to evaluate the role of government and what we can afford.
“Those decisions will affect the level of services the public has come to expect, and remind us all of the fact we are fortunate that we can continue to pay very low taxes, thanks to the disproportionate share we levy on our mineral industries,” he continued.
Gordon’s approval of the supplemental budget marks the continuation of a downsizing to Wyoming state government that has been ongoing since the mid-2010s. The state has seen its general fund spending fall by approximately $1 billion from the levels of its 2015-16 budget, and the number of state employees in Wyoming now hovers around what it was in 2003.