Legislative Update – March 7-9


March 7

Hello Sublette County, this is Albert Sommers reporting to you from Cheyenne on March 7, 2021. On Friday, March 5, seven bills passed Committee of the Whole, including my bill, HB0101, Elk Feedground Closings - Requirements, which would move the decision to close an elk feedground from the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission to the governor. I drafted this bill because I am worried that the federal government will refuse to reauthorize elk feedgrounds that exist on federal land, so it may become more convenient to close elk feedgrounds rather than look for new locations.

Closure of elk feedgrounds could have a devastating effect on elk numbers, hunter opportunity and livestock producers in Sublette County. Brucellosis is endemic in the elk herds in Sublette County. Without elk feedgrounds, elk would likely spread the disease to cattle when they commingle with cattle on cattle feedlines to keep from starving. This bill puts in place a thoughtful process of review and public comment, which would take place if the commission were to recommend closure of an elk feedground and prior to the governor making a final decision.

HB0121, State Funded Capital Construction, would authorize the expenditure of private, federal and state funds to do a modest number of capital construction projects. These projects will help create jobs in Wyoming.

HB0133, Online Sports Wagering, would regulate and authorize online sports wagering in Wyoming. Currently, you can go online and offshore to wager on sporting events illegally. This bill would regulate that activity and make certain types of online wagering legal. This would generate money for the state of Wyoming but could increase gambling addiction in our state. I have not decided how I will vote on this bill in third reading. I am drafting an amendment to put money from the proceeds towards prevention of gambling addiction.

This week, the Legislature will work on the budget and K-12 funding and those topics will likely encompass the entirety of the week. Thank you.

March 8

Hello Sublette County, this is Albert Sommers reporting to you from Cheyenne on Monday, March 8, 2021.

A number of bills this session push back on federal overreach. I do not support bills that push back on the federal government by hurting our own citizens, but I do believe we must push back. I drafted HJ0011, State Sovereignty Impacted by Federal Actions, which is a resolution that would be sent to the President of the United States and to Congress.

This resolution reminds the federal government that we are a sovereign state and that there is no question as to whether powers not delegated to the federal government were retained by the states upon ratification of the 10th Amendment. The resolution states that the current administration in Washington, D.C., and Congress should respect the sovereignty of Wyoming and the other states of our union.

It further states that the federal government should not regulate arms at a national level. Finally, it says that the current administration should respect the critical role that federal lands play in Wyoming's culture, recreation, wildlife, livestock production, mineral development and tourism, and the current administration and Congress must work with the state of Wyoming to develop federal land-use policies in a manner that recognizes their impacts on Wyoming citizens and implements those policies in a manner consistent with the state's culture.

Other bills that push back on the federal government are HJ0012 and SJ0002, matching House and Senate resolutions that direct Wyoming to join other states through the provisions of Article V of the Constitution of the United States in calling for a Convention of States to propose amendments to the U.S. Constitution. These resolutions propose amendments to the Constitution of the United States, which would impose fiscal restraints on the federal government, limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government and limit the terms of office for its officials and for members of Congress.

I have had an incredible number of Sublette County residents email me their support for these resolutions, albeit through form letters from a national organization. Depending upon the final version of the bill that passes the Senate, I will likely support the resolution but not without reservations. I remain worried about a runaway constitutional convention that could enact amendments we could not support in Sublette County.

There are safeguards, however. Two-thirds of the states would need to sign the same resolution for a convention of states to occur and three-fourths of all state legislatures would need to ratify an amendment before it could be enacted.

I like our Constitution and believe it is the best one that any nation has ever created. I do not like the joint resolutions’ shotgun approach of proposing multiple constitutional amendments. I believe amendments should occur one at a time, thoughtfully.

As I stated earlier, I will likely vote for the convention of states, but I am interested in Sublette County citizens’ thoughts, written by their own hand.

March 9

Hello Sublette County, this is Albert Sommers reporting to you from Cheyenne on March 9, 2021. The single biggest challenge we face in Wyoming is funding K-12 education. Will we try to solve this challenge thoughtfully or just kick the can down the road once again? That debate will occur on Thursday, March 11.

Wyoming’s K-12 education is facing a $300-million annual structural deficit. This shortfall is due to declining coal and natural gas production and prices, which in turn has reduced industry property tax payments ─ the primary source of funding for school districts. The drop in a major source of revenue makes it difficult for the Legislature to fulfill its constitutional duty to provide an “equitable” public education for Wyoming’s youngest citizens.

Not only have property taxes from minerals declined dramatically, but our state’s mineral severance tax revenues and federal mineral royalties have also dropped to their lowest levels in decades. This is a double whammy as our school funding is the most mineral-dependent service of our state government. We have lost over 200 million tons of coal production per year in the last few years. The result is the $300-million structural shortfall in K-12 education funding. Without further legislative action, our schools will use more than $300 million of the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account (LSRA), the state’s “rainy day” fund, in the next school year.

The Select Committee on School Finance - Recalibration drafted HB61 as a vehicle for a K-12 funding discussion in the Legislature. I now serve on House Education and this committee has worked the issue of K-12 funding for the last two weeks.

The result of that work is HB173, and more specifically the substitute bill, HB173-Substitute 1. The reason the committee shifted from HB61 to HB173 was to bring into the K-12 funding discussion the use of existing revenue streams currently directed to savings.

People have asked if there is a plan to solve our K-12 funding shortfall. HB173-Substitute 1 is the plan, and it solves the education-funding problem. I believe that we have all the tools in this bill to have a full discussion on the floor. We have a $300-million annual shortfall in K-12 funding. We cannot cut our way out of this shortfall and remain constitutional. Likewise, we should look for constitutional efficiencies and not just tax our way out of this shortfall. I believe we need to realize that our citizens are reluctant to be taxed, when we have existing revenue flows headed for savings accounts. Hence, we need to solve this shortfall with reductions, savings, existing revenue flows and a sales tax.

The bill does the following: It diverts one-third of a statutory flow of severance tax away from the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund (PWMTF) to the School Foundation Program (SFP), it diverts investment income from the PWMTF to the SFP instead of the LSRA, it incorporates modest reductions to the K-12 funding model and it institutes a 1-cent sales tax when the LSRA drops below $650 million. Remember, we need $500 million in the LSRA to provide cash flow for state government. The LSRA is projected to have $1.3 BILLION in reserves at the end of fiscal year 2022.

HB173-Substitute 1 will provide shortfall reduction immediately and that will lengthen the time before the LSRA balance triggers the implementation of a tax. According to our long-term profile, the LSRA won’t drop below $650 million until 2025. Along with other actions, reducing expenditures in the model and capturing some existing revenue flows headed to savings accounts will push the need for the tax beyond 2025.

I believe this is a balanced and reasonable approach to solving our education funding problem. Are the children of Sublette County worth another penny in sales tax, a tax that would only be implemented six years from now? I think they are.

I can be reached at [email protected] with questions or comments.

Thank you.

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