Legislators prepare to tackle budget

CASPER — It’s only been a few months since the Wyoming Legislature convened for a special session, but it’s already time to start gearing up for the budget session set to begin Feb. 14.

First and foremost, the Legislature has to pass Gov. Mark Gordon’s 2023-2024 biennium budget. 

The proposed budget of $2.3 billion is larger than anticipated, but still smaller than the previous two-year budget cycle, and almost half the size of the 2010 budget. 

With the infusion of federal money from the American Rescue Plan Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, as well as some increases in sales tax revenue, the state’s budget shortfalls ended up not being as severe as originally anticipated.

“It’s clear that our revenue streams are stronger than we anticipated,” said Rep. Andy Schwartz, D-Jackson. 

There are a couple key components to Gordon’s proposed budget, which would go into place July 1.

About $387 million is proposed for the University of Wyoming, a recommendation that is not far off from what the university sought. Another $224 million is earmarked for the state’s community colleges. While $224 million may sound like a big chunk, the state is home to seven community colleges.

Also on the education front, but separate from Gordon’s proposed $2.3 billion budget, is the $1.8 billion for the state’s School Foundation Program, the main fund that supports K-12 schools. Of this, over $36 million would go toward the first year of an external cost adjustment that is meant to make teacher pay more competitive.

“I think you’re going to see a lot of support for that,” said Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Jackson. 

Meanwhile, $53 million is recommended to be put towards employee compensation, as the governor has repeatedly emphasized how important this funding is to remain competitive with other states. 

“The employees need this market adjustment,” Gierau said.

Gordon also proposed $454 million be moved into the rainy day fund, what’s called the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account, in an attempt to avoid big cuts in the future, Gordon said. 

Some see the rainy day funds as increasingly important given that federal cash infusions are temporary and the fossil fuel industry, the state’s main economic driver, is becoming a less reliable source of state revenue. 

Schwartz sees it differently. Because of the unanticipated strength of the revenue streams, he sees it “as a time to restore programs,” instead of save.

Gierau anticipates the Legislature will only argue over “about $250 million” of the billion dollar budget.

While the budget will be the priority at the upcoming session, passing a redistricting bill follows close behind.

The once-in-a-decade redistricting process, which was meant to be completed by Dec. 1, is still ongoing. The committee’s next meeting is set for Wednesday, and there may be yet another after that as well. 

The outstanding issues for the committee are sorting out the eastern side of the state, particularly around Weston and Crook counties, as well as determining how the Senate districts will be maneuvered. So far, the committee has been focusing mainly on House districts.

In theory, the committee will sponsor one bill with one redrawn map, but it is possible that multiple maps get introduced to the Legislature. 

That said, Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, and Speaker of the House Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, both said they’d prefer one map.

The session will also feature some bills that aren’t tied to the budget, including some measures that have been considered before: Medicaid expansion and the county optional real estate transfer tax. 

It’s also possible some lawmakers may attempt to bring back some of the bills that failed during last year’s special session, which was convened in an attempt to fight back against the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for workers at companies with 100 or more employees. 

Conservative lawmakers may also seek to pursue further restrictions on abortion. After the Texas State Legislature passed a “heartbeat bill” that bans abortion after about six weeks, the natural next step, many have speculated, is for other pro-life states such as Wyoming to draft their own versions. 

However, because it’s a budget session, it will be harder for unrelated bills to succeed. Non-budget bills require a two-thirds vote simply for introduction.