Democratic leaders say session lacked vision


CHEYENNE — A few weeks removed from the Wyoming Legislature’s recent session, Democratic leadership in the House and the Senate discussed their overall disappointment – and occasional moments of success – in the session during a virtual forum Thursday night.

Senate Minority Leader Chris Rothfuss and House Minority Leader Cathy Connolly, both D-Laramie, held a Facebook Live forum Thursday night to discuss the general session, which concluded in early April. The pair of legislators agreed that little progress was made to solve the state’s looming issues, namely a structural revenue deficit and an unsustainable funding model for K-12 education.

“The idea of vision is really what was lacking from this legislative session, and it’s been lacking, I think, from the past few legislative sessions,” Rothfuss said. “We’re in a situation where we know that the state of Wyoming has a lot of challenges ahead.”

“With this session, I had hopes going into this year that we would be able to put some solutions on the table. Honestly, even if we didn’t pass those solutions, just talk about solutions in serious adult voices, and we didn’t even have an opportunity to do that,” he added. “There was very little of substance that was done during this legislative session that will have a positive effect on the state of Wyoming, and for the most part, the key concepts were avoided more than they were discussed.”

Connolly agreed, stating the frequent adage of “kicking the can down the road” applied to the overall approach taken by the Republican-dominated Legislature.

During the session, lawmakers in the House and the Senate gained some relief through federal funding that will be coming to Wyoming through the American Rescue Plan signed into law by President Joe Biden earlier this year. The federal funding ultimately eased some of the disagreements between the chambers over statewide budget cuts, as well as K-12 education funding.

While the federal funds staved off further reductions, lawmakers still agreed to cut roughly $430 million from the state’s fiscal year 2021-22 budget, largely keeping in line with recommendations from Republican Gov. Mark Gordon.

The pair of Democratic leaders, who were among a small minority that voted against the budget cuts, described the budget discussion as a failure, with Connolly noting the approved budget will reduce programs and service “to our most needy and most vulnerable populations.”

“Every community is going to be harmed with the lack of services for mental health, for substance abuse, for aging,” Connolly said. “We have cut beyond the bone each and every one of those programs, and the reality is we didn’t need to if we had a good, thorough discussion about revenue streams, about taxation, and we actually did something to modernize our revenue.”

Another much-anticipated topic for the session was K-12 education funding, with lawmakers advancing a bill last year that would have cut $100 million from the state’s funding model. Ultimately, the House and the Senate reached an impasse on any sort of reductions or tax increases to address the roughly $300 million annual funding shortfall, which is being supplemented with state savings for now.

Rothfuss and Connolly saw the impasse – which means K-12 education funding will remain fairly level for at least another year – as somewhat of a blessing and a curse.

“The best possible outcome that Minority Leader Connolly and I had as really possible from what we saw in this session was the one that happened, so it really went as well as we could have hoped, which is regrettable, because it’s not a good outcome,” Rothfuss said. “It’s just the best one that was available, which was an abject failure of leadership by the Legislature, such that it couldn’t actually agree with a path forward.”

Although the House advanced a conditional sales tax hike in its education proposal, the conversation in the Senate largely focused on cuts, which Rothfuss emphasized could not be made at substantial levels without impacting classrooms.

“There was a desire to steer the conversation and the debate away from that and to pretend somehow, naively, that cuts to education would not lead to cuts to the classroom and cuts directly to education, but if you’ve spent as much time looking at the funding model as Cathy and I have working through multiple recalibrations, it is an absolute certainty that if you cut $100 million, as was proposed, you’ve cut 1,000 teachers, minimum, to achieve those cuts,” Rothfuss said.

Connolly added there needs to be more emphasis on social, emotional and behavioral support for Wyoming students, and she was disappointed the debate remained focused on cuts.

The pair of lawmakers also lamented the failure of two different proposals to expand Medicaid coverage in Wyoming, despite new federal incentives that Rothfuss noted would have netted the state $34 million over the next biennium if it had opted to provide coverage to an estimated 24,000 low-income residents. He said one of the session’s highs, however, was seeing a Medicaid expansion bill pass in the state’s House of Representatives for the first time.

Connolly noted Medicaid expansion will be an interim topic this year for lawmakers to weigh, and the Democratic leaders were hopeful that more lawmakers would be willing to pass it next time around.

While the session was largely marked by frustrations for the small cohort of Democratic lawmakers, there were a few points of success. Connolly noted a bill passed during the hybrid session in February that would establish a statewide short-time compensation program as a positive piece of legislation.

“What this bill does is allow for employers to choose either their entire workforce or a unit within their workforce, and instead of laying off some people, reducing the hours of that entire unit, and then having those workers eligible for unemployment, where ... that unemployment would have made up just about all of those wages,” Connolly said. “I think (the program) is a real positive addition to our statutes as we move forward and think about our economy. We want to keep people in Wyoming.”

The program has yet to be finalized by the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services, though efforts to do so are in the works. Connolly also noted the passage of House Bill 91, which allows for the removal of unenforceable, racist covenants within real estate deeds in Wyoming, as a good step taken by legislators.

Over the interim session this year, lawmakers will be discussing ways to spend the roughly $1 billion coming to the state via the latest relief package, with plans to reconvene for a special session in mid-July to distribute the money. Rothfuss stated his surprise at hearing some lawmakers “grousing and complaining” about the federal money during the recent session.

“You would think it was a punishment that the state of Wyoming was effectively thrown a lifeline at a time of revenue crisis that provides us with an opportunity to bridge this crisis and get to the other side,” Rothfuss said. “During the time when we’re supported by these federal funds, again, (there’s) an opportunity to have some vision, implement that vision, diversify the economy, diversify the revenue streams. It’s an incredible opportunity, and, honestly, we’re complaining about it.

“No vision is coalescing around this, and it’s a tremendous opportunity that, once again, I’m afraid we’re going to waste, because no one from the majority party is stepping forward with an actual vision for how we can move Wyoming forward, instead of just cut, cut, cut and suffer,” he added.

Discussion and debate over the federal funds are certain to continue over the coming months, and despite the Democrats’ recent frustrations, Connolly said they will continue to work to arrive at the best outcomes for Wyoming.

“It was a frustrating and disappointing session, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t go back again and that we continue to articulate and fight for a vision – and a vision that puts the needs of people at the center,” Connolly said.