Lawmakers tackle ed funding, Medicaid, net metering and more

Nick Reynolds, via Wyoming News Exchange
Posted 3/31/21

The Wyoming House and Senate are close to a final deal on the supplemental budget, leaving just two major issues for lawmakers to resolve before the session adjourns April 7 — capital construction and the state’s education budget.

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Lawmakers tackle ed funding, Medicaid, net metering and more


CHEYENNE — The Wyoming House and Senate are close to a final deal on the supplemental budget, leaving just two major issues for lawmakers to resolve before the session adjourns April 7 — capital construction and the state’s education budget.

On Friday afternoon, the House failed to concur with the Senate on House Bill 121 – State funded capital construction after the Senate defunded almost every addition to the bill made by House negotiators.

“We put in certain amount of dollars for UW, we put in a certain amount of dollars for community colleges, a certain amount of dollars to finish this Capitol building, money for the territorial prison, money for a few other projects,” House Appropriations Committee chairman Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne) told lawmakers Friday. “In one motion, when (the bill) went back over from the House side to the other side, they just took them all back out. So we’re kind of right back where we started at the beginning of the session.”

Lawmakers reached a similar stalemate last year, after members of the Senate negotiating team walked out on the House over an impasse on funding for upgrades to athletic facilities at UW. 

A bigger question mark, however, lies with the state education budget. On Friday, Senate Education Committee members received a heavily amended version of House Bill 173 – School finance funding-2, which House leadership significantly revised to account for new federal dollars and a half-cent sales tax that would kick in once the state’s education savings drops below a half-billion dollars. Advocates say the tax will serve as a crucial tool to address the state’s existing $300 million education funding shortfall without having significant implications on the classroom. That bill also includes a $50-million cut to insurance costs for a number of “ghost” positions in the state education system — unfilled positions the state pays for in the current model.

While the Senate in particular has sought to protect teachers from the impact of education cuts, the current funding model accounts for an average teacher salary of $38,000 per year — far below what is necessary to remain competitive according to Wyoming School Boards Association executive director Brian Farmer.

School districts receive money from the state in a block grant where dollars are presumed to be allocated for specific purposes. However, when salaries are undervalued in the model, school districts need to take money from other areas of the budget to cover those salaries, Farmer said. And due to declining revenues from oil, gas, and coal, that money is drying up.

That scenario necessitates a revenue fix like the House-proposed tax, Farmer said in an interview.  

“The bottom line is, revenue has to be a part of the solution,” he said. “It’s really frustrating to hear (the legislature) say we’ll get around to that later. That’s like saying I don’t want to solve all of the problem — I only want to solve part of the problem, and I’ll get around to solving all of the problem later. That’s the neat part of HB 173… it solves all of the problem.”

In a recent survey, 80 percent of school districts, according to testimony from members of the school boards association and administrators Friday, reported being in support of a new tax to fund education. 

Members of the Senate Education Committee told reporters early in the session they prefer to challenge the state’s existing model by forcing efficiencies through cutting roughly $130 million. But educators who testified Friday said a reduction of that scale could be devastating to their districts.

“I think it’s really important the legislature understand that for the last five years, every district has made cuts,” Shad Hamilton, a high school principal in Evanston, told committee members.

“There are a number of districts out there waiting to see what cuts they have to make across the board,” he added. “But if those cuts are deeper than $100 million, we’re talking significant cuts to staffing.”

The $1.3 billion in federal funding coming to Wyoming under the American Rescue Plan could help avert those cuts, however. The funding includes an obligation for states to provide a “maintenance of effort,” Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, told reporters Friday, namely, providing a similar share of education funding to what it had provided in the previous biennium. 

On Monday morning, Sen. Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester, ran an amendment to consider district reorganization in 2023 rather than 2022 while Sen. Charlie Scott, R-Casper, citing a concern that the bill would have difficulty passing the conservative Senate, ran a separate amendment to cut the sales tax from the bill. 

After little discussion, the Senate Education Committee voted 4-1 to advance the bill with both amendments included. Only Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, voted against it. 

Last year’s version of the “two-man crew bill” — known now as House Bill 249 – Railroad safety — never received a hearing in the Wyoming Senate. The bill was pitched as a means to improve railroad safety in an era of increased automation by mandating two-person crews on trains. Railroad companies claimed a mandatory minimum crew size on trains would restrict the ability to expand the use of automation on their locomotives and opposed the bill.

Railroaders like former Rep. Stan Blake, D-Green River, however, saw the bill as a necessity for worker safety, arguing that human operators are still necessary to prevent derailments and improve safety. This year, advocates hope to get another shot at passing it. 

On Tuesday, the Wyoming House of Representatives passed Rep. Andi Clifford’s, D-Riverton, version of the bill by a 36-22 margin. It now heads to the Senate.

Unlike last year, it will at least have an opportunity to be heard on the floor, having been assigned to the Senate Transportation Committee for their consideration. 

Sponsor Rep. Shelly Duncan, R-Torrington, has described her House Bill 91 – Removal of unenforceable property covenants, as the “feel good bill of the year.” 

Inspired by an episode she experienced as a realtor in which a home she sold came with an old and unenforceable stipulation it not be sold to a person of color, Duncan brought the bill as an effort to remove that archaic language from the covenants of a sold property. 

It faced little resistance on its way to Gov. Mark Gordon’s desk this past week. However, the bill inspired some spirited debate in the Wyoming Senate between those who wish to do away with relics of our past and those who see them as integral to American identity.

“If they’re unenforceable, why are we — in my eyes — taking away history?” asked Sen. Lynn Hutchings, R-Cheyenne, the only Black woman in the legislature. “Areas in my district have these covenants, and the covenants pretty much state that they will not allow negros to buy these homes … (As) the only negro in the Legislature, I am not offended by these covenants. I believe people had the right — in our history — to do what they did. And for me, if I was to purchase a home in that neighborhood and I saw that in the covenants and know that it’s unenforceable, I would find no offense. I would look at it as a way of — in my eyes and my family members and the people I’ve talked to — we’re showing that we’ve overcome some of these old racial stereotypes.”

However, other members like Sen. Rothfuss, D-Laramie, and Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne, noted the historic record would still be contained in the transaction history, and that no deletion of history would actually occur. Others said that it was not the history that offended them, but what the covenant would force them to agree to. 

“I think what offends people is when they’re asked to sign something promising they’ll enforce something they believe is unlawful and believe is immoral,” Sen. Scott, R-Casper, said. “It’s not the history that offends them, it’s the act of promising to abide by it themselves when they don’t believe in it.” 

The bill passed easily, with Sens. Ed Cooper, R-Ten Sleep, Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, Hutchings, Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, John Kolb, R-Rock Springs, and Drew Perkins, R-Casper, voting against it. 

The regulation of net metering — a type of billing mechanism for consumer-generated renewable energy — is a long-standing topic in the Wyoming Legislature. 

Seen by lawmakers as a means to capture revenues from consumer generators like rooftop-solar arrays, the bill has long faced staunch opposition from consumers and advocates of renewable energy, who have said the bill could hamper the growing industry and interfere with consumer choice.

After more than 50 people showed up to the House Committee on Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions to testify against Senate File 16 – New net metering systems on Friday, Rep. Joe Macguire, R-Casper, made a motion to table the bill. Committee chair, Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, said that if tabled, he would be unlikely to bring the bill up again. The committee voted to table the bill, likely sealing the measure’s fate and maintaining the status quo for at least another year. 

Throughout the session, county clerks from around the state have been reluctant to back Sen. Bo Biteman’s, R-Ranchester, Senate File 145 – Election runoffs. The shift to a new runoff election system in the midst of redistricting, many said, would be time-consuming and resource intensive, and they simply don’t not have the staff or the time to make it work. 

In recent weeks, however, the bill has garnered high-profile national attention. Though the bill’s sponsors said the legislation has been a long-term discussion in Wyoming, figures like Donald Trump Jr. — who touted the bill as a means to help defeat Rep. Liz Cheney — turned Biteman’s bill into a national topic, generating coverage in outlets like The Hill and CNN. 

That attention ultimately created questions of intent, however, and may have contributed to its defeat last week.

“This is a chamber of honor and integrity,” Sen. Cooper said on the floor. “And when we bring a bill that’s of questionable intent, we jeopardize everything this chamber is built on.”

Cooper told his fellow members that one of those articles made him question the integrity of the bill’s intentions as well as the reasons why the body would consider a change to the state’s elections systems without an interim study. 

“What this article spoke of was this exact piece of legislation,” he said. “And they suggested that the purpose of this bill was to allow for election manipulation. Of our elections. That’s how the rest of the country sees what’s happening here.” 

Rothfuss pushed back on that characterization. 

“I believe the sponsor wants what’s best for the state, but I think we can do better,” he said. 

Lawmakers killed the bill by a single vote, 15-14. Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, was the lone person absent. 

After a years-long public campaign — and emotional speeches on the House floor from long-time critics —  the House of Representatives passed a Medicaid expansion measure last week, setting the stage for it to be heard in the Senate. 

The next test for House Bill 162 – Medical treatment opportunity act will now be with the Senate Committee on Labor, Health and Social Services, which advanced the Senate version of Medicaid expansion by a narrow 3-2 vote. 

That bill, Senate File 154 – Medicaid expansion with federal match requirements, died in Senate Majority Floor Leader Ogden Driskill’s, R-Devil’s Tower, desk without a hearing on the floor. While Senate leadership committed to giving the House version a “fair hearing” should that committee advance it, they pointed out it might not get that far.

“It came out of the House 32 to 28,” Senate Vice President Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, told reporters on Friday. “It’s not a real strong position.”

“Is 32-28 a mandate?” he asked. “We’ll give it a fair hearing. But it wasn’t like there was a lot of strong support in the House.” 

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