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Lawmakers tasked to negotiate a budget, amid talks of special session

By
Hannah Shields with the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, via the Wyoming News Exchange

CHEYENNE — Appropriations committees in both chambers of the Wyoming Legislature had a first look at the opposite chamber’s budget on Monday, and conversations about the possibility of a special session have already begun.
 
There is a $1.1 billion difference between the two chambers’ budgets, the largest difference many lawmakers said they’ve seen in years. The House of Representatives focused primarily on adding to Gov. Mark Gordon’s recommended budget, while the Senate took a more conservative approach and made major cuts to spending.
 
“This is probably the largest (difference) I’ve seen in the 12 years I’ve been in the Legislature,” Rep. Tom Walters, R-Casper, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.
 
When the Wyoming Legislature put together the supplemental budget during the 2023 general session, stashing away $1.4 billion into savings, Walters said there was only a $30 million difference between the House and the Senate at this same point in the process.
 
Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the $1 billion difference isn’t as stark as other lawmakers make it out to be. As a member of the committee, Nethercott told the WTE she “was tracking that number throughout the last two weeks.” “I wasn’t surprised to see that number and had anticipated a number in that range,” Nethercott said.
 
Rep. Bob Nicholas, R-Cheyenne, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, expressed a similar sentiment on the House floor through its first reading of the Senate budget on Tuesday.
 
“A lot of that was just money shifting right and left, from one pocket to the other, and how we administer the dollars through the budgetary process,” Nicholas said. “If you put it all together, it is probably a roughly $300 million, $350 million difference of hard dollars.”
 

 
What if lawmakers can’t pass a budget? 
 
During the House Appropriations Committee meeting, Nicholas asked Don Richards, the Legislature’s budget and fiscal administrator, what would happen if lawmakers on the Joint Conference Committee (JCC) were unable to reach a compromise on the 2025-26 biennium spending plan.
 
Typically, five lawmakers from each chamber (usually from the chamber’s designated appropriations committee, although there are no rules requiring this) gather in JCC to look over the two budgets and negotiate until a single, unified budget is developed. This new budget is then sent back to each floor for a vote.
 
Any mirrored amendments, or amendments that are identical in both the House and Senate, cannot be revised or removed. This year, there are 13 such amendments.
 
However, if the JCC is unable to agree on a budget, or one chamber fails to pass the revised budget, there is a second JCC meeting, also known as a “free committee.” In this case, the two budgets are scratched and the entire process starts over, also removing the 13 mirror amendments.
 
“In a free committee, all of this goes away,” Richards said. “You have the Joint Appropriations Committee bill as introduced, and any amendment on any agency, and any amount, is on the table.”
 
Richards said he believed the last time this happened was in 1999. The Wyoming Legislature has three days in the bank this year to use on the budget session, since lawmakers met for only 37 days out of the budgeted 40 during last year’s general session.
 
These days can be used at the Legislature’s discretion, if more time is needed to develop a budget. Nicholas asked Richards what would be the likelihood for a special session, should both chambers fail to adopt a budget by the deadline.
 
A special session, which is also a rare circumstance in Wyoming history, is a meeting called either by the governor or the Legislature. In this case, it could be done to pass a budget, should lawmakers fail to make the deadline, since passing a budget is a constitutional obligation.
Richards told representatives he couldn’t predict when a special session would be — that was purely up to Gordon or the Legislature.
 
Walters told the WTE it was too early in the process to tell whether a special session would be needed.
 
“We’re gonna get to work and figure out what we can do,” Walters said. “And if we can’t get it done, then we can have those discussions later. But right now, it’s way too early to even be thinking about that.”
 
Senate reduced spending but also cut savings
 
Despite senators “slashing and burning” funding in the budget, hardly any of it was put into the Legislature’s savings accounts.
 
The Senate reduced how much would be taken out of general funds, the state’s primary checking account, but failed to increase the amount put into reserve accounts, where it can accrue interest.
 
“There’s some big, big dollar value items that the Senate and the House have to resolve,” Walters said. “I think they’re all concerned, because all of those directly impact the people of Wyoming. … We’ve got to figure out how to limit our negative impacts on people.”
 
Nethercott said this was a “unique piece” in the Senate’s budget bill. There was no explanation offered by the senator for these motives other than “personality conflicts.”
 
“It was just voting ‘no,’ as opposed to long-term planning,” Nethercott said.
 
Rep. Clark Stith, R-Rock Springs, said during the House Appropriations Monday meeting what surprised him was how little the Senate ended up putting into savings, compared to the House.
 
“If you first look at the sheet, it looks like the Senate is slashing and burning. And yet, they’re coming out with substantially less (money put into savings),” Stith said. “So, big picture, why does that happen?”
 
Richards said this was a result of the potential impact property tax bills had on both chambers, as well as actions taken by the Senate to use general fund money to absorb all liabilities of the Strategic Investments and Projects Account.
 

 
 
Major debate on K12 construction funding
 
One budget amendment brought by Senate Majority Leader Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, took out a measure to allow the School Foundation Program (SFP) account to pull $100 million from the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account (LSRA, the state’s “rainy-day fund”) in case of an emergency. Hicks said, at the time he introduced the amendment, this was another measure to “simplify” the Legislature’s budget.
 
However, Richards said Monday that the volume of property tax bills could threaten the SFP’s funding if they are all signed into law by the governor.
 
“Historically, in the last three months, we have indicated that there is no risk of the SFP going underwater — that is no longer the case,” Richards said. “For both the House and the Senate side, I think the risk is magnified. And that reason is the amount of property tax bills that remain alive.”
 
The Senate also cut $110 million for capital construction projects for K-12 schools, while the House voted to keep the allocation. Leadership in both the House and Senate previously said funding for school construction will be a major point of debate during the conference committee.
There are several projects waiting for funding across Wyoming, but Nethercott said none of them will be funded by the state in the next two years “as a result of the Senate’s position.”
 
“These are really important purposes that fulfill the state’s mission, in its primary objective, to provide services to the people,” Nethercott said. “A failure to fund these is a failure of the government.”
 
What’s next?
 
Each chamber will choose five members to further debate and develop a new budget in the Joint Conference Committee. The House already selected its representatives, who are also sitting members of the House Appropriations Committee: Reps. Nicholas; Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander; Walters, Stith and Trey Sherwood, D-Laramie.
 
Senate President Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, was expected to announce JCC Senate members later Tuesday. Driskill previously told the media he would most likely select “conservative” senators who best represent the will of the body.
 
This story was published on February 28, 2024. 

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