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Both houses of Wyoming Legislature hear budget amendments

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Both houses of the Wyoming Legislature started churning through scores of proposed budget amendments Wednesday as members weighed how to keep the state government functioning over the coming two years in the face of sagging energy revenues.

The House and Senate both considered how to amend the $3.3-billion budget bill drafted by the Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee. Lawmakers will have another chance to propose amendments on the bill’s final reading, probably on Friday.

As proposed by the committee, the budget bill calls for 1.5-percent cuts on state agency budgets with the exception of the Wyoming Department of Health.

Even so, the committee’s budget proposal also calls for spending through about $1 billion in savings over the coming two years, including about $310 million out of the state’s $1.8-billion “rainy day fund,” and another roughly $675 million in reserve funds set aside for schools.

The Legislature hasn’t identified a future source of funding to replace the federal coal-lease bonus payments the state has relied upon in recent years to pay for school construction. State fiscal analysts generally predict those funds are going to evaporate as a result of the falling demand for coal.

For the two-year funding cycle that covers fiscal years 2019-2020, state financial analysts have said recently the school foundation program faces a shortfall of over $500 million.

Some lawmakers have expressed concern that the committee is proposing moving forward with hundreds of millions of dollars of proposed state and school capital construction projects in this budget despite the looming shortfalls.

Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, said on the Senate floor this week that he’s concerned the state shouldn’t spend through its reserves in case the future financial picture gets even worse.

“I just think it’s a time for real caution,” Driskill said in an interview Wednesday. “There’s a lot of potentially dark clouds on the horizon for Wyoming.”

Sen. Tony Ross, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said Wednesday he believes that lawmakers generally want to hold onto state savings as much as possible.

With dozens of budget amendments still pending as he spoke, Ross, R-Cheyenne, said he senses the Senate is sticking close to the committee’s recommendations and generally not increasing spending. “We want to maintain our savings accounts,” he said.

Illustrating that conservative bent, the Senate voted early Wednesday evening against an amendment proposed by Sen. Stan Cooper, R-Kemmerer, that sought to restore about $40 million for the state’s K-12 education system.

Speaking in favor of the bill, Cooper said schools in many rural areas are already seeing less money because the declining energy industry is forcing families to move, reducing the number of students for whom they receive state funds. “These districts all have skin in the game,” he said.

Ross spoke on the Senate floor against Cooper’s proposal. While Ross said no one likes to see funding cuts, he said, “the amount of our legislative grace is dependent on our resources.”

House Majority Floor Leader Rosie Berger, R-Big Horn, said lawmakers appear to be opting to keep extra funds in readily accessible reserves, rather than allowing them to flow into state permanent savings.

“It seems to me fairly strongly conservative,” she said. “Pretty much ‘no,’ on most things.”

Sen. John Hastert, D-Green River, and a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he expects to see a budget amendment on the third reading of the budget bill that would call for accepting Gov. Matt Mead’s recommendation that the state accept over $30 million in federal funds to expand the Medicaid program. The expansion, part of the federal Affordable Care Act, would offer subsidized insurance coverage to roughly 20,000 low-income adults.

Mead has said that expanding Medicaid would save the state money by reducing demand on existing health care programs. However, many lawmakers say they don’t trust federal promises to continue to pay most of the cost of coverage.

Hastert said he intends to vote for Medicaid expansion, but believes it has little chance of success.

“I think we needed to see a larger groundswell from the public to support this,” he said. “I don’t think members of the Senate are feeling pressured at all to support it.”

In related news, Wyoming Legislature prepares to examine budget bills.

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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