Jasmine Hall Wyoming Eagle Tribune Via Wyoming News Exchange
CHEYENNE — Lawmakers are heeding Gov. Mark Gordon’s call for fiscal conservatism in the upcoming general session, despite reports that state revenue estimates have exceeded previous forecasts.
“I really applaud the governor and totally agree with his approach,” said Rep. Cyrus Western, R-Sheridan, a member of the Joint Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee. “The reality is that it’s hard to say for sure how sustainable we will be. If we knew that’s what our budget was going to be, or our sources of revenue were going to be for the next 10 years, maybe we could have a different conversation.
Consensus Revenue Estimating Group officials presented the October report to the Wyoming Legislature Joint Appropriations Committee on Wednesday and cited estimates of $2.2 billion in combined increases to the general fund and reserve accounts. budget, as well as the school foundation program account.
People also read…
The forecast included other revenue streams that are expected to increase in the current 2023-24 biennium, but emphasized the $738 million jump since January.
Gordon will have $912 million under the law for his supplemental budget recommendation, which will be released Nov. 18.
He said he hopes to make investments for the future, due to volatile mining revenues, and “misguided federal energy policy and investment mandates that are hostile to our state’s primary industries.”
Lawmakers across the state told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle that they thought a fiscally responsible approach was important, but their plans for addressing the budget varied.
Some have also argued that now is the time to reassess income streams and tax systems in the wake of an economic boom.
“The Legislature will be really fiscally prudent,” said joint revenue committee co-chair Rep. Steve Harshman, R-Casper. “We’ve become experts in Wyoming over the past two decades at really taking deals like this and investing them for long-term benefits. I think you’ll see we’ve done that with the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund and the Hathaway Fellowship.
Harshman provided an example, for example by saving $700 million of surplus, the state could generate nearly $100 million in additional revenue. He said that’s a huge rate of return, and he hopes to see appropriations for trust funds for the Suicide Prevention Hotline or Wyoming’s Tomorrow Scholarship to take resident care.
He said he believes a very large portion of the excess revenue will go towards savings and investments in other ways.
Harshman said state employees should get pay raises and the funding should go to infrastructure. He said buildings are a way to invest in your state and local communities because the cost will not be cheaper, especially for educational institutions.
“Laramie County continues to grow – Teton as well, and I just think that’s part of this deal,” he said. “It’s part of the whole saving and investing thing. You are essentially spending one-time dollars for a one-time facility that will benefit many generations of children, students, and families.
Western agreed that funding should go into investment accounts, “because the best money is money that makes you money.”
He said he would also consider one-time appropriations, but was wary of recurring expenses, such as staff increases or external K-12 education cost adjustments. He said he had voted to raise salaries for state employees in the past, but said more funds should be spent on savings.
Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, co-chairs the revenue committee with Harshman, and he advocates for a conservative budget, but not a “spartan budget.”
He wants to save as much as possible going forward, in hopes the state can prepare for the tougher economic times he expects.
However, he said the state should allocate funds for education and state employees. Case said the state has been losing ground in education funding, and that has shown up in teacher salaries and the ability to hire staff.
While he said the political environment and socially motivated criticism also impact educators’ desire to stay in the profession, the state must keep salaries competitive.
He said he still doubts there will be any meaningful increases following the Wyoming Education Association lawsuit over K-12 education, because lawmakers will want to wait and see where the court stands.
Members of the Joint Appropriations and Revenue Committees across the aisle expressed a similar view, saying they agreed with Governor Gordon — to a point.
Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Jackson, said there is enough funding to eliminate the structural K-12 education deficit and put money into the school capital construction account to invest and provide a steady stream of income. He said the difficulty in making this decision is not if there is enough money, but if fellow lawmakers “have the political will to do it.”
He said he was a conservative Democrat when it came to spending, but there were other areas where he hoped the funding would go, such as state employees, because there weren’t enough. to develop programs requested by the public.
He said employees are underpaid and overworked, and the state continues to demand more from them without properly compensating them.
“Are we going to take care of our employees and recruit new employees, so that we can fund and launch these programs? he said. “Or are we just going to keep running our employees out and quitting and going into the private sector because they see no end in sight to this?”
Rep. Mike Yin, D-Jackson, said the state has the leeway to help state employees and doesn’t want hundreds of millions of dollars saved at their expense.
He said he also hopes the supplementary budget discussions will include solutions to housing issues across the state, as there is an affordable housing crisis.
Yin said the state still needs to prepare for the slowing of the boom-and-bust cycle, otherwise the budget cuts will go too deep in the future. He sees this happening in a reassessment of Wyoming’s tax system.
Yin said diversifying the economy and encouraging business growth are important, but he doesn’t think it will benefit the state under the current tax structure. He said the best time to make these changes is not when government wallets are hurting, but at a time when there is excess funding.
“This money right now gives us the opportunity to have a discussion without having a gun to our head when we do,” Gierau acknowledged. “And that’s the time to have it, that’s when you can have a full rational discussion about what would be the best way for us to go, given our circumstances. But will we? I am doubtful.
He said Republicans were hesitant to overhaul the tax structure because they feared losing their jobs to their own political hierarchy.
Case said he has done his best in recent years to focus on Wyoming’s future when the capacity to depend on mining industries is running out. He said he was looking at a more balanced tax structure, similar to that of the majority of states in the country, but that people “don’t crave anything with the T-word.”
He doesn’t believe that low taxes create a thriving economy, even after the state was rated the best business climate in the country. He said it is difficult to attract business when there are no amenities and what the government provides in terms of education or roads.
“The truth is, Wyoming’s economy has grown slower than any of our neighboring states over the past decade. It actually contracted; he got smaller. And Wyoming’s population has grown less than any of our neighboring states, than any other western state,” Case said. “What do you say? If low taxes were such a good thing, we’d be swimming with people.
Other Republicans were not welcome to reevaluate the tax structure.
Western said consistency and reliability are not hallmarks of the revenue streams the state has relied on, but he would not consider raising taxes before “meaningfully reforming our spending, especially in K-12”.
Harshman said he still believes minerals will play a huge role in state revenue streams in the future, and possibly in nuclear power. He said the difficulty with diversification is having enough labor and the state does not have enough with its current population.
“Wyoming’s future is very bright. I think those ups and downs are tough,” he said. “But I think we get really good at saving during those times, and making that investment in the permanent mineral trust fund, all those joint school accounts, all those things that will provide investment income forever.”