Amended K-12 education funding bill passes the Senate, awaits House concurrence vote

CHEYENNE – After adopting amendments to change some key aspects of the bill, the Wyoming Senate gave its final approval Friday to legislation outlining the state’s K-12 education funding model with the inclusion of an estimated $45 million in cuts.

The legislation, as advanced by the House of Representatives last week, included a conditional sales tax increase and phased-in cuts to save roughly $80 million through eliminated funding for inactive district health insurance plans. 

With the state’s K-12 education system facing a structural revenue shortfall worth hundreds of millions of dollars, leading lawmakers in the House argued the conditional sales tax increase would provide a long-term insurance policy after the pursuit of cost-saving measures.

However, once the bill headed to the opposite chamber, the Senate quickly adopted an amendment to get rid of that conditional sales tax increase, as well as another to include a categorical grant for teacher salaries outside of the block grant model. Senators also approved a change to the bill to increase recommended class sizes from 16 to 18 students in elementary schools and from 21 to 23 students in junior high and high schools.

Ultimately, the Senate’s version of the bill includes roughly $45 million, or 3 percent of the overall model, in cuts, according to Senate Education Committee Chairman Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper.

The legislation also was amended to provide parameters for roughly $303 million that will go to Wyoming’s K-12 education system under the federal American Rescue Plan.

“Frankly, this bill has been transformed into dealing with some of those issues,” Scott said of the federal stimulus package Friday.

Any cuts beyond 3 percent would have jeopardized the state’s ability to qualify for those federal funds, Scott said, and he maintained the Senate’s version of the bill would get the model “back to the reality” on the ground by eliminating benefits for “ghost” teaching positions.

“Sometimes, I think with a 3-percent cut, interest groups will tell you the world is coming to an end. I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Scott said. “I think our education system will do just fine, and I think that we’ll be better off than it was at the time of the start of this session.”

Although the amended bill gained widespread support from the body, a few lawmakers spoke against how the Senate had changed the House’s proposal. 

Senate Minority Leader Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, offered an amendment to basically get rid of all of the changes and revert back to the House’s proposal, which he described as “resoundingly better” than the Senate’s amended bill.

“The approach they took in the House and sent over was a Swiss Army Knife approach to the solution, trying to not just make cuts, but recognizing the need for new revenue … (they) recognize the need for internal diversification until we can find other alternatives, other approaches, other solutions, (and) recognize the need to phase in the changes over time, while also achieving all of the necessary interests with regard to the (federal stimulus package),” Rothfuss said.

While several education-minded senators have maintained that the categorical grant would protect teachers from pay cuts, Rothfuss pushed back on the idea that educators will be spared under the Senate’s proposal. He argued a cut of $45 million to the model “can only be accomplished by eliminating positions.”

“There isn’t another way,” Rothfuss said. “Perhaps not every one of those dollars will be (used for that), but we don’t get out of this without eliminating at least 500 jobs … I’ll be very happy to be wrong on that.”

Rothfuss added the Senate amendments were not adopted with much consideration for their impacts on equity, cost and evidence, potentially failing the state’s constitutional duties repeatedly affirmed by the Wyoming Supreme Court.

“It’s cutting for the sake of cutting, because we’ve set that as the objective – no attempt at solutions that are long term, no attempt at making the system of education better, no attempt at providing alternative revenue,” Rothfuss said.

Rothfuss joined the Senate’s one other Democrat in voting against the bill, along with three Republican legislators. 

One of them, Sen. Jeff Wasserburger, R-Gillette, argued the legislation, particularly the categorical grant protecting salaries, would take power away from local school boards and leave them with few areas to cut, potentially placing many extracurricular activities on the chopping block.

“That’s going to have to be significant in order for them to balance the budget,” Wasserburger said. “That won’t happen, I don’t believe, this year, because the American Rescue Plan will save them, but it will happen when we come down here in the budget session (next year).”

The Senate approved its amended version of House Bill 173 by a 22-5 vote, with three lawmakers excused. 

The legislation will now head back to the House for a concurrence vote, in which lawmakers from the chamber will decide whether to adopt the Senate’s changes and send the bill along to Gov. Mark Gordon for consideration.

If the House declines to concur, leadership would appoint a joint conference committee, composed of education-minded legislators from both chambers, to hash out their differences and attempt to strike a deal. The Wyoming Legislature plans to convene Tuesday and Wednesday before formally adjourning its general session.