Bill for new college district wins final House OK

GILLETTE — A bill proposing the formation of the Gillette Community College District in Campbell County passed its third reading in the state House of Representatives on Wednesday.

Now, Senate File 83 is moving back to the Senate for concurrence before it can move forward to the Governor’s Office.

The bill passed the House on third reading 46-14. It had previously made it through the Senate on a 20-10 vote. 

During concurrence, a group of members of the House and Senate will confer on differences in the bill. 

While in the House, a standing committee amendment was adopted simplifying the name of the new district from Gillette College Community College District to Gillette Community College District.

As the bill was introduced to the House floor this week, some representatives voiced concerns about the bill’s impact on the other seven community college districts before the first reading was approved.

Among Campbell County legislators, Rep. Bill Fortner, R-Gillette, stood as possibly the most publicly vocal opponent of an independent community college district in Gillette throughout the process, citing economic concerns over what additional tax on the already struggling energy industry could mean for the future of the community.

If the proposed new district moves to a public vote in August and passes, a board of seven then-elected trustees would have the ability to tax up to 4 mills of property tax in Campbell County to finance the new district.

Those in favor of the bill have estimated that the new district would likely require about 2 mills; however, the exact number has not been fixed.

“I have no problem with the voters in Campbell County getting to vote on this project. My biggest concern is this couldn’t have happened at a worse down period in this state,” Fortner said Monday.

On Wednesday, he voted against the final House reading of the bill that would bring the decision to a public vote.

“There’s a bleeding over of lines between my community college and Sheridan College,” said Rep. Shelly Duncan, R-Lingle. “We are going to be losing students, which equates to revenue, which equates to enrollment. Our territory is being poached.”

She went on to say the existing community college districts are disorganized and in need of unification as is without adding another one.

“We have quite a few bankruptcies happening in the north, in the land of the mines,” Duncan said. “This is going to end up being a mill levy and it’s going to be on the backs of some of these taxpayers. They are not going to be able to afford this.”

Rep. John Bear, R-Gillette, pushed back on Duncan’s comments about poaching students. He said the Gillette College students, like the campus, are already in place and not being taken from other locations.

To quell financial concerns about Campbell County’s energy industry, he said that local control of the district could allow the school to better adjust to industry demands.

On Monday, multiple Campbell County legislators spoke in favor of the bill, suggesting that the decision should ultimately be made by the voters of Campbell County.

“I think our job is easy here,” said Rep. Chris Knapp, R-Gillette, on Monday. “The decision may be a little bit more difficult up in our area, but the decision here is to send this back to the voters of our county.”