Gordon disappointed by K-12 funding impasse

CHEYENNE — Gov. Mark Gordon addressed a range of issues, primarily K-12 education funding and the state’s long-term fiscal outlook, during a media briefing Thursday afternoon, a day after the Wyoming Legislature adjourned from its 2021 general session.

The discussion, which marked Gordon’s first general press conference since late last year, also came a day after Wyoming lawmakers failed to reach an agreement on a K-12 education funding bill, with the House and the Senate reaching an impasse over various issues regarding where to cut within the model, as well as how to use federal stimulus money heading to local school districts later this year.

Gordon said Thursday that he was disappointed the two chambers were unable to reach an agreement, though he added that it “wasn’t necessarily a surprise.” With Wyoming facing a roughly $300 million annual funding shortfall in its K-12 education system, Gordon said the time has come for him to take a more direct role in the discussions over how the state’s schools are funded.

“I really want to focus on a couple of key questions, because I think the conversation on education has really revolved around spending,” Gordon said. “It has revolved around ‘education used to cost this much, therefore we need to raise revenues,’ or ‘you have to cut education’ – those are the two choices that are there.”

“I believe that there is a third, perhaps more profitable approach to look at, sort of taking a customer service approach,” he continued. “What is it that our customers really want? What do parents want from the educational system? … I think the conversation on education has changed from that conversation, about what do we expect and want from education, to ‘more money equals better education, and if you don’t give us more money, we’re not doing as good a job as we can.’ I think there are more variables to that.”

Gordon said he is planning to have state officials go out into communities across Wyoming to meet with stakeholders and figure out what residents are seeking from the state’s K-12 education system.

“I think that any solution on education funding is going to take time,” Gordon said. “I think there are a number of aspects to the way we fund education in Wyoming, which are frankly misaligned and difficult to navigate.”

During the press conference, Gordon addressed comments made by Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, during the Legislature’s final day. Scott, who was on the joint conference committee that was unable to reach a compromise on the K-12 funding bill, said the House members were “classic tax-and-spend liberals that think that they could just tax forever and that you never have to rein government in a bit.”

Asked about the comments during the briefing, Gordon called them “extremely unfortunate.”

“I think we all get exasperated and angry and tired,” Gordon said. “It doesn’t forgive any of that, and I do think that Senator Scott really needs to think carefully about how he wants to make amends on that.”

Gordon also said the public can expect further details about his plan for a more direct role in the state’s K-12 education discussions “in the coming weeks.”

Budget difficulties remain

About a week after he signed the state’s supplemental budget that contained roughly $430 million in general fund cuts, Gordon also discussed the state’s finances during the press conference, stating “we ended the Legislature much as we began the Legislature: with serious financial difficulties ahead of us.”

The governor offered his support for the Legislature’s decision to restore funding to a handful of Wyoming Department of Health programs, while noting the approved budget ended up being close to his original proposal.

Asked about whether he planned to back any revenue-raising proposals, Gordon said state lawmakers need to look at Wyoming’s sales and use tax exemptions first, adding “we need to continue to look carefully at what sorts of revenues can be raised as we begin to diversify our businesses.”

“I do plan to look carefully at our entire state situation, both from a perspective of doing a better job of educating voters about what it is we have and what it is we don’t have, and ... we have so many coffee cans, and I think people don’t realize all of those coffee cans are draining,” Gordon said. “They still think we have change in the cushion here and there, and we’re really running out of those.”

Wyoming is slated to receive roughly $1.1 billion under the latest federal stimulus package, known as the American Rescue Plan, and state lawmakers have already been eyeing a special session in mid-July to distribute those funds.

Gordon noted Wyoming has a “history of serendipity” when it faces serious economic challenges, and he worried the state has become “complacent” with an attitude that some sort of lifeline will always arrive.

“In this case (with) the ARP funds, I really hope they don’t put off the substantial conversations that have to take place today, tomorrow and the next day to build that sustainable future, and that we don’t just try to backfill and slide along for just a little bit more next year,” Gordon said.

The governor also said he will “quite possibly” have to make additional cuts in the state’s upcoming biennial budget, barring improvements to Wyoming’s finances.

“You really can’t cut the way we did this last year without having to affect every agency,” Gordon said. “Unfortunately, the agencies that take some of that are the ones that serve our most vulnerable populations, our most precious populations.”

State will protect Second Amendment “at all costs”

Gordon also briefly addressed the day’s major national news, in which President Joe Biden announced a set of modest steps aiming to curb gun violence nationwide, including federal rule changes to limit the use of “ghost guns” that lack serial numbers and to tighten regulations on stabilizing braces for pistols. Biden also called on Congress to pass a bill authorizing more expansive background checks for firearm purchases.

Gordon said he was disappointed by the Biden administration’s actions Thursday, “because (the) Second Amendment is something that is absolutely fundamental to Wyoming.”

“Wyoming will stand firm against any attempt to erode that right,” Biden said. “We are a Second Amendment state. We will protect our firearms at all costs, just want to make that absolutely clear.”

The same day, Gordon signed House Bill 236, which prohibits banks and other financial institutions in Wyoming from discriminating against firearms businesses. The proposal was one of three gun-related bills that have been signed into law by the governor this session.