Legislature to face tough budget, education decisions

CHEYENNE – When state lawmakers gavel in at the state Capitol for their month-long session starting today, they will have a lot on their plates.

At the top of the Wyoming Legislature’s agenda will be consideration of Gov. Mark Gordon’s supplemental budget, which contains roughly $515 million in cuts to state agencies, a portion of which were implemented last summer. While supplemental budgets typically provide an opportunity for lawmakers to add in state funding as needed during the in-between year of Wyoming’s budget cycle, this year will be the opposite, with economic downturns brought by the COVID-19 pandemic and structural declines in the state’s mineral industries drying up a significant share of Wyoming’s revenues.

“I am acutely aware that this proposal will reduce services that the people of Wyoming count on, and that it will further weaken our economy, as well as compromise our ability to rebound rapidly and in time,” Gordon told lawmakers on the Joint Appropriations Committee while presenting the budget in December. “I do not look forward to what will come should you pass this supplement, but it is a responsible proposal, nonetheless.”

Gordon, who plans to deliver a State of the State address to lawmakers Tuesday, announced the protocols for the legislative session alongside legislative leaders earlier this month. While the plan still allows legislators and the public to participate in the session virtually, the vast majority of lawmakers are expected to be in Cheyenne, where lengthy debate over a wide range of issues, from K-12 education to tax increases to public health orders, is all but inevitable.

The state’s fiscal situation will underpin nearly all of those discussions. In Gordon’s supplemental budget, the largest proposed cuts are to the Wyoming Department of Health, which would see its state funding cut by about $135 million, along with roughly $48 million in corresponding federal funding.

The cuts will impact programs across Wyoming, with substantial impacts on the state’s most vulnerable populations.

For example, one reduction would result in many residents receiving fewer benefits through the state’s developmental disabilities waivers, which allow private providers to provide community-based care to people with developmental disabilities and acquired brain injuries. Under the proposed reduction, which would save the state about $7.1 million in its general fund, more than 1,000 Wyomingites would see a reduction in services.

Jeff Gardner, executive director of Wyoming Community Service Providers, said the proposal would have “catastrophic” effects on some Wyoming residents and their families, with some people losing 50 percent or more of the funding they need for those services.

“I’m aware of a situation in Albany County with a young man who needs total support. He needs support with eating and with turning when he’s sleeping and medical protocols – very involved – and his budget would be reduced by $64,000, which is very difficult for that provider to provide $64,000 less in services for someone with that level of need,” Gardner said. “Providers are left, honestly, with the option of biting the bullet and doing it for free, which the majority of our membership are nonprofits organizations that don’t really have the ability to do that, and the other option is to discharge people and say, ‘We can’t provide that level of support.’”

If the waivers cuts are adopted by the Legislature, many of the duties could fall on individual families to provide necessary care and services, Gardner said, which could then impact other family members’ ability to keep their job and maintain their standard of living.

“I think a lot of the burden will go to families, and as a practical matter, a lot of the people that I’ve worked with over the years, they don’t have family,” Gardner said. “There just isn’t that possibility there. So really, the best option is to continue to fund the waivers at the levels that we’ve seen, and protect some of Wyoming’s most vulnerable citizens.”

Other health programs aiming to help Wyomingites through tough times are also on the chopping block. Andi Summerville, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Centers, said her members’ greatest concern is the wide-ranging reductions within a roughly $15 million cut to the department’s Behavioral Health Division.

“That funding makes up the bulk of the state contracts for community mental health centers, who provide mental health and substance use services to anybody, regardless of their ability to pay, and so it really targets a group of residents in Wyoming that don’t have any other options in terms of mental health care,” Summerville said. “Our ultimate goal is to keep people in their communities to receive these types of services. We already struggle with that significantly as a state, and these budget reductions will further compound that.”

Summerville also noted the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated a nationwide mental health crisis, and Wyoming – which had the nation’s highest suicide rate in 2019, according to recent federal data – is “absolutely in the middle of that.”

“(With) these budget cuts, when we have a surge in demand for services, we’re actually going to be providing less than we were before the pandemic,” Summerville said.

While the budget cuts could bring immediate savings in Wyoming’s general fund, Summerville questioned how much the state would ultimately save, with other health care costs likely to accrue due to the loss of community-based services.

“What we know on the ground is that if somebody can’t get into treatment, if they don’t have access, then those people don’t receive treatment, and then things culminate into a crisis situation, which send them to the ER or in law enforcement encounters, potentially leading to going to the state hospital,” Summerville said. “We can predict with quite a bit of certainty that there will be longer-term costs.”

Her point was echoed in a recent statement from AARP Wyoming, which highlighted another budget proposal: the elimination of the Wyoming Home Services program, which provides in-home services to roughly 1,900 elderly and disabled residents across the state, including 47 in Laramie County. Some 98 percent of the program’s participants need help with at least two “instrumental activities of daily living,” according to AARP Wyoming.

At a total cost of roughly $2.75 million, the Home Services program provides care at a monthly cost of roughly $200 per participant. By comparison, nursing home care can cost the Medicaid program roughly $4,300 per person each month.

“This is a program that our state’s citizens count on to keep them in their homes and out of nursing homes,” AARP Wyoming State Director Sam Shumway said in a statement. “And the good news for lawmakers is it helps to save state dollars. That is a win-win for Wyoming.”

It remains to be decided what programs could see their funding restored during the month-long session. Rep. Sue Wilson, R-Cheyenne, who chairs the House Labor, Health and Social Services Committee, said with recent revenue forecasts improving from the dismal projections of last spring, there could be some opportunities to put funding back into the Department of Health.

“There are some cuts, especially the ones in the Health Department to people with disabilities, mental health, that kind of thing, where we are hoping to maybe not have to take those cuts, so that’s been part of the discussion over the last couple of weeks,” Wilson said.

The bulk of budget discussions are scheduled to come during the session’s second week, starting March 8. After the House and Senate vote on their respective budget bills that week, a joint conference committee consisting of lawmakers from both chambers will have until March 24 to come to a final agreement.

Debate over the supplemental budget, which is detailed in a 2,056-page document, will be lengthy. Wilson said she was aware of some individual lawmakers planning to bring as many as 50 to 100 budget amendments, each of which could produce some discussion.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we had several midnight days during budget week,” Wilson said.

Of course, budget debate won’t solely be focused on the state Department of Health, as virtually every state agency is facing reductions in funding. For example, the Wyoming Department of Family Services faces an overall cut in general fund dollars of roughly $15.6 million. Wilson said there is “more discussion that needs to be done” with new lawmakers on the impacts of those agency cuts.

“The programs from Department of Health, DFS and that sort of thing, it’s not like we’re just funding a lot of people sitting at desks pushing papers. That’s money that goes out to help poor people and sick people,” Wilson said. “And so, I think when we talk about state government needing to be trimmed back, substitute the words ‘services to poor and sick people need to be trimmed back,’ and maybe that’s a different discussion. I’m not sure we’re really having that yet with everybody, but we’ll get there.”

The decisions lawmakers make over the next month will have effects that last well beyond the upcoming fiscal year. For mental health and substance abuse services, the work that has gone into building out that network of providers could be swiftly undone, Summerville said.

“There is a lot of concern that if we have to reduce (mental health supports), it’s not something we could put back in place in two years if the state’s fiscal picture just suddenly improves,” Summerville said. “If we have to lose providers and cut services or close programs, those are things that may not come back at all, or they may take 10 or 15 or 20 years to come back.”

While much of the focus will be on the supplemental budget, education spending is also expected to be front and center during the general session, with lawmakers set to consider a bill that would cut $100 million from the K-12 funding model.

Last week, during a House Education Committee meeting, legislators heard from educators across the state, many of whom pushed state lawmakers to consider revenue-raising measures in lieu of cutting Wyoming’s public education system.

However, with several new lawmakers elected on anti-tax platforms, the push for substantial tax reform faces what is likely to be an uphill battle.

“For the most part, the Senate is cautious about new revenue, from what I gather, but we’ll see,” Senate President Dan Dockstader, R-Afton, told reporters during a January press conference.

Any revenue-raising legislation is required to start in the House of Representatives, and during the same press conference, House Majority Floor Leader Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, said he expects “robust discussion” in his chamber about revenue options for education.

During lawmakers’ virtual meetings in recent weeks, two revenue-raising bills – one to raise the state’s tobacco tax on cigarette packs by 24 cents and another to hike the state’s fuel tax by nine cents per gallon – have gained approval from legislative committees, meaning they could be debated in the House as soon as this week.

Any other tax increases could be difficult for the Legislature to stomach, as a group of panelists discussed during an online forum hosted last week by the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and Braver Angels.

Newly elected Sen. Troy McKeown, R-Gillette, who participated in the panel, argued the state could generate revenue through additional economic activity by reducing taxes, pointing to federal economic policies of former Presidents Donald Trump, Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy as examples.

“Through tax cuts that Donald Trump did, our GDP just went through the ceiling, so I think as we go forward in Wyoming, we need to find ways to keep money in people’s pockets so we can have innovation, so we can have new jobs, so we can attract new industries,” McKeown said.

Fellow panelist Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, who previously chaired the House Revenue Committee, said the state likely has two years to figure out its long-term solution, in large part due to some funds still being in the state’s “rainy-day” fund, but he added time is of the essence.

“We have some pretty serious issues we have to solve, and quickly, because bringing in new businesses and economic development doesn’t just happen in one year. It’s a 5-, 10-, 20-year plan,” Zwonitzer said. “We’ve got to get on it quickly, because the future looks increasingly bleak when it comes to what has traditionally paid 50% of our revenues and another 20 percent for investment off minerals. That’s how dire it is in the next two decades. Even if we can balance a budget right now, we’ve got to have a long-term plan and a structural change rapidly in the state to be able to face our future.”

University of Wyoming energy professor Rob Godby, who also participated in the panel, said the state’s budget woes can only be solved much like eating an elephant, as the saying goes: one bite at a time.

“It may seem like we’re having the same conversations over and over again, but the real point is having those conversations and making those decisions and making government work the way it’s supposed to, which is through compromise and conversation reflecting the values of the people that are represented,” Godby said. “That means that we’re going to make incremental change. The problem that we face, though, is that the clock is ticking.”