Education spending in Wyoming is certain to decline in the next few years. On Saturday, Cody residents got an idea of how much at a forum hosted by area legislators.
The forum was a Feb. 18 town-hall style meeting organized by State Representative David Northrup (HD-50) and Rep. Dan Laursen (HD-25). About 55 people crowded into the Governor’s Room of the Hotel Irma for the 90-minute Saturday afternoon event, which focused on education spending, but touched on an array of broader issues as well.
Many attendees appeared upset by the tough choices looming for Cheyenne this session due to cratering mineral revenues, the No. 1 source of funding for state coffers. Perhaps the most alarming shortfall is in education funding, where there is a $400 million annual budget deficit.
Cuts or more cuts?
As Chair of the House Education Committee, Northrup has been at the heart of negotiations on how to bridge the gap. At the town hall, he described committee meetings extending late into the night and defended his preferred legislative fix, House Bill 236, as the most palatable choice on an unappetizing menu.
The legislation calls for subsidizing the education budget with about $100 million per year from the State’s “rainy day” cash reserves, which currently sit at $1.6 billion. Under HB 236, if the reserves dip below $500 million, a 0.5 percent increase in the sales and use tax would be triggered.
The Senate has called for deeper and more immediate cuts to schools. Northrup said one Senate bill would cut $120 million from education next year, while an amended version of that bill would cut $91 million.
House Bill 236 would feature phased cuts, with $35 million being trimmed next year, $55 million subtracted the year after and $75 million in reductions in year three.
Northrup referred to the Senate measures as “extreme.” In an interview following the meeting, Laursen said he suspected the $120 million in cuts proposed by the Senate are a positioning ploy for future negotiations.
For Park County School District 6, the ongoing legislative bargaining has made for a lot of uncertainty. Under HB 236, the district would face a reduction of around $650,000 next year, Northrup said, but the $120 million in cuts proposed in the more extreme version of Senate legislation would take $2 million out of the district’s $31 million total budget.
“We’re trying to be ready for the
really bad cuts and hopeful for the better cuts,” said Cody school board member Bill Struemke.
To achieve the cuts called for in HB 236, Northrup said legislators have mulled several possibilities. The most effective means of cost-savings, he noted, would be shutting down low-population rural schools. He opposes such consolidation. nowever.
“Who wants to have their kid on the bus for two hours, and through the snow?” he asked.
Instead, Northrup said HB 236 calls for a year-by-year increase in average class sizes, and trying to squeeze more life out of aging buses. No scheduled maintenance – an $80 million outlay last year – would be performed on school buildings in the next year under HB 236. Transportation expenditures would be capped, too.
House legislators had also considered other options but ran into legal problems, Northrup said. A cap on special education spending was discarded because it would likely run afoul of state Constitutional requirements.
Likewise, legislators were interested in tapping into more than $1 billion in cash reserves held by special districts, but Northrup said “we don’t have the legal standing to be able to go in and get a hold of it.”
Referring to more than $5 million held by one area cemetery district, Northrup joked, “they can bury everybody for free for a long time.”
Constituents weigh in
Constituent reactions to the proposed cuts were free-form and at times heated. One woman said it was tough “seeing education being cut while buildings are getting remodeled,” an allusion to an over-budget construction project for the capitol building.
“Look at (South Dakota and Montana) school buildings, then look at our Taj Mahals,” another crowd member said, suggesting more modest school structures be built in the future.
Tracey Lewis, an oil worker from Clark, said he was distressed by what he saw as a wastefully large computer lab in tiny Greybull High School. As a worker in a boom-bust industry, Lewis said he learned to be frugal during good times so he could weather the bad, and that the state must do the same. Northrup said such decisions were made by local superintendents rather than Wyoming legislators, and he wouldn’t want to threaten that independence.
Other attendees concentrated on more long-term ways to shore up the Cowboy State’s budgetary prospects.
Steve Thulin, a Northwest College history professor, bemoaned losing close to a third of his colleagues in a string of tough years for the state.
“Most of our students who stay here and work here and buy property and pay taxes are at your community colleges,” Thulin said.
University of Wyoming students are more likely to go elsewhere after graduating, but junior colleges have borne more of the budgetary pain, Thulin said.
“We lose 66 percent of the kids we raise (to other states),” Northrup agreed. “They ain’t coming back until they retire.”
Help on the horizon?
Northrup sees help on the horizon, however.
“We have a new President in with a different feeling toward coal,” he said.
Northrup is optimistic that looser regulations could revive that industry, whose tax revenue was a boon for education budgets in the past.
Most industry analysts are more bearish, though, suggesting that cheap natural gas, rather than Obama-era regulations sent coal into its ongoing demand spiral.
“You really think we’re going to be watching pennies for the next four, five years?” a man asked at one point.
Northrup replied, simply: “Yes. Yes.”
(Max Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)