In one of the more telling moments of Tuesday’s Joint Appropriations Committee meeting, Don Richards described the two ways states can use the Biden administration’s generous definition of “COVID-19 related budget shortfalls” to determine how much American Rescue Plan Act funding can be spent on projects that would normally fall under a general fund budget.
Richards, the Legislative Service Office’s budget and fiscal administrator, explained why Wyoming didn’t want to use the second option — a projection based on the trend line of the state’s last three years of revenue: because that trend line was already in the red. In other words, if we looked at our own, actual revenue from the past few years, instead of an interest-based future projection, even expansive guidelines wouldn’t have been enough to help us avoid the conclusion that Wyoming’s revenue shortfalls are primarily the state’s own fault. Thus, the amount of ARPA funds that could be used to address revenue shortfall-related projects, like highway repair, would be drastically reduced.
At first, the cancellation of the planned July special legislative session seemed like a tired rehash of one of Wyoming’s favorite pastimes: kicking the can. It is a time-honored tradition of Wyoming lawmakers to reliably kick the can of the state’s revenue situation each session, letting it become as dire as possible in the hopes that a miracle will come to save them and let them avoid making any tough decisions about revenue diversification.
This particular kick also appeared to come at a particularly bad time. Obviously, we have a lot to talk about, and the general public understands “rescue funds” to mean “relief funds” — timely and direct funding to solve some of our current woes, not the woes of February 2022 and beyond. We’re certain that positions were decided and promises were made during the legislative session earlier this year with the assumption that the special session would occur. We’re not sure what all promises will be left unfulfilled by the lack of such a session, but obviously grassroots efforts to promote things like Medicaid expansion will need to keep up momentum for nearly a year longer than expected.
But what the various testimonies on Tuesday made clear is that the cancellation of the special session is not your everyday game of kick the can — it’s a nitrous oxide boost to rocket the can as far away as possible. It is the miracle that will save the government from unpopular decisions in the 2022 budget session. Even better, if we spend enough time studying and finessing, it can be used to create legacy projects so that the politicians of 2022 will be remembered not for the decisions they failed to make, but for the projects they put their names on. And much like the bustling downtown Cheyenne improvements that surround the large hole on Lincolnway, the hope is that enough improvement around a problem will make it look like the problem doesn’t exist.
Gov. Mark Gordon emphasized that what he wants to do with the ARPA funds is support “stimulus,” rather than “relief.” It’s the same basic scheme utilized by anyone who has received insurance money after a car accident, and used it to buy new clothes instead of repairing their car. After all, it’s about stimulating personal growth, not recovering from harm, right?
We are the ones who should decide where the windfall lands. Which would be fine … if the car, or, in this case, the state of Wyoming, were not still in dire need of relief and repair. Mental health workers are already beginning to be laid off, while mental health professionals across the state testify that their practices are having to turn away droves of people in need of help. Our teachers have just finished one of the hardest school years in memory, and yet they are facing unprecedented shortfalls in the coming school year. Small businesses and nonprofits alike continue to close. But according to Gordon and legislators, Wyoming has not only fully recovered, we’ve recovered better than most other states.
All of that is not to say there are no benefits to taking some extra time to consider the full impact, and the full flexibility, of the ARPA funds that Wyoming has received and will receive. Certainly, better planning and program organization could have prevented the lamentable need to return over $12 million in housing assistance to the general Wyoming CARES fund last year. And many of the goals in the governor’s “Drive” phase that require further study and planning are laudable, including addressing infrastructure needs, expanding outdoor recreation, and attracting and retaining working families to Wyoming. There is likely no one in Wyoming who will tell you that the state could not benefit from pursuing those projects.
But many of those goals existed long before the ARPA funds arrived, and the governor and the Legislature have repeatedly failed to find ways to diversify Wyoming’s economy in a way that would accomplish those goals. It is hard to see their response to the ARPA funds as anything other than an excuse to roll out their project wish list without having to pay for it themselves, and leaving many of the Wyomingites that were in actual need of the “rescue” from the American Rescue Plan Act high and dry.
Wyoming Tribune Eagle