CHEYENNE – One of the biggest issues that was facing the Wyoming Legislature during its month-long general session – finding a sustainable funding model for the state’s K-12 education system – will remain unresolved for the time being.
After going back and forth on various proposals throughout the session, state lawmakers adjourned Wednesday evening without an agreement on House Bill 173, which had become the primary vehicle to address how Wyoming funds its K-12 education system.
Over the next few years, Wyoming is projected to face a roughly $300 million annual funding shortfall in its K-12 education system, with the state largely drawing from its primary savings account to cover those gaps. Lawmakers in favor of immediate cuts to K-12 education funding have argued that doing so will prevent more drastic and painful cuts if the state continues to drain its saving account, known as the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account.
HB 173 went through a long process before lawmakers hit an impasse over the different approaches between the two chambers. In the House, lawmakers adopted amendments to eliminate health insurance plans for “ghost” teachers not actually working for districts, with estimates showing the step would have saved roughly $80 million over the next three years.
Importantly, the House’s version of the proposal also would have authorized a 0.5% statewide sales tax increase if the state savings account fell below $650 million, which likely won’t occur for a few more years. That proposal was quickly rejected by the Senate, with widespread opposition to any tax increases until further cuts are made.
Along with its elimination of the conditional sales tax hike, the Senate adopted an amendment to HB 173 to include a categorical grant for teacher salaries outside of the block grant model, and the body also approved a change to the bill to increase recommended class sizes, from 16 to 18 students in elementary schools and from 21 to 23 students in junior highs and high schools.
Ultimately, the school funding proposal advanced by the Senate would have included roughly 3%, or about $45 million, in initial cuts. However, the House declined to agree to their changes, so a joint conference committee consisting of education-focused legislators was appointed to hash out the chambers’ differences. That committee met repeatedly Wednesday, but members were unable to reach an agreement.
The defeated bill also was intended to address how Wyoming’s K-12 education system will handle roughly $303 million, of which $273 million will go directly to school districts, that is incoming through the latest federal stimulus package, known as the American Rescue Plan.
Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, who was on the joint conference committee, told his Senate colleagues Wednesday afternoon that the impasse partially stemmed from disagreements on how those federal dollars should be spent. The Senate supported a more restrictive policy on how much of these federal funds could be spent without further legislative approval, while the House supported a looser spending policy for districts.
Scott, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, was critical of the House members in his explanation, telling other senators that the fundamental difference was that legislators in the House “wanted to keep on spending forever.”
“We were frankly negotiating with a set of tax-and-spend liberals … that think that they could just tax forever and that you never have to rein government in a bit,” Scott said.
Scott also addressed school districts directly, telling them that “they better take that federal stimulus money, and spend it the way the feds require, then take your own funds and put them in reserves, because you’re going to need them.”
“We’re going to have a disaster, as the spending exceeds what our reserves are,” Scott said. “The districts are going to need to have some reserves to live through that.”
Senate President Dan Dockstader, R-Afton, agreed that Scott was providing “sound advice” to local districts.
With the proposal’s failure, Wyoming’s K-12 education system will move forward under the “status quo” for funding, as House Speaker Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, described it to reporters earlier in the session. Barlow also addressed the impasse on the House floor late Wednesday, telling other representatives that disagreements over revenue diversions and federal stimulus spending led to the bill’s failure.
“We’re not done with it. We’re done with it for this session,” said Barlow, noting that distribution of the federal stimulus money will be a main topic when lawmakers reconvene for a special session, tentatively set for mid-July.
“I thank the members of this body who worked hard and debated hard, looking for that right place, that right bowl of porridge, that right bed, that right chair,” he continued. “Sometimes, we just don’t get to that right place all at the same time.”
The debate over K-12 education funding is certain to continue in the coming years. During his State of the State address last month, Gov. Mark Gordon called the issue “the biggest elephant in the Capitol this year,” stating “we cannot simply wait until we are out of money before taking action.”
“We have relied, for years, on a funding model that is no longer sustainable. The handwriting is on the wall,” Gordon said during his address. “The can we kick down the road every year is broken. We have to deal with this issue.”