CHEYENNE – Solving Wyoming’s education funding crisis must be a top priority for the state, Gov. Matt Mead told lawmakers during his annual State of the State address Wednesday morning.
Mead called for a task force, or a “supercommittee,” expected to be proposed by House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper, to deal with the funding deficit.
“A year has gone by, and things have not gotten better,” he said. “We cannot wait another year to act.”
However, the governor also pointed to the state’s AAA credit rating and national rankings during the downturn to show that Wyoming is still financially stable.
Mead also renewed his push for specific guidelines for how Wyoming should use its rainy-day fund, formally known as the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account.
The governor said he supports several legislative efforts, including: collecting sales taxes from purchases made through large, online vendors; creating the legislative framework for his ENDOW initiative; improving ignition interlock laws; and continuing the state’s energy and water strategies.
He also asked lawmakers to continue Wyoming’s manufacturing tax exemption.
Following Mead’s speech, legislative leaders gave their respective takes on the session during an afternoon press conference.
Harshman, who plans to introduce a bill creating a special committee to address the education funding issue, said the problem won’t be solved by a simple fix.
He said he read all 596 comments submitted in response to a white paper, a document that provides research and information, dealing with the education funding situation.
“Your leadership is committed to a multi-faceted approach,” he said. “A problem this big, you’re going to have to break it into parts.”
Senate President Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, renewed his calls for job creation and economic diversification.
He also said the state needs to focus on water needs, particularly as other growing areas of the West increase demands on the region’s available water.
House Minority Leader Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, said the Legislature needs to address the budget in light of preparing for Wyoming’s future.
“We can’t tax our way out, we can’t cut our way out, and we certainly can’t wait our way out,” she said. “We in the 64th (Legislature) have to do that hard work, and that hard work will mean that we need to do things immediately, but I also think that we need to do things for the future.”
Connolly also said the state should not be putting more money into the rainy-day fund at the present time.
“We obviously shouldn’t be growing it,” she said. “That would send a wrong message to our communities that are hurting that we’re going to put more money into savings when we’ve cut programs.”
Senate Minority Leader Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, said the Legislature needs to examine the state’s tax structure.
“We have to recognize our tax structure is not sufficient to meet the needs of the future,” he said.
Rothfuss also advocated bonding to help pay for construction projects, and said the state may need to consider generating new revenue for school construction.