We’ve asked the question so many times in recent years that we’ve lost count. But we never seem to get a solid answer anyway, so the number is irrelevant. Yet here we are, approaching another budget session of the Wyoming Legislature, and we’re about to ask it again:
At what point, lawmakers, will you consider it to be “raining” in Wyoming?
Of course, we don’t mean “raining” in a good way, as in much-needed moisture quenching our parched land or unanticipated revenue falling from the sky. Most Wyoming residents know that when we talk about a “rainy day,” we’re talking about a downpour – one of those times when the rain represents so many problems hitting you at once that you need to reach for an umbrella and try to shield yourself from its impact.
For state legislators, that can come in many forms, including lower mineral prices, higher costs, crumbling infrastructure or – heaven forbid – residents in need. No matter the issue, though, the fundamental question remains: When is it time to stop socking more money into savings and start spending some of that “rainy-day fund” on solving the state’s problems?
For Gov. Mark Gordon, it appears the answer today is “Well, I feel some moisture on my head, but I don’t think we need umbrellas quite yet.” Which is why, despite acknowledging the challenges the state faces during his presentation to the Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee this week, his 2023-24 biennium budget still calls for adding more than $450 million to the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account.
Committee co-chair Rep. Bob Nicholas, R-Cheyenne, seemed to agree with the governor, saying he thought it was a good budget, and emphasizing the need to remain conservative in these challenging times.
On a basic level, we don’t disagree with either of them. With Wyoming still dependent on mineral extraction revenue and prices volatile, now isn’t the time to go on a spending spree. But we see a variety of challenges that can’t be ignored any longer, including:
Quality health care for all Wyoming residents – We could beat the drum for Medicaid expansion again, but lawmakers know we believe it’s essential that we finally accept federal funds through the Affordable Care Act to extend health coverage to tens of thousands of low-income residents. But lawmakers also need to address the statewide mental health crisis, which has resulted in continued high suicide rates even as they have cut funding to providers and services designed to help those in need.
Proper care for seniors and veterans – One of the most shameful cuts of the past two years was to home health care services for Wyoming’s senior citizens. Even as lawmakers and the governor continue to (rightly) emphasize the need to care for military veterans, they turn their backs on low-income seniors who would be better off living in their own home as long as possible than forced into a nursing home. Yes, lawmakers must fully staff the new Veterans’ Home of Wyoming near Buffalo during the upcoming session, but they also should restore funding for programs like Wyoming PACE, formerly operated by Cheyenne Regional Medical Center.
Funding for K-12 education, community colleges and the University of Wyoming – We were pleased to see Gov. Gordon include $36.3 million in his budget to fund the first year of the recommended external cost adjustment for K-12 schools. But the fact he wouldn’t commit to both years of increases indicates he’s playing politics, rather than ensuring support for local districts at a time when they’re struggling to recruit and retain quality teachers and other staff.
The budget does include money to help offset deep cuts to colleges and the university, as well as money to help pay staff more at those institutions.
Compensation for state employees – Speaking of retaining quality employees, the governor spent significant time emphasizing how tough it is to both attract and keep quality state workers, even going so far as to say the state is “hemorrhaging talent and experience.” A recent survey by the state Department of Administration and Information shows 38% of state employees report having to have a second job. To address this concern, the governor has recommended spending $31 million to move the workforce closer to market conditions and implement merit pay in the executive branch.
Funding for prosecutors and public defenders – Both the state Public Defender’s Office and prosecutors statewide say more money is needed to fund positions to properly process cases in the state’s criminal justice system. Unless we want to see our relatively low crime rates spike, it’s time to answer these cries for relief.
Infrastructure, including state facilities, highways and school buildings – Gov. Gordon has recommended $185 million in major maintenance funding for state facilities (after deferring all such work during the early part of the pandemic) and $252 million in school capital construction spending. These levels must at least be maintained by legislators.
Funding for cities, towns and counties – After warning municipal leaders that state support could dry up completely, the governor has committed the full $105 million in local government funding from the general fund for the next two years. Regardless of the reasons for his about-face, we’re glad to see it happen, and lawmakers should support it, too.
These are just a few of the ways the state needs to be investing in its future, instead of allowing things to get worse. Yet after pointing out several of these challenges, Gov. Gordon seemed to take pride in the fact his current budget proposal is $600 million less than the previous biennium. When talking about adding to the “rainy-day fund,” he hinted that he has some other spending in mind that could reduce that $453 million a bit, but we don’t get the sense it would be by much. And by June 2024, the fund is expected to reach $1.6 billion.
The wild card in all of this, of course, is how the state plans to use the estimated $1.7 billion in federal money coming through the American Rescue Plan approved by Congress earlier this year. The governor will meet with the JAC again on Dec. 16 to outline his plans for utilizing the funds he says are “borrowed from future generations” in ways that “make sure our grandchildren get the benefit.” That doesn’t sound like addressing current issues to us, but we may be surprised.
Regardless of what he says at that time, we hope lawmakers will keep in mind all of the challenges Wyoming faces and will do their best to address them as completely as possible.