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State House, Senate might kill each other's education cuts

Feb 15, 2017 By Daniel Bendtsen, Staff Writer

Each chamber of the Wyoming Legislature is skeptical of the bill approved by the other.

Last week, Wyoming's House and Senate each passed separate bills outlining cuts to K-12 school funding.

Now, both proposals are in jeopardy, as each chamber is skeptical of the other's bill.

"There are rumors that the House will not pass the Senate bill, and the Senate will not pass the House bill, which would mean nothing would be done this session," Wyoming State Board of Education coordinator Thomas Sachse said.

The state faces a deficit of $400 million next year in the funding it provides to school districts.

If both bills are killed, cuts likely wouldn't come until after the state recalibrates its funding model this year to ensure expenses remain "cost-based in light of changing conditions."

Many legislators suspect they're currently overfunding the school district block grants: Class sizes tend to be greater - and less expensive - than what the state pays for.

State Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody, has also argued that the state is paying for vacant positions that he calls "ghost teachers."

'Supercommittee'

Even if the Legislature doesn't make significant cuts this session, State Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander, said there's still plenty of time to make a dent in the $400-million deficit, since legislators expect to form a "supercommittee" to work on the issue in the interim.

The House has included the formation of that select committee in its main bill, House Bill 236, but the chamber has also passed a separate bill to form the committee in case HB236 is killed.

Assuming it's approved by the Legislature, the 14-member panel will meet at least seven times before September and could call for a special session of the Legislature if needed. Gov. Matt Mead is set to appoint four advisory groups with whom the select committee can consult.

Making the majority of the cuts later this year actually makes more sense, Larsen said, since the state won't know what savings are needed until after recalibration.

House-proposed tax

Larsen said there's no disagreement among legislators that the education funding deficit needs to be reduced.

"How we get there is a different philosophy," he said.

After contentious debate lasting multiple days, the House voted to include a 0.5 percent increase to the state sales tax that would kick in to cover school funding only when the balance of the state's rainy day funds drops below $500 million.

Larsen said it's "an ingenious way" to ensure the state doesn't spend all of its cash reserves.

However, the plan is toxic to many legislators in the Senate, and Senate President Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, said any tax increase is "totally premature."

Senate cuts

Meanwhile, delegates in the House are equally skeptical of the Senate File 165, which includes cuts that are deeper and less specific than those outlined in HB236.

To avoid a future lawsuit, representatives in the House have been careful in their bill to only mandate specific cuts that they believe won't run afoul of court rulings.

For the most part, the Senate bill doesn't identify specific programs to be cut but instead gives most of the decision-making power to the Wyoming Department of Education. The WDE would be instructed to cut 2.5 percent for the next biennium and 5 percent for the 2019-20 biennium. Those cuts would be implemented only until there's a recalibration of the model.

Sachse said "there's some concern over the constitutionality of that (bill)."

Following multiple lawsuits by school districts, the Wyoming Supreme Court has required the Legislature to adequately fund the education model it develops.

School administrators have overwhelmingly expressed support for percentage-based cuts over the House approach, but the state's legal counsel has advised against the move.

Coe said he believed the bill would be upheld by the Supreme Court because it contains $6 million fewer cuts than the "evidence-based model" that would be in place if the state instituted a plan developed by consultants.

Testing the Constitution

The Senate's departmental appropriations bill requires that cuts to the block grant total $91 million. House delegates - who tend to be more hesitant to cut school funding - will likely take aim at that provision as the House and Senate work to reconcile their differing appropriations bills.

Hoping to prevent future lawsuits, Bebout and House Majority Leader David Miller, R-Riverton, have sponsored a Senate resolution that could ultimately reduce the amount of judicial review public school funding receives. If the proposal for a Constitutional amendment passes both chambers with a two-thirds vote, voters would have the option this fall to decide whether courts can require the "imposition of any tax" or "require any other provision of funding beyond those prescribed by law."

The amendment would mean that, essentially, the Legislature, not the Supreme Court, determines the adequacy of school funding.

The state's new select committee on education funding will also be instructed this year to find "permanent funding solutions for school capital construction and major maintenance."

School administrators have expressed concern about the long-term maintenance of the school facilities that the state has spent $3.3 billion to construct over the last decade.

Bebout and Miller co-sponsored a resolution that would have required local school districts to levy a tax to pay for future construction. It was the only plan developed to address capital construction this session, however, that proposal died in the Senate in a 13-17 vote.

Speaking "reluctantly" in opposition to the resolution, Coe said he feared needed schools would not be built because local voters would not be willing to support a tax.

State Sen. Curt Meier, R-LaGrange, who also sponsored the resolution, acknowledged it's not a very popular way to create funding.

ing stream for capital construction -- but it's the only plausible one.

"I can't say this has a lot of palatability at the ballot box, but it's the only way you can do it," he said.

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