AML money vanishes

Sep 28, 2012 By Steven R. Peck

When federal spending cuts hit home, the hard reality of budget cutting does as well

The realization that Wyoming is going to lose tens of millions of dollars in annual funding through the federal Abandoned Mine Reclamation Program has been a stinging blow to our state.

To some, it feels like a sucker punch.

States with mining industries have contributed to the AML program for many years. Wyoming, as the biggest miner of coal, trona, uranium and bentonite, has contributed the most money to AML -- billions since the 1970s -- and was supposed to receive the most in return as well.

The program got sticky for Wyoming when it became apparent that more money was being funneled back to Wyoming than was necessary to fund federally mandated mine reclamation work in the state. Wyoming has been using the excess cash to pay for numerous cherished programs and construction projects.

This is nothing new. Wyoming's AML portion has been controversial in Washington and in other states for years. It's only been for the past six years, in fact, that Wyoming was given its expected share of the money after other states and congressional budget makers complained. It took a federal law, backed up with judicial review, to assure the state got its share as defined under the original AML legislation.

That helps explain why Wyoming now feels gutshot in learning that a late revision to the stop-gap funding bill passed just before Congress adjourned, effectively, for the rest of the year, removed 90 percent of the state's anticipated AML revenue.

Officials from U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis to Gov. Matt Mead to Central Wyoming College president Jo Anne McFarland blasted the unexpected change. The state's three-member congressional delegation lacks the numbers and clout to reverse the decision at this point, if that were even an option. On Thursday, State. Sen. Eli Bebout said Wyoming must prepare for the worst. The money probably is gone for good.

The AML issue is an example, however, of the nature of the cost-cutting fervor that is central to the core political and economic philosophies of many in Congress, particularly those of the same political party as Gov. Mead, Rep. Lummis and Sen. Bebout. It is a hard lesson, a chapter of which is being written in Wyoming now.

When certain members of Congress have made cutting federal spending a national priority, both for themselves and their effort to defeat President Obama, there are going to be some bruises -- or, in Wyoming's case with AML funding, some open wounds.

A budget-watching senator or representative two time zones away won't be interested in how the nation's least populated state feels about a move that to them looks like an easy way to save hundreds of millions of dollars as part of a drive to reduce the federal deficit. And remember, Wyoming's own beloved former Sen. Alan Simpson, in his capacity as co-chairman of the well-known Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction committee, also identified AML money as a candidate for reduction. It was an easy target, and it has been hit.

If the money has evaporated for good, then Wyoming can take pride in how it put the funds to work while it had them. It was job-creating money for our state, with the benefits evident from border to border.

Finally, the controversy demonstrates the slippery nature of the political slopes that strict ideologues and my-way-or-the-highway politicians decide to walk. Some, no doubt, will say it's amusing to hear the rock-ribbed belt-tighteners of the Wyoming congressional delegation bemoaning the loss of a big federal spending program, when just a breath or two earlier they were condemning federal overspending and vowing to slash as ¬necessary to balance the budget and reduce the deficit.

Want to pare the deficit without raising taxes? AML is just the kind of thing that will be carved to the bone. Internally, it is outrageous news. Externally, however, those in Washington who voted for it are wagging their fingers at us, saying "you can't have it both ways."

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