Wyoming House eye budget barometer: severance tax revenue down $600 million compared with 2013-2014 - Casper, WY Oil City News
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Wyoming House eye budget barometer: severance tax revenue down $600 million compared with 2013-2014

Rep. Bob Nicholas, R-Cheyenne. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)

CASPER, Wyo. — The Wyoming House of Representatives began to discuss their proposed budget for the up-coming biennium during their Monday, Feb. 17 floor session.

That biennium is for the period between July 1, 2020 and June 30, 2022.

House District 08 Representative Bob Nicholas serves as chair of the House Appropriations Committee. He introduced the budget process to his colleagues on Monday.

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Nicholas said that severance tax revenues are “kind of a barometer” for the state’s budget outlook. He said that in 2013-2014, severance tax revenues stood at about $1.8 billion.

“Now they are below $1.2 billion,” Nicholas said. “Essentially, since that time…we’re about $600 million short just in terms of what our general coffers take in. It’s just been a big difference.”

He added that in 2010, the budget included about $4.2 billion in appropriations from the state’s general fund. The House is considering $2.97 billion in general fund appropriations under House Bill 01.

That is the House’s proposed general government appropriations bill.

“Our standard budget is $2.74 billion,” Nicholas said.

He explained that Governor Mark Gordon’s proposed budget includes about $319 million in exception requests beyond the standard budget. Nicholas said that the Joint Appropriations Committee recommended reducing those exceptions by $119 million, bringing the proposed biennium appropriations in the general fund to the $2.97 billion figure.

Nicholas said that one major spot the JAC sought to keep the budget proposal low was in the area of information technology, calling IT and “exploding” expense for the state.

“Roughly $82 million [of the reduction from the governor’s recommendation] has to do with IT alone,” Nicholas said.

He said that the JAC’s recommendation is to fund IT for the first year of the biennium and hold off on funding the rest of the requests until the state explores whether there are options to keep IT costs down.

“We need to look at this and understand this better,” Nicholas said. “Will we save money, we don’t really know, but we want to evaluate it.”

He added that Gordon requested about $20.3 million for increases to state employee salaries.

“We didn’t want to jump on that bandwagon right away,” Nicholas said of the JAC.

He explained that the state is facing about $21 million in increased state employee health insurance costs.

“The health insurance pool underwater right now,” Nicholas said. “What we found is we have not been properly funding our health insurance. We have not made a recommendation to adopt [the governor’s request].”

He added that the JAC decided to not to leave $50 million on the table in anticipation of new costs from bills moving through the House and Senate this year.

Nicholas explained that the House will continue to consider the general government appropriations bill in coming days. He said there are a total of four biennium budget-related bill in the Legislature.

Those include a proposed bill which would appropriate $105 million for local government distributions over the biennium.

Another proposed bill deals with state funded capital construction, which includes $777,168 from the general fund.

Nicholas explained that House Bill 02 specifically deals with state funded studies or “general government reports.” He explained that there were 54 studies included in the 2018 budget session budget bill.

“We weeded out a whole bunch of them,” Nicholas said of the JAC’s proposal.

He said there are 16-17 studies which the JAC recommends the state fund this biennium.

In introducing House Bill 01, Nicholas said “this is by far the latest” into the budget session that the House had taken up the budget bill. He said it would take a total of about 5-6 hours to walk through the proposed bill on the floor of the House.

Nicholas and other legislators began introducing the proposed budget, explaining recommended funding for each department. They’ll resume this work on Tuesday when the House reconvenes at 9:15 am.

“All the governor’s letters will be introduced individually throughout the budget,” Nicholas said.

The website “Wyoming Sense” explains the governor’s proposed budget for the biennium and is an effort to create more transparency for citizens.

Nicholas said that the legislature is also attempting to make the budget easier to understand for individual legislators.

“It is shorter than normal,” he said, adding that for the first time since he’s been a legislator, all representatives were provided with a full budget printout at the start of the discussion.

“We just worked for transparency and we worked to simplify,” Nicholas said of the JAC. “The budget is real simple.”

While reviewing the budget may be more streamlined, Nicholas acknowledged that state government budgetary needs tend to gradually increase over time.

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