Use of Oregon Trail Veterans Cemetery donations stirs debate in Wyoming House - Casper, WY Oil City News
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Use of Oregon Trail Veterans Cemetery donations stirs debate in Wyoming House

Flags cover the grounds of the Oregon Trail Veterans Cemetery on Memorial Day (Dan Cepeda, Oil City, File)

CASPER, Wyo. — Wyoming’s state veterans cemetery is located in Evansville. The Oregon Trail State Veterans Cemetery is a place where veterans, their spouses or their handicapped or minor children can be buried.

While people donate to the cemetery, House District 01 Representative Tyler Lindholm argued during the Wyoming House of Representatives Friday, Feb. 21 floor session that those donation dollars are intended to support beautification efforts, such as placing flags and flowers at the cemetery on Memorial Day.

Those donation dollars, Lindholm argued, are not intended to pay for general operations of the cemetery such as paying for a full time employee or general ground maintenance.

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In the past, the legislature has appropriated general fund dollars to pay for such positions and ground work. But House Bill 01, the general government appropriations bill proposed for the biennium July 1, 2020 and June 30, 2022 biennium, would have redirected $190,950 in funding from a special reserves account which collects donations, interest and burial fees to cover a portion of the operational costs of the cemetery generally supported through state general fund dollars.

Lindholm proposed an amendment to the budget bill to ensure that the donation account stays separate from the general fund.

“I didn’t quite feel that was appropriate for our donations to go to the general fund,” Lindholm said in introducing the amendment.

House District 23 Representative Andy Schwartz said that using the funds in the donation account would be a one-time distribution only. He added that the funds in that account are more than just donations. That account also includes revenue from burial fees at the cemetery as well as revenue from interest on the account.

“We did not do this lightly in committee,” Schwartz said. “The balance in this account is actually increasing.”

House District 11 Representative Jared Olsen likewise pointed out that the account has three funding sources and said the account has $528,069 in it.

“This isn’t whether you support your veterans or not,” he said. “The fund is not drained, it still can support the cemetery with it.”

Olsen took a different view of what the donations account is intended to cover, saying that it was meant to support the operation of the cemetery, including things like paying for someone to mow the lawn or for a person to accept phone calls to take donations.

“The funds are being used for what they are intended to be used for,” he argued.

House District 16 Representative Mike Yin asked why a one time distribution from the donations account was being proposed.

“Why are we doing it just for this biennium and not for all bienniums if this is what the fund is supposed to be used for?” he asked.

Schwartz said this was because it was not expected that the donations account “would be able to sustain this on a regular basis.”

Lindholm said that he thought legislators should keep in mind the intentions of donors to the cemetery.

“The reality is what do those individuals expect their donations to go to? Because that is where our responsibility lies,” he said. “I would argue that it is not to mow the lawn. I would argue that it is for beautification projects, for flowers, for those types of things.”

“The reality is most of these folks that are donating…they are donating because they have a loved one in there. They like to see those types of things such as flags…set out on Memorial Day. Not for a full time employee. That’s general fund dollars because this is our state cemetery.”

He asked legislators to support his amendment and encouraged them to fund operations of the cemetery through the general fund moving forward.

“In this situation, I argue it is entirely inappropriate to be using donation funds to fund a full time employee that we’ve promised and we put down in our statute that we would take care of this cemetery,” Lindholm said. “That cemetery is in our statute books as a general fund appropriation that’s how we funded it in the past and I ask you to fund it that way in the future.”

The House adopted Lindholm’s amendment, meaning the funding in the special reserves account will be kept separate from the general fund.

The overall proposed budget for the cemetery for the biennium is $615,427 within the Wyoming Military Department’s budget. With Lindholm’s amendment, $595,427 of that would be general fund appropriations.

The House is working through amendments to the proposed budget bill on Friday as they work toward their third reading vote of the bill.

There were a total of about 50 amendments to the proposed bill which the House considered on second reading.

According to the website Wyoming Sense, Governor Mark Gordon’s biennium budget requests total about $8.858 billion, including general fund, federal fund and other state fund appropriations.

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

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 the bill.

The proposed bill also includes about $1.7 billion in federal funding appropriations as well as appropriations from accounts other than the general fund. Details are available in a fiscal note of the bill.

Nicholas explained that the Joint Appropriations Committee’s recommended general fund appropriations are less than the total requested by the governor.

“Our standard [general fund] budget is $2.74 billion,” Nicholas said.

He explained that 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 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.


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