County juvenile justice programs likely to lose support with Wyoming DFS facing $22 million cut - Casper, WY Oil City News
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County juvenile justice programs likely to lose support with Wyoming DFS facing $22 million cut

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CASPER, Wyo. — 14 counties in Wyoming receive grant funding through the Wyoming Department of Family Services to support community juvenile service programs which aim to avoid incarcerating juvenile offenders.

House District 23 Rep. Andy Schwartz said during Wednesday’s floor session that such programs involve coordination between school districts, youth health and social service providers and county attorney offices to divert youth away from the court system.

Schwartz said the program aim “to make sure that we are getting the best outcome possible for the juvenile that gives them the opportunity to succeed in future life because incarceration may not be the best alternative.”

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But if counties want to continue to offer such diversion programs, they may not have state funding support moving into the future. While the Wyoming Department of Family Services (DFS) is currently statutorily obligated to help fund such services, the legislature is working to remove that responsibility.

Wyoming DFS is expected to see about a $22 million General Fund budget reduction under the 2021-2022 supplemental budget bill, House District 54 Rep. Lloyd Larsen said Wendesday. Larsen serves on the House Appropriations Committee.

House District 08 Rep. Bob Nicholas, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said that the Joint Appropriations Committee has been working for months to find ways to reduce the budget.

He said cuts to the Wyoming DFS are just one example of what is contemplated as the legislature seeks to allow for a balanced budget. Another example is the Wyoming Department of Health which Nicholas said is looking at a $120 million General Fund slash.

Governor Mark Gordon said in fall 2020 that state agencies had already cut where they could and that further cuts to avoid a deficit would require action by the legislature since agencies are statutorily required to offer services.

Gordon said he was “acutely aware” that cuts to the state’s biggest agencies will “erode Wyoming’s gross domestic product,” reduce services, and impact the private sector, but added that, if the state’s revenue picture fails to improve “the cuts would likely be permanent.”

The House of Representatives was not debating the supplemental budget bill itself on Wednesday, but rather House Bill 48 which would remove the requirement that Wyoming DFS provide funding for community juvenile service programs.

The legislation would technically still require Wyoming DFS to fund such programs, but by adding the phrase “subject to the availability of funds,” the department wouldn’t have to fund such programs in tight revenue times for the state.

Nicholas said that House Bill 48 was one of several pieces of legislation that will be considered this program that take such an approach to give agencies the statutory flexibility to reduce or defund programs entirely.

“You will see multiple bills like this with similar language,” he told the House. “Every one of these things was performed with an understanding that it will impact our communities, it will impact services and it will impact the lives of people in Wyoming.”

Nicholas said that without taking such steps, the state would have to find a way to raise $3-6 million to cover the cuts implemented and proposed by the governor since July 2020.

He said there is “simply not enough money to continue the services we were offering prior to July of last year.”

“I would just suggest that some services will be cut,” Nicholas said. “We have to tighten our belts. We have to live within our means. This is one small step.”

House District 09 Rep. Landon Brown asked who would determine whether there is a sufficient “availability of funds” for the Wyoming DFS to fund community juvenile service programs.

Larsen said that would be decided through the budgetary process. Wyoming DFS can request funding from the governor’s office which the governor would submit as part of a budget proposal which the Appropriations Committee would consider.

If the legislature doesn’t approve a budget for the program, then Wyoming DFS wouldn’t be required to offer it.

House Minority Floor Leader Cathy Connolly said she opposes House Bill 48 as she thinks juvenile diversion programs are crucial.

“This is an incredibly important program in my community and I think in many of yours,” she said. “I will vote no on this….these are the kinds of programs we should be keeping and we should be funding.”

Larsen noted that Wyoming DFS will provide funding to counties for the juvenile services program through the end of the fiscal year but that “downsizing” is likely coming in July.

He said that community juvenile service boards in counties that have such programs will be able to apply for grant funding from other sources, so the programs won’t necessarily disappear.

The House passed House Bill 48 on first reading during their floor session Wednesday. They would need to pass it on two further readings before the legislation would move to the Senate for consideration.