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‘Discombobulated’ Wyoming legislative session results in $430M cuts; new revenue measures largely fail

A marijuana legalization supporter at rally outside the Wyoming Capitol in January 2021. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City File)

CASPER, Wyo. — The Wyoming Legislature’s 2021 General Session came to a close on Wednesday with a total of 178 pieces of legislation passing both chambers.

The session resulted in a supplemental budget bill which includes $430 million in cuts and eliminates 324 state positions. Various attempts to raise new revenues for the state failed and the House of Representatives and Senate failed to reach an agreement to address a roughly $300 million per year K-12 education funding structural deficit.

Governor Mark Gordon expressed disappointment that no agreement was reached to address the K-12 funding problems during a press conference on Thursday.

He said that while Wyoming expects to receive over $1 billion under the American Rescue Plan, funding which may be able to push back the looming cliff driven largely by the K-12 education deficit, he hopes the “serendipitous” arrival of that funding doesn’t make the legislature complacent in seeking long-term solutions to education’s budgetary challenges.

“I really hope they don’t put off the substantial conversations that need to happen,” Gordon said.

With the legislature failing to reach an agreement on what to do about K-12 funding, Gordon said he thinks it is time he and his office become more involved in a discussion about solving those issues.

He said the state also needs to work to ensure that voters “understand exactly how precarious our situation is.”

The state is wrestling with a changing revenue picture as Wyoming’s coal industry declines and Gordon said that there is a potential more cuts will be needed going forward but that there isn’t a lot of room to continue cutting into state agency budgets. He added that cuts are “more devastating than just getting rid of government workers” and also have impacts on the health of private industry in the state.

The legislature also failed to pass Medicaid expansion this session. Gordon said that he was glad to see a measure to allow for Medicaid expansion be debated on the floor.

But he said that he was disappointed that national politics seemed to creep into the legislature’s debate on a range of issues during the session. He said that healthcare is an example of something he thinks Wyoming needs to think about in terms of what Wyoming needs rather than allowing national discussions overshadow such debate.

“I think people have to say what is the medical service that we want to have in our community?” Gordon said.

Things happening in other parts of the country were felt in a number of ways during the session, including during the House Appropriations Committee’s debates about possible marijuana legalization. An effort to legalize recreational marijuana failed, as did an effort to study implementing medical marijuana.

Other areas where national politics made their presence felt in the Wyoming Legislature’s debate included a bill to require voters to show photo identification at the polls, a measure which Gordon signed into law, or an effort backed by Donald Trump, Jr. to create runoff elections under Wyoming’s primary election system. The Senate killed that measure on a close 14-15 vote.

The national debate about things like gun control and abortion also showed up during debate of various pieces of legislation. While Gordon expressed disappointment in national politics overshadowing some debate in the legislature, he too touched on the national debate during Thursday’s press conference, touting a bill he signed that prohibits financial institutions from discriminating against firearms manufacturers.

The national trend away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy was also a common theme during the session, with the legislature passing a bill to set aside funding to sue other states for actions which may harm Wyoming’s coal industry as an example.

Revenue raising efforts were largely a non-starter during the session. Examples include failed efforts to give the Wyoming Department of Transportation the authority to create an I-80 tolling program, a provisional “half-penny for education” sales tax and a proposal to raise fuel taxes.

Various attempts to eliminate tax exemptions, such as an exemption on new wind energy projects, failed to gain much momentum during the session.

Some efforts to raise new revenues did find success during the session, including a bill that will impose an additional $5 fee on various driver’s license fees in order to help pay for replacement of an aging WYDOT computer system.

The majority of the 441 bills and resolutions which were submitted for consideration during the session failed to advance. Efforts which did find success with Gordon having signed 142 of those bills into law as of Friday. He has also allowed one bill to go into law without his signature and has vetoed two bills and issued a line item veto on one bill.

Examples of bills that found success during the session include a new law allowing people to harvest road killed animals, updates to Wyoming’s Food Freedom Act allowing people to sell home-raised eggs or a new law which will give municipalities more flexibility to seek voter approval of municipal sales taxes.

Gordon said in concluding remarks to the Senate on Wednesday that the 2021 session was “a really discombobulated session.” The COVID-19 pandemic caused the session to look much different than in prior years with the legislature meeting virtually for eight days in January, then re-convening on March 1 with hybrid in-person and virtual meetings.

A historic snow storm in March also forced the cancellation of legislative meetings and pushed back the conclusion of the session further into April than originally scheduled.

Despite it’s “discombobulated” nature, Gordon said he appreciates what happened during the legislative session.

He said in the closing remarks to the House on Wednesday that much work remains.

“As you go home please think about the fact that we are friends,” he said. “We are family. We have a chance to make this state even better than it is. And this is the greatest state in the nation. It is so because we know each other.”

“And like every family, we have our spats, we have our fights. So things like education, I know, big frustration, left empty. We will fix it. We will move forward. Our kids are too valuable. The way our kids are raised. The way they look at the future. Those are things only Wyoming can produce.”

The legislature is expected reconvene for a special session in July which will focus on what to do with the American Rescue Plan dollars the state will receive. Gordon noted in his comments Wednesday that he doesn’t want to see special sessions become a regular thing, though the legislature has had to hold special sessions as a result of federal funding being allocated to the state.

“One of the great traditions of Wyoming is our citizen legislature,” he said. “When you look at our Constitution, it limits the amount of time the legislature is here but it also limits the governor by having five executive officers.”

“What really puts Wyoming out front is the fact that we all have jobs, we all represent people and we can talk to those people not from the position of being a professional politician but from being a member of the community, a member of the school board, somebody who has children in schools, somebody who has a grandparent or a parent that may be in care. And I think this is one of the most cherished traditions of Wyoming’s legislature. I respect every single one of you because of that. I think Wyoming is unique in that capacity. This last year has tested that because we’ve had to have several special sessions. And with the federal money that seems to be coming serendipitously from our grandkids, we now find that we have to do this on a regular basis. I hope this isn’t a habit we get into because really Wyoming is best when its government is closest to the people, when it is most responsive to its people.”