Legislators reach partial budget deal

CHEYENNE - Wyoming lawmakers appear to have reached a partial budget deal Thursday, which includes a compromise on a philosophical divide between the House of Representatives and Senate.
The Senate preferred to cover its K-12 education spending with money from the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account - commonly called the "rainy-day fund" - and the general fund. In the chamber down the hall, however, the House wanted to divert revenue that would have otherwise gone to savings, then funnel that money to cover education funding.
Lawmakers in the House have said their approach would reduce the burn rate on the rainy-day fund and ensure a funding stream for education. The Senate has been critical of that approach, however, with senators saying it complicates the state's finances and reduces transparency.
During Monday's Conference Committee meeting, Senate Appropriations Chairman Bruce Burns, R-Sheridan, said House Speaker Steve Harshman has been selling the plan like a "timeshare salesman."
"He's convinced, and (got) you all convinced, that's the better way to go, but we think it makes no sense," Burns said to the House members. "You've got the same amount of money coming in and the same amount of money going out, and it's needlessly complex and much more opaque. And we're not particularly fond of the earmarking for the school foundation account and school (capital construction) at the expense of other agencies."
Burns proposed a deal during that meeting that he said would give both approaches a shot for one year. Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander, said Wednesday the House sent a deal to the Senate, but that it was rejected. It seems that deal was resurrected Thursday as part of the budget agreement.
The Legislature would adopt the House's approach for Fiscal Year 2019, which begins July 1, 2018. Then on July 1 the following year, spending would be covered from the rainy-day fund and general fund, reflecting the Senate's approach.
"So going into the next budget session, rather than predicting this is the better way to do it or that way, we'll be able to use hindsight and say, 'This was the better way,'" Burns said on the Senate floor Thursday. "We can argue from history rather than projections in the future."
Larsen said it's hard to say whether giving the House's long-term education funding approach one year will be enough time to allow lawmakers to make an accurate assessment of its effectiveness.
"It might tell us how the mechanics of it works," he said. "I think it's a fair question that I don't know the answer to. Would we like to give it more time? Yes."
What remains to be seen, however, is how the Legislature will approach reductions for K-12 education. That funding, as well as capital construction, is being negotiated separately from the budget deal settled on Thursday.
Gov. Matt Mead's recommended budget did not make reductions to K-12 education, but the House and Senate both put forward bills that made cuts. The Senate's version, which included more substantial cuts, died in the House Education Committee. Then the Senate Education Committee amended the House's school finance amendments bill, House Bill 140, to take out the diversions to fund education going forward. It instead reflects the provisions in the bill sponsored by the Joint Education Committee in House Bill 30.
Now lawmakers will work to make reductions to education via HB 140.
On capital construction, several critical projects are hanging in the balance, including state health facilities, mineral-impacted roads and the University of Wyoming's Science Initiative facility.
Larsen said it appears lawmakers are on track to making the terms they've already reached official and hammering out the rest of the budget after a period of apparent deadlock. But until the ink is dry, he won't be making any guarantees things won't change.
"For all intents and purposes, I think that we do have an agreement," Larsen said. "But when you get old and fat like I am, you learn until the roll call is made or signature is on the page, you don't count your eggs until they hatch.”

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