Governor’s proposed budget lower than a decade ago

Investment in recreation, economic diversity and cities among Mead’s recommendations

By Sarah Pridgeon

Governor Matt Mead’s proposed budget for the 2018-19 biennium is $400 million lower than the one adopted by the legislature in 2008 – a decade ago. Revenue forecasts are looking better, the governor said, and Wyoming’s focus should be on looking for spending reductions while restoring areas of the budget that were over-cut and supporting Wyoming’s areas of strength.

In his message to legislators ahead of the 64th Session in February, the governor called for the legislature to make investments in Wyoming’s future through funding for local governments; support for the ENDOW initiative as it seeks to increase the state’s economic diversity; and expansion of Wyoming’s outdoor recreation industry.

“Wyoming is a strong state. We cannot cut our way to prosperity or economic diversification,” said Mead in his message. “We need to make strategic outlays that will pay dividends down the road.”

With the ENDOW Executive Council due to produce its report to the legislature this December, containing details of its plans to guide Wyoming towards an expanded and diversified economy, the governor’s proposed budget includes a $37.5 million placeholder for ENDOW initiatives. He pledged to make more specific recommendations once that report has been received.

The governor also suggested that Wyoming will best chart its own course by strengthening its position as a leader in all aspects of its economy, including outdoor recreation. The government’s role in this, he said, is to increase coordination and efficiency and adopt policies that help the industry succeed.

In 2017, the Outdoor Recreation Task Force developed recommendations to realize more of Wyoming’s outdoor recreation potential. The legislature also authorized the purchase of a decommissioned Quebec-01 missile site, with the expectation that it would be self-sufficient through fee revenue.

The task force recommended an outdoor recreation website be developed and the establishment of an Office of Outdoor Recreation within the state park department. The missile site meanwhile needs seed money to prepare it for opening to the public and for initial staffing.

With these things in mind, the governor recommended $380,000 for the missile site, $75,000 for the website and $100,000 for startup costs for “operations such as recruiting outdoor recreation events and conferences”.

Regarding local governments, Mead pointed out that he has recommended direct funding in every budget he has presented. Schools, parks, roads and sewers need to be maintained, the governor said; as Wyoming invests in economic diversification, it must also invest in communities where businesses will locate and grow.

Mead recommended $105 million for local governments in the 2018-18 biennium.

Regarding areas of the budget that are lacking after stringent cuts over the past couple of years, Mead stated that the Department of Health has lost its ability to manage shortfalls and called for its budget to be adjusted. Among his recommendations were funds for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, to cover increased enrollment in nursing homes and for community mental health and substance abuse.

The Department of Family Services was another agency Mead pointed to as over-cut, with impacts too great to sustain. He asked for $10 million for local services, $2 million for the Child Care Unit and $8.3 million for Tribal Contracts.

Pointing out that the legislature chose not to refill the state’s two emergency accounts at the last session, which meant that limited funds were available for flooding in Fremont County, the governor stated that Homeland Security currently has a balance of $695 in its emergency account. He asked for $689,000 for the emergency funds in the Governor’s Office and $500,000 for Homeland Security.

Mead also stated that the Office of the State Public Defender is functioning at “a bare bones level” and lacks the resources to represent defendants. He asked for an additional $1.875 million for the program.

Governor Mead also touched on the issue of school funding, which differs from general government because K-12 is driven by a legislatively prescribed funding model. This means that, when resources are insufficient to meet the model, funds for other obligations must be redirected.

As the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration is still evaluating the model and is expected to present its report in January, Mead based his recommendation on the current model. He asked for a budget amount of $1.717 billion.

“Make no mistake, education funding is a problem – the revenue shortfall is significant – and making up the shortfall from the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account, as the Legislature has decided to do, is a short-term fix,” he said.

He called for the legislature and K-12 community to continue working with the Executive Branch to achieve further efficiencies and analyze all revenues that may be available to meet education needs on a long-term basis. He also asked the legislature to release the funding for a new building for the Science Initiative at the University of Wyoming, which he suggested will attract cutting-edge research and significant grants.

“The promise was made. The funds are available,” he said. “They should be released without delay.”

The governor’s budget also leaves $24 million available for “further discussion”.