There’s no one simple solution.
That’s the message from Wyoming’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow, on the issue of budget cuts and finding ways to address a roughly $300 million dollar deficit in education funding.
“It’s a whole lot of surgery on our school funding model,” she said, “and finding the very best ways to keep cuts away from the classrooms, and cuts away from the great opportunities that we provide to our students.”
Balow, who grew up in Gillette, knows very well the realities of a boom-and-bust economy based on mineral royalties and taxes. And she noted the situation the state is facing right now is nothing new.
“If you retrace the steps that led to the devastating impacts that caused the downturn in our coal industry, you’ll experience deja-vu,” she said. “Because the very same thing is happening.”
To close the $300 million dollar gap, the State can either create new revenues in the form of taxes, redirect current funding streams, or make drastic cuts to local budgets that have already experienced reductions — or, most likely, a combination of all three.
“The truth is that not one of these is going to fix the deficit that we have,” Balow explained. “And not one of these is going to fix the deficit that we will realize if oil and gas continues in the direction that coal did 10 or so years ago.”
Balow added that the deficit is sometimes hard to acknowledge, because Wyoming in the past has been able to dip into the state’s Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account, commonly known as the rainy day fund, to eliminate the gap — but that won’t be around forever.
“We continue to take as much as we need from the LSRA, to make up for the school funding difference, and so we don’t feel it,” she said. “But that’s not sustainable, because as soon as that goes below $500 million, right now, in current statute, that faucet is off.
“Because it feels like we’re flush with money, it feels like the funding is the same,” she continued. “But in reality, we’re taking from the rainy day account to make up that deficit.”
The Wyoming Legislature is considering several measures that could generate additional revenue for education, including House Bill 61 that would add a percentage to the statewide sales tax. Those bills will be making their way through the Legislature this week.