By Renée Jean, Business and Tourism Reporter
A bill to stabilize funding for the Wyoming Office of Outdoor Recreation and create a grant program for the agency advanced Tuesday from the Joint Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee largely intact.
There were a pair of motions that took aim at threshold of a trust account for the grants, with one passing and the other not.
The first motion, made by state Rep. Pat Sweeney, R-Casper, proposed reducing the trust account’s initial threshold from $50 million to $25 million.
Sweeney was not sure there would be American Rescue Plan Act money left to apply to the trust fund, and he was concerned $50 million might be too aggressive to fly in the upcoming legislative session.
“To start with, does the number need to be that large?” he asked.
Rep. Sandy Newsome, R-Cody, countered that $25 million would be insufficient.
“I believe that the idea was that this is a number that gets us to fund – Director (Darin) Westby correct me if I’m wrong – about half of the outdoor recreation office at this point,” she said. “That maybe would be about $500,000?”
Westby, director of Wyoming State Parks and Cultural Resources, confirmed the trust fund level was set to provide about $500,000 a year for operations, as well as about $2 million in grants for outdoor recreational opportunities across the state.
Sen. Mike Gierau added that it would be difficult to go back later for more money if the trust isn’t sufficient.
“I don’t want to go all JAC on you,” he said in a reference to the Joint Appropriations Committee, drawing laughter from the small audience gathered in person for the hearing in Cheyenne. One called out, “Please do.”
Gierau laughed and readily obliged.
Do The Whole Job
“Like I said, I have this argument every time I get home from a session with my wife,” he said. “She says take out the garbage and I say, ‘Can I take out half the garbage today and then half the garbage tomorrow?’
“Right when the bag hits me in the face, I know that I’m back home. Because on JAC that’s what we used to say about everything. If you’d say $50 million, we’d say 25. And so I don’t know, that’s why I’d like to keep it in there.”
As far as pandemic relief-related ARPA money, Gierau said he’s been watching the actual expenditures and so far, they’ve been pitifully low.
“I mean really, out of $3 billion, there’s $200 million that’s gone out the door,” he said. “I haven’t seen it. So, there’s plenty of money floating around here. If we have the will to do this (we can) whatever amount that will turns out to be.
“So, I’d like to see it left at 50 and see where we go, see if we can get appropriations to work on maybe different streams of funding.”
A new credit report also is coming out Wednesday, Gierau said, which could give the committee more insight.
“We’re going to find out tomorrow afternoon at 3 o’clock that we have more money than we thought we had,” he said. “We know that we have that $57 million (in ARPA funds) not yet committed.”
Not All Money Accounted For Yet
There also will be a variety of reports out in the coming months about how other funds are doing and what’s actually been expended and what’s going to get carried over.
“We’re going to find out a lot of information between now and the time this group or its new form reassembles in January,” Gierau said. “I think we’ll know more then, but I’d hate to see us leave anything on the cutting room floor now.”
Newsome added that $50 million is just the threshold for when money becomes available from the trust.
“Leaving the $50 million where it sits is a good way to go,” she said.
Sweeney’s measure failed on a voice vote.
Bolstered By Sales Tax
The motion that passed, however, came from Newsome. She moved to delete a paragraph that would take 10% from sales taxes to be credited to the trust fund until it either equals $50 million or the calendar hits July 1, 2026, whichever comes first.
Newsome felt that portion of the legislation needs more work and that it could be detrimental to the bill if left as is.
Sen. Bill Landen said the bill will attract immediate criticism if it lacks a funding mechanism.
“Colleagues are going to ask, ‘Well, how are you going to fund this?’” he said. “And we will look at it and say, ‘Well, I didn’t say anything in the bill, that’s up to you guys.’”
Leaving it to the Legislature to find a funding model is likely to be a non-starter, said Rep. Jeremy Haroldson in agreement.
“The funding model is the sticky part,” he said. “That’s always the sticky part. How do we fund this? How do we make this reality? Is there a 10% pull off of sales tax or, you know – I’m sorry, I’m taking another jab – lodging tax possibly. We need to come up with that.”
Committee members earlier affirmed there is no plan to take money from the Lodging Tax.
Newsome, swayed by her colleagues, entered a “friendly amendment” keeping the language, but changing the percentage from 10% to 5%, which passed.
The Safe Route
Westby told Cowboy State Daily after the meeting the change would mean it takes two years instead of one to reach the trust fund’s $50 million threshold. That’s not ideal, but that way “we live to fight another day.”
The amended Outdoor Trust Fund legislation passed on a roll call vote with two no votes. That means it will be among bills the Joint Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee advances to the next legislative session. The two no votes were Sen. Tim Salazar, R-Riverton, and Rep. Mark Jennings, R-Sheridan.