By Leo Wolfson, State Politics Reporter
Within Gov. Mark Gordon’s supplemental budget proposal is $31.8 million for new state programs to address needs like housing, nutrition, mental health and family resource centers across the state. Gordon suggests using federal COVID-19 dollars to pay for these programs.
“All of this federal spending creates challenges we are dealing with as a state, but there are some opportunities, as well,” the governor wrote in his supplemental budget proposal. “Regardless, it is enormously important that we spend these funds wisely because they are being borrowed from our grandchildren.”
The state still has $119 million remaining in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds at its disposal. The Wyoming Legislature will have the final determination as to how these funds will be spent.
The majority of the roughly $98.8 million Gordon recommends spending would be on projects already approved in the ARPA bill passed by the Legislature in the spring.
In total, Wyoming has received $1.06 billion in ARPA funds. The state’s cities and counties have received $174.8 million of these funds and $412 million is being used during the biennium to replace lost revenue through eligible government services.
The largest of Gordon’s new projects includes $15 million for Wyoming Community Development to address unmet housing needs throughout the state.
This funding would go toward building 60 low-income housing units in at least two Wyoming communities that have not been determined.
According to the Wyoming Community Development Authority’s 2018 Housing Needs Forecast, by 2025, approximately 56,000 Wyoming households will be facing unmet housing needs.
WCDA reports these needs could include homelessness, overcrowding, unsuitable housing due to health or disability issues, households sharing accommodations, affordability problems and poor physical housing conditions.
According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, 43% of Wyoming’s renters are at or below 50% of the average median income.
Gordon also wants to offer $ 1 million in additional property tax relief to seniors and those living on fixed incomes by supplanting the state’s Property Tax Refund Program. This program was already provided $3 million in the spring. In the past, funding for this program has run out.
The Department of Revenue saw a record number of 2021 property tax refund applications, with nearly two-thirds of the biennium budget expended in the first year.
“Many Wyoming low-to-moderate income households struggle to meet the increased burden of rising property taxes, especially those on fixed incomes,” he said in a Thursday announcement. “As established by the legislature, the Wyoming Property Tax Refund program is designed to help provide relief to our citizens most impacted by the regressive economic effects of inflation.”
For the property tax year of 2021, there were 4,395 property tax refund applications submitted. This was up from 1,587 in 2019. The state delivered $1.8 million in rebates to the 2021 applicants, up from $752,320 in 2019. The average rebate also increased by about $80 to $601.63 by 2021.
During the Appropriations Committee meeting on Wednesday, Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Riverton, brought up one possible issue with this program. Although property taxes benefit local schools and governments, it is the state that pays the rebates for this program.
“Those that benefit the property taxes don’t have any skin in the game in this refund so to speak,” he said. “That just seems a little wonky to me.”
This program also operates completely on the honor system when it comes to the value of an applicant’s assets, but they are required to provide proof of income.
Mental Health And Wellness
Gordon also recommends $8 million be appropriated to the Wyoming Department of Family Services (DFS) for high-needs youth services. This includes covering high-cost treatments, and for support in child protection cases to decrease reliance on the courts and target families who have children who are potential candidates for foster care.
He recommends an additional $5.5 million for DFS and supporting family resource centers.
The goal of this project would be two-fold: to provide a statewide organization that will provide technical assistance and advice to communities that receive family resource center grants, and provide grants for communities to establish or improve resource centers.
DFS has also proposed $2.25 million for a difficult-to-employ self-sufficiency program that it would partner on with the Department of Workforce Services. This program would target DFS clients who are the most difficult to employ and have had barriers keeping them from re-entering the workforce since the start of the pandemic. The goal of this program is to increase employment by 40% among DFS clients.
“This proposal not only captures those most difficult to employ, but also aligns with Wyoming’s value of the dignity of work and self-sufficiency as a cornerstone for healthy families,” Gordon writes.
This program would cost about $16,000 per client initially, but costs will go down the longer the program is in place.
State Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, questioned how effective this program could be when DFS has already identified “silos” and inefficiencies in collaborations between state agencies.
“Why can’t that happen now without setting up an entire new program?” he asked.
The program would provide new training and responsibilities for current employees to address some of these issues.
Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, also expressed skepticism about how effective this program could be.
“That sort of change is going to be a big, big change,” he said. “It’s easy to say that’s going to be a big undertaking.”
The Wyoming Department of Health also recommended $1.075 million for a nutrition program to address chronic disease management.
This would involve an average of six months of support for patients in the form of nutritional education specific to their chronic condition, such as meal planning, teaching cooking and grocery shopping skills, and general wellness coaching.
Additional Funds For Existing Projects
Gordon also recommended $67 million in additional funds for ongoing projects approved during the 2022 budget session. His proposals include $15 million each for Human Health and Services Capital Construction grants and water and sewer projects under the Office of State Lands and Investments. He also wants $12 million for outdoor recreation and $7.5 million for staffing within the Department of Health. Gordon also wants $5 million each for workforce programs and health care provider relief.
A total of $3 million is also recommended to supplant the DFS food insecurity system, which was allocated $250,000 in the first round of ARPA grants.
Gordon’s recommendations were included in his supplemental budget proposal he sent to the Appropriations Committee. The committee will provide its final supplemental budget proposal during the upcoming general legislative session that begins on Jan. 10. It will be the last chance for Wyoming to spend funds it has received to address the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.