With the state flush with hundreds of millions of dollars in unbudgeted revenue, the Wyoming House of Representatives passed the second reading of a highly amended $481 million supplemental budget Wednesday.
Most of the highly contested votes on 53 amendments proposed to the budget bill came down to the same vote falling on philosophical political lines, with spending the state’s excess money winning out over saving it.
In the end, 25 amendments passed, 11 failed and the rest were withdrawn.
That more money was added to the budget bill riled up some of the more conservative members of the House, like Rep. Chris Knapp, R-Gillette, who said some lawmakers spend “like drunks.”
To Spend Or Not To Spend?
Spending versus saving took up the heart of the at-times animated debate that ate up most of the day for the House members. Higher-than-forecasted oil and gas revenues means lawmakers face many tests of their fiscal beliefs.
“I saw a lot of synergy with agency requests, governor’s requests and then prioritizing how do we best help our people, help communities and continue to invest into economic diversification,” said Rep. Trey Sherwood, D-Laramie.
Speaker Tempore Rep. Clark Stith, R-Rock Springs, saw the day as a win for “Team Wyoming Caucus,” a more conservative group of legislators.
“Generally, today was a real win for the Team Wyoming Caucus,” Stith said. “We are the people in the House looking out for the best interest of the people of Wyoming. We’re not a lobbying group from out of state.”
The Wyoming Freedom Caucus is supported by and coordinates with the national Freedom Caucus Network based in Washington, D.C.
The Freedom Caucus makes up a group of staunchly conservative representatives in the state House, of which Rep. Jeremy Haroldson, R-Wheatland, is a member.
He said that it’s in debates like Wednesday’s over the supplemental budget that the group tried to act as “the conscience of the Legislature.”
Although Haroldson was on the losing side of many of the votes taken on Wednesday, he said he wasn’t surprised there was more spending approved and took the process in stride.
“Are we more willing to be known coming out of this year as a group that is spending or a group that is willing to save for the future?” Haroldson questioned. “And are we going to do the policy of bolstering our permanence to establish less dependency on the mineral industries or not?”
One of the longest debates of the day surrounded an amendment brought by Rep. Jerry Obermueller, R-Casper, that became one of the few victories for House fiscal conservatives.
The amendment removed a budget piece that would have served the same purpose as House Bill 89.
“When we legislate in the budget, that frustrates me,” Haroldson said.
HB 89 would allow specified state permanent fund reserve accounts to maintain larger balances to achieve greater growth, a change that would have an immediate fiscal impact of about $20 million.
Proponents of the bill say it will allow the state to save more in the future.
“This is not the place to debate the merits of HB 89,” Obermueller argued.
Stith downplayed the significance of the amendment vote, as long as HB 89 ultimately is successful.
“To me, it really shows how Jerry Obermueller … really was able to sway the House on that amendment,” he said.
Dancing Around The Issue
Earlier in the day, a budget amendment brought by Rep. J.T. Larson, R-Rock Springs, to increase the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund from $8.5 million to $14.5 million drew criticism from Rep. Scott Heiner, R-Green River.
“What is essential to this body? Is it a dance recital, or is it home-based meals for our senior citizens?” he questioned.
The amendment passed 35-27.
Many of the conversations throughout the day drifted away from the amendments, evolving into more philosophical fiscal debates.
“I’m concerned we will no longer have something that bails us out,” Knapp said.
He was discussing his failed amendment that would have required the state auditor to transfer $412 million from the legislative stabilization reserve account to the permanent Wyoming mineral trust fund.
Rep. Tom Walters, R-Casper, spoke against Knapp’s amendment saying it would drop the LSRA to dangerously low levels. He also credited the decisions made by former lawmakers, bringing up the Hathaway Scholarship and its corresponding trust fund.
“Folks that came before us in past years were great visionaries,” he said.
Another Vote Needed
The supplemental budget must go through a third reading before it can move on to the Senate. Haroldson said he doesn’t expect any major changes at that stage.
“No, they’ll spend more money,” he said about the potential for the budget bill to grow before it’s finalized. “We’ll try a couple things and see what comes out of it.
“But no, I mean I guarantee more people will come up with more solutions that need money. We also need to understand that with every decision we make comes benefits or consequence.”