Wyoming House Asks Senate To Add A Whopping $651 Million To Close $1 Billion Gap

The Wyoming House played its first move in the biennial state budget negotiating process on Thursday, asking the Senate to add a whopping $651 million in spending to help close a $1 billion gap.

Leo Wolfson

March 01, 20247 min read

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(Matt Idler for Cowboy State Daily)

The Wyoming House has made the first move in its biennial budget negotiations with the Senate, requesting the Senate’s representatives to spend $651 million more than their original budget, based on eight demands.

The House made its requests in the form of eight amendments during Thursday afternoon’s meeting of the Joint Conference Committee (JCC), which is made up of representatives from the Senate and House for the purpose of finding a middle ground between the two chambers’ budgets.

There is a massive spending gap of about $1 billion separating the two budgets, with the House coming in at $10.8 billion and the Senate at $9.7 billion, although some have argued the Senate is closer to $9.9 billion.

No member of the Senate JCC made any comment in response to the House’s requests and state Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, said they will take the requests under advisement.

“You said we’re going to come in with something big and you did,” Kinskey said to the House members. “There’s certainly a lot there for us to consider.”

The Demands

The biggest monetary request made by the JCC is for the return of $360 million for the governor’s Energy Matching Funds program and $80 million for infrastructure matching grants within that.

On Wednesday, Kinskey explained that it’s the Senate’s desire to see this program fall under legislative control and have individual projects proposed within annual budgets.

Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander, said this would be a cumbersome process for private businesses to navigate.

“I think these energy matching funds have been a wonderful opportunity for the state to look broadly on what that energy industry could be in the state of Wyoming, and I think this (Senate) amendment pretty well deletes that ability or opportunity moving forward,” Larsen said.

The first request made by the House on Thursday is for $69 million for a new state-run Veterans’ Home of Wyoming in Buffalo and other capital construction projects for a total of $228.8 million state and federal dollars.

The House’s JCC also asked for the Senate to restore $110 million in cuts it made to major school capital construction funding.

One of the primary targets for support and criticism of this funding has been for a new Rock Springs High School.

Rock Springs was recently moved up the priority list for school construction last year to sixth in the state. The Senate questioned the methodologies used for some of its recent needs appraisals, leading to a total rejection of the major school projects.

Sweetwater County School District Superintendent Kelly McGovern said the move and methodologies were legitimate.

McGovern said the Rock Springs High School has fallen into gross disrepair, with sewer-line problems, structural issues and holes so large in the walls that one can reach from one room to another. Some classrooms are shoehorned into custodial closets.

“It’s just sad, all of it’s said,” McGovern said.

The school district is planning to build a $150 million to $160 million high school and requested from the Legislature $9 million for design work. Instead, the Senate approved around $8 million for maintenance at the school.

McGovern said total maintenance issues at the school are about $97 million, which would require students to be moved out of the school and into permanent modular structures while they are made.

University Of Wyoming

The House’s JCC also made a series of requests regarding funding for the University of Wyoming.

In the Senate’s budget, the chamber ruled that all future funding for the university will be approved under a block grant, subjecting the school to the same budgetary approval process as conducted for other state agencies.

Rep. Trey Sherwood, D-Laramie, said the school was given its own discretion for funding in 1990, a similar process that takes place for all community colleges and public schools in Wyoming.

The House’s JCC also requested a return of $1.7 million for UW’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), and related programs at the school, and to return permission to the school to spend any money offering gender studies courses and academic programming.

“These are significant administrative decisions that require thoughtful understanding of their implications to our university,” Sherwood said. “As it stands, the concepts are unvetted without the opportunity for public testimony, so I do not believe they belong in the budget bill.”

The university has expressed concern that eliminating DEI programs could threaten most of the $110 million in federal money the school receives per year for research grants, and Sherwood said it could also impact the school’s programs for international students.

Other Requests

The House JCC also requested the return of $28 million for past inflation costs and $18 million in employee compensation raises.

The House also requested the Senate make some different uses of its various savings accounts, including returning to a 5% cap on the amount of money it can spend in comparison to the total balance of the Permanent Wyoming Mineral Trust Fund. The Senate had proposed a 4.5% cap, which would reduce revenue by $141.3 million over the next biennium.

Larsen made it clear to the House members on Tuesday that they wouldn't be doing much capitulating on the budget.

"We have a House budget and we expect the House position to be held," Larsen said. "We have twice as many brilliant minds than the other side. I feel very strongly that the House position should be defended."

Kinskey did not say when the next JCC meeting will be held to provide counteroffers, but confirmed he will be attending the memorial of slain Sheridan police Sgt. Nevada Krinkee on Friday, and said it is unlikely the JCC will convene that day. He also made no mention of the JCC meeting over the weekend.

“It’s better that we get it (the budget) right than we hurry,” Kinskey said.

The deadline to finish a budget that could be presented to Gov. Mark Gordon and then returned to the Legislature with a chance to override his vetoes is midnight Monday, which House JCC member Rep. Clark Stith, R-Rock Springs, said they are unlikely to meet.

"The likelihood of that happening is looking remote at this point," Stith said.

Ogden’s Choices

Senate President Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, drew attention earlier this week for his selection of Sens. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne, Dan Laursen, R-Powell, and Troy McKeown, R-Gillette, for his JCC, some of the most conservative members of the Senate who have no past experience with budget negotiating.

Although nearly all of the lawmakers Cowboy State Daily spoke to said they were surprised with the selections, none criticized Driskill’s desire to answer his chamber’s wishes for a conservative budget.

“If the Senate wants it to be a big conservative deal and cut all the budget, those are the guys that cut the budget, so let them defend it to the House,” said Sen. Jim Anderson, R-Casper.

Former longtime legislator Bruce Burns said Driskill may have made the decision he did to purposely draw a second series of JCC meetings. Under the second JCC, any change can be made to the budgets rather than just squaring up differences. Anderson said he expects the negotiations to go to a second round.

“Maybe the thinking behind this is if there’s something in there he may not wanted in there or something he did want in there, the second committee is where you’re about to do that,” Burns said.

Former House Speaker Tom Lubnau described Driskill’s move as a “pretty clever strategy.”

“The Senate wanted a ridiculously conservative budget, who better to defend that than the people who wanted it most?” Lubnau questioned. “If it doesn’t work, he’s giving the rest of the Senate what it wanted.”

Lubnau also clarified that he doesn’t believe being conservative means spending the least money, but rather spending money the most wisely.”

Through three JCC meetings on Wednesday, Kinskey did nearly all of the talking for the Senate’s JCC, while nearly every member of the House JCC spoke frequently.

Leo Wolfson can be reached at leo@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Leo Wolfson

Politics and Government Reporter