Legislature Still Hasn’t Passed A Budget, But Gordon Already Makes Veto To It

The Wyoming Legislature goes into the last day of what’s been a highly confrontational 2024 session Friday without having passed a budget, but that hasn’t stopped Gov. Gordon from already vetoing part of it.

Leo Wolfson

March 08, 20247 min read

Gov. Mark Gordon
Gov. Mark Gordon (Matt Idler for Cowboy State Daily)

The Wyoming Legislature will enter what may be the final day of the 2024 legislative session Friday with its most important responsibility undecided: whether or not to approve a highly contested $10.6 billion 2025-2026 biennial budget.

The Senate and House will begin the day with their first considerations to a compromise budget proposal negotiated by the second Joint Conference Committee.

In the meantime, Gov. Mark Gordon hasn’t let the Legislature’s not having passed a budget stop him from already making a few vetoes he announced in a defiant Thursday letter.

During the JCC’s Thursday meeting, Don Richards, budget and fiscal administrator for the Legislature, said the proposed budget falls nearly halfway between the originally proposed budgets passed in the House and Senate.

The newly proposed budget comes in at around $10.6 billion, making up roughly 47% of the original $1.1 billion difference that separated the first House and Senate budgets, with now only a slight preference to the House.

On Tuesday, members of the JCC claimed their initial budget proposal represented a halfway point between the two chambers, but in reality Richards said Thursday it had been at 39.8%.

That gap was shored up more Thursday thanks to a series of cuts successfully proposed by state Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, worth a total of $75 million.

The House budget had added $360 million on top of the Joint Appropriations Committee’s (JAC) tally from all funding sources. The Senate had reduced from this budget by $760 million from all sources.

The new JCC proposal comes in $99 million lower than the JAC’s $10.7 million proposed budget.

But Richards said when removing a number of money transfers that still count toward spending and a state land purchase that shows up twice, the original $1.1 billion difference was really closer to $400 million to $500 million.

With that in mind, House JCC member Rep. Bob Nicholas, R-Cheyenne, remarked somewhat despondently that the new budget gives a preference toward the Senate.

“So, they feel like they’ve lost, that means we’ve won,” Nethercott said, drawing laughter from the audience.

Nethercott’s Cuts

Nethercott brought five cuts to Thursday’s meeting to trim $75 million.

The first reduced the appropriation for a trust fund to support the state’s 988 suicide hotline from $20 million to $10 million. Gov. Mark Gordon’s original budget proposal had $40 million in the 988 trust.

She also reduced funding for a University of Wyoming research project from $50 million to $40 million after it had already been reduced from $75 million.

Funding for the governor’s Large Energy Matching Funds program was also reduced further from $150 million to $100 million, after Gov. Mark Gordon had originally requested $200 million.

A series of state mental health grants also was slashed from $15 million to $10 million. This amendment got the biggest pushback of any Thursday, only passing by a 7-3 vote.

Nethercott said she made these cuts as a result of talking with the House JCC members.

“We’ve looked at areas where we can continue to make cuts thoughtfully,” she said.

Other Cuts And Gains

The $1.7 million dedicated to the University of Wyoming’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) office and related programming is still cut from the budget, but there is nothing stipulating that private or other money can’t continue to support this office.

Mike Smith, vice president of governmental affairs and community engagement for UW, said the school will continue to follow the legislative process and the direction it receives from the Legislature.

Smith said the DEI office is staffed with two full-time employees, five part-time student employees and two graduate assistants.

Restored within the budget is UW’s Gender Studies program, a hot-button issue for many in the Senate who voted to not only remove funding for the program, but also prevent the school from running it no matter how it’s funded.

A total of $168 million will be dedicated in the budget for statewide major maintenance projects and $260 million for school capital construction projects around the state.

The governor will also be allowed to add 52 new state employees, but must eliminate 24 vacant positions by June 30. State employee compensation will also be increased by a total of $9 million statewide.

Is It The End?

If both chambers approve the budget, they will be unable to override Gordon’s vetoes unless they add extra days to the session.

Nethercott said she has not heard any appetite among legislators for that.

“No one’s discussing it,” she said.

But Rep. Ben Hornok, R-Cheyenne, said depending on Gordon’s vetoes, it may be worthwhile to return for more days.

“If that’s necessary, I’d be willing to do that, but time will tell if we have to,” he said.

A Veto Already

On Thursday night, Gordon released a press release expressing concern that the Legislature had not yet passed a budget.

Noting that he is forced to consider funding the separate Legislative budget while awaiting theirs, the governor issued several line-item vetoes.

He struck the word “Energy” from a $76,800 appropriation for membership dues to the Energy Council, a legislative organization dedicated to energy policy.

In his veto letter, Gordon said “the Senate persists in sending confusing messages” about its support for the state’s energy industry.

“While I find it hard to believe, the actions of the Senate in various Senate committees and floor debates leave me unable to clearly decipher if a majority of the Senate is in support of Wyoming’s energy industry and the tens of thousands of jobs that industry creates or not!” Gordon wrote.

Gordon invites the Legislature to override his veto “to send a clear message to the people of Wyoming and me about whether or not each chamber supports our energy industry, and follow up those words with action” by supporting his Energy Matching Funds program.

Gordon requested $48 million to deal with past inflationary costs in state government but the Legislature reduced that to $28 million.

In response, Gordon said he’ll cut $50,000 for new Legislative furniture and accessories “so that all branches of government can contribute to the cost savings imposed by the Legislature on the rest of Wyoming.”

Potential For More Drama

How the newly proposed budget will be received in the Senate is the biggest question mark entering Friday, with some senators already expressing skepticism and outright opposition to the JCC’s compromise.

If either chamber fails to pass the budget, Legislative leadership will have to decide whether the JCC will have to renew their budget negotiations, a new JCC will be arranged, a special session convened.

Another potential factor in Friday’s action could be a Senate Rules Committee meeting scheduled at 7:30 a.m. before the budget discussions.

The committee will discuss a rule that requires no change shall be made in any committee except by vote of a majority of the members of the Senate. When Senate President Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, appointed his new JCC, he conducted no vote, and a vote to oppose the move ended in a 15-15 tie.

At this meeting, the topic of committee membership and the Senate president’s responsibility to name the members of all committees unless otherwise directed by the Senate and to confer with majority and minority leaders about it will also be discussed.

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

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Leo Wolfson

Politics and Government Reporter