Wyoming Legislature Ends Contentious Session By Passing $10.6 Billion Budget

The Wyoming Legislature passed its $10.6 billion budget Friday, sending it Gov. Mark Gordon’s desk on the final day of the 2024 legislative session.

Leo Wolfson

March 09, 20248 min read

The Wyoming Senate goes through a final push to approve the biennial budget Friday afternoon.
The Wyoming Senate goes through a final push to approve the biennial budget Friday afternoon. (Matt Idler for Cowboy State Daily)

After weeks of spirited debate, hand-wringing and painstaking negotiations, the Wyoming Legislature finalized a $10.6 billion biennial budget on the final day of the 2024 legislative session.

The Wyoming Senate passed the budget bill on a 17-14 vote Friday, and the House passed it 41-21. Both the Senate president and House speaker said they planned to sign off on the bill, which next heads to Gov. Mark Gordon’s desk.

It was a difficult budget session rife with political infighting and at-times angry discourse in the separate chambers and across them.

“The Wyoming Legislature overcame a great deal of adversity, a difficult debate, but we’ve provided a budget to the people of Wyoming,” said state Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, who was one of the main leaders in the budget negotiations.

“We fulfilled our constitutional obligation, and I think the people can be proud of a responsible, balanced budget, while providing tax relief for the people,” she said.

Most of the passionate debate surrounding the budget Friday was limited to the Senate.

The Senate had originally proposed a more frugal, $9.9 billion version of the budget, while the original House bill came out at around $11.1 billion. On Thursday, a Joint Conference Committee made up of members of both chambers passed the budget report, which was voted on Friday.

Getting the Senate’s approval was the largest hurdle members of the JCC had to overcome Friday.

Nethercott told Cowboy State Daily that although no one got everything they wanted in the budget, she believes it fairly represents all parts of the state and distinguishes Wyoming legislators from their federal counterparts.

An estimated $700.8 million is being put into savings. When eliminating the property tax beliefs that passed this year, the budget represents 3% less spending than the previous budget.

Sen. Tara Nethercott took a leading role on the Senate floor Friday during a final push to approve the budget.
Sen. Tara Nethercott took a leading role on the Senate floor Friday during a final push to approve the budget. (Matt Idler for Cowboy State Daily)

Rock Springs High School

The most contentious issue of Friday’s Senate discussion was a $150 million allocated for a new Rock Springs High School.

This piece of the budget had been contentious throughout the budget negotiations because of the way the Sweetwater County school had been selected for funding. The Wyoming School Facilities Commission selected the school in 2023 based on a methodology report performed in 2016 rather than the most recent report, in which the school fell more than 30 spots down the rankings for determined need.

State Sen. Stacy Jones, R-Rock Springs, spoke most passionately in support of the project. In recent years, the current Rock Springs High School that was built in 1971 has been coping with significant structural damage, is slowly sliding down a hill and has overcrowded classrooms.

“They have used every nook and cranny for these students to have classes in,” she said. “We have students traveling on the interstate forth and back to get to classes. Unfortunately, we have lost a student due to these issues.”

Many arguments were also made on the floor in favor of the school based on future potential growth expected in southwest Wyoming spurred by energy developments in that part of the state.

Sen. Troy McKeown, R-Gillette, spoke against the funding, saying the state must always follow its Constitution and laws for determining school projects, no matter what.

“Boy, I wish I could adopt this accounting system for my businesses,” he said. “I think the IRS would put me in an orange jumpsuit.”

Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyene, believes the school was used as a political chess piece to win the favor of three critical swing votes on the budget who all happen to live in southwest Wyoming: Jones, and Sens. John Kolb, R-Rock Springs, and Dan Dockstader, R-Star Valley. All three had voted against many of the contentious spending measures in the original budget bill.

“That’s why they should never politicize these darn schools,” Bouchard said. “Those numbers, you start moving them around that board, and this is what we get.”

Jones told Cowboy State Daily although she didn’t like every part of the budget, she was willing to make sacrifices for her constituents, who she said sent her hundreds of emails, texts and phone calls about the school.

“It wasn’t, ‘Bring us the most conservative budget,’ it was, ‘Bring us home a school,’” she said.

In other school-related measures, Nethercott confirmed that the University of Wyoming’s office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) will be officially cut as a result of the budget.

“The office is eliminated, as well as it’s funding,” she said.

The school’s gender studies programming will be allowed to continue.

Sen. Larry Hicks argues a point during final budget discussions on the Senate floor Friday.
Sen. Larry Hicks argues a point during final budget discussions on the Senate floor Friday. (Matt Idler for Cowboy State Daily)


Majority Floor Leader Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, questioned the budget most fervently.

He argued that the original budget proposed by the Senate would have been much more transparent to the public by using fewer savings accounts and by saving more money in general for the future. He said the Senate JCC failed to make an effort to bridge compromises on these issues.

“We attempted to simplify that to clarify how revenues come into the budget,” Hicks said. “Was there any discussion from our JCC committee which they wanted to take in and defend?”

Nethercott said the desire to make these changes was never brought to the attention of the Joint Appropriations Committee while it was crafting the draft budget in December. Including such a significant change in the budget, she argued, is not the appropriate place for that to happen.

“In light of the fact it wasn’t appropriate for a single bill, that’s why we removed it for those reasons,” she said. “It’s really hard for us to get arms around that as a third reading amendment.”

Hicks also said $276 million of savings was removed from the Senate budget not reflected in the final budget numbers.

Sudden End To Debate

Once Nethercott confirmed that the gender studies program at UW would be fully continued under the budget, McKeown called for the debate to be closed and for a final vote on the overall budget. The sudden move drew some surprise from legislators and members of the public.

Sen. Dan Laursen, R-Powell, said he, McKeown and Bouchard had been planning to end the discussion early because they knew they didn’t have the votes to stop the budget.

“We got the three people who got bought off,” Laursen said.

Multiple sources told Cowboy State Daily that Hicks slammed his desk with his fist when the call for a vote went out. Hicks declined to comment when reached after the budget passed.

After McKeown made his motion, a short debate ensued about whether a majority or two-thirds vote would be required to stop the debate, after which it was determined it only required a majority. The motion to end debate passed 20-11, immediately followed by the 17-14 to support the budget.

When the clerk read the vote total, Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, let out a short burst of applause.

Case then gave a short speech, asking the body to remember the legacy of former Wyoming governor and congressman Lester Hunt. Senate President Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, presented a vase that had belonged to Hunt to Case on Friday.

Hunt died by suicide after facing increasing pressure for opposing McCarthyism in 1954.

“Think about how we treated each other and how people treated Mr. Hunt and how we could all do better,” he said. “That was the darkest times in our modern United States and let’s not go there.”

Case’s remarks received a short standing ovation.

State Sen. Mike Gierau
State Sen. Mike Gierau (Matt Idler for Cowboy State Daily)

Now To Gordon’s Desk

House Speaker Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, said he and Driskill met with Gordon earlier in the week to see how they could get the budget across the finish line.

Although he doesn’t support every aspect of the legislation, Sommers said he believes the budget represents the wishes of the legislative body.

“Our primary job in the budget session is to pass a constitutional budget, and we did that,” Sommers said. “So, I’m proud of the work we did. There’s things in the budget I don’t like, but I voted for it.”

Even Democrats got a few wins in the budget such as $1 million for rate increases for the state’s foster care providers and the continuation of the gender studies program.

The Legislature has no plans to convene again to override any of Gordon’s potential vetoes on the budget. Laursen said he doesn’t have much interest in doing so anyway and expects the governor to restore much of UW’s programming and cuts that had been made.

Sommers said he encouraged the governor’s staff to be tactful with his vetoes.

“Do what you feel you need to do, but don’t go places you don’t need to,” Sommers said. “That’s just a recommendation to the governor’s chief of staff, and the governor can take it or leave it.”

Members of the Wyoming House JCC in a discussion during final budget talks Friday at the state Capitol in Cheyenne.
Members of the Wyoming House JCC in a discussion during final budget talks Friday at the state Capitol in Cheyenne. (Matt Idler for Cowboy State Daily)

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

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Leo Wolfson

Politics and Government Reporter