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Auditor encourages transparency, says it is not as simple as some believe

in Government spending/News/Transparency
Wyoming State Auditor Kristi Racines
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By Cowboy State Daily

Transparency in state government is very important, but achieving it can sometimes be difficult, according to state Auditor Kristi Racines.

Racines, in an interview with Cowboy State Daily, said she strongly believes that information on state government spending must be available to the state’s taxpayers.

“We want to know, as taxpayers, where our dollars are going,” she said. “What is our government doing, do we agree with it, do we not. We can’t divine if we agree or not if we don’t have the information.”

However, it can sometimes take a great deal of work to determine whether information held by the state should be public or private, she said.

“It’s never quite as simple as some folks make it,” she said. “The auditor’s office, we put out checks and there’s well over 1 million a year … A lot of those are confidential. The overwhelming majority isn’t. But sorting out everything that’s confidential and isn’t, it’s not clear. Not everything is black and white.”

For instance, while the auditor’s office pays the state’s bills using public money, some expenses are confidential, such as Medicaid payments or Victims’ Assistance payments, she said.

Racines was elected last year to succeed Cynthia Cloud, who did not seek re-election. Cloud’s final months in office were marked by ongoing litigation with a government transparency advocacy group that worked for several years to gain access to the state’s “checkbook,” the list of payments made by the auditor’s office.

Racines released the information about one month after taking office.

“I can’t really speak to what was done before,” she said. “I know a lot of times, public records requests can be intimidating to public employees. There’s often times fear … and sometimes there’s just some misunderstanding there.”

Senator says change needed in state budget process

in Government spending/News
Wyoming Legislature Budget process reform
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A fundamental change is needed in the way the Legislature handles the state’s budget, according to a member of the Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee.

Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, a nine-year member of the Legislature, said the budget submitted to the Legislature by the House and Senate Appropriations Committees — working together as the Joint Appropriations Committee — is flawed because of the makeup of the JAC.

“I’m more disillusioned about the political process and the way we do the budgeting here in Wyoming now than I’ve ever been,” he said. “I think the process as is today is just structurally flawed.”

Hicks said the imbalance between Senate and House members (five senators to seven representatives) makes it impossible for the JAC to present a budget agreeable to both the House and Senate.

“(Representatives) have more members on there and they can vote (for) anything they want and routinely we’ve seen them do that,” he said. “So you don’t have what you would consider a reasonable compromise position.”

The members of the Senate Appropriations Committee this year decided to argue against the items of the JAC budget they did not support, Hicks said, resulting in the repeated conflicts between the two chambers over the measure.

Hicks suggested that the Legislature’s rules be changed so that five House members and five Senate members would make up the JAC.

“We could bypass a lot of that stuff if we would just go to a system where … it’s a 5-5 vote, where we are forced to compromise and then it is truly a Joint Appropriations Committee budget,” he said.

Most of the disputes over the supplemental budget approved by the Legislature stemmed from a difference in philosophy between the House and Senate, Hicks said, which became evident during discussions on potential new taxes.

“The position of the Senate is you can’t have this discussion of increasing taxes and not be able to show fiscal constraint,” he said. “The philosophy that seems to prevail, not with all the House … is ‘We’re OK, we’ve got a saving account, we do this spending and taxes both.’ That’s the philosophical difference we have right now. It’s not personality-driven.”

Hicks said if the Legislature does not do something to reduce spending at the same time it looks at adjusting the state’s tax structure, Wyoming is looking at significant shortfalls in the future as it draws down its holdings in reserve accounts.

“It pushes us toward that fiscal cliff, where then you … have to come back with a series of draconian cuts and substantial tax increases,” he said.

Legislature overrides two Gordon vetoes

in Government spending/News
Governor Gordon veto, ALT=Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon vetos first bill
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Two of Gov. Mark Gordon’s 14 vetoes to the Legislature’s supplemental budget were overridden by the Legislature on Wednesday.

As time ran out on what was scheduled to be the session’s final day, lawmakers were only able to agree to overturn two of the vetoes of budget footnotes, one having to do with eliminating two positions from the state engineer’s office and one calling for an analysis of the cost benefit of continuing to use a state airplane.

Gordon on Tuesday issued his veto notice, saying most of the budget footnotes he vetoed either should have been addressed in a separate bill or improperly encroached on the responsibilities of the executive branch.

Legislators often attach footnotes to budget bills to offer specific spending instructions or make adjustments to existing programs.

Gordon said the two positions eliminated from the state engineer’s office included one filled position, which would require one person to be removed from the department. He vetoed the footnote on the state airplane because he said the issue should have been addressed in a separate bill.

Both the Senate and House voted to override those two vetoes. The House also voted to override two more vetoes, one requiring the Wyoming Business Council to spend additional money to promote Wyoming agriculture products in Asia and another requiring the WBC to work with manufacturers to lure federal defense and aerospace contracts to the state. However, the Senate could not agree to an override on those issues.

House begins final day by killing three bills

in Government spending/Health care/News/Taxes
Graduates toss their caps in the air, ALT=Wyoming to offer bachelors degrees at community colleges
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By Cowboy State Daily

The first three bills to be reviewed by Wyoming’s House on what was scheduled to be the last day of its 2019 general session did not fare well on Wednesday.

Bills addressing Medicaid eligibility, the payment of sales tax on large construction projects and the role of the state Select Committee on School Facilities in construction projects all died in their third and final reading on the House floor.

However, a bill designed to encourage students to pursue technical courses at the state’s community colleges was approved, as was a bill that would allow community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees in applied science.

The Legislature scheduled itself to end its session on Wednesday. Legislators spent much of the day addressing Gov. Mark Gordon’s veto of 14 footnotes to the supplemental budget.

The House was the only chamber with regular business left to address — eight bills on third and final reading.

But SF 103, 114 and 144 all died on their final votes.

SF 144 would impose requirements for those receiving Medicaid assistance to either work, attend school or complete volunteer duty. The bill, which died on a vote of 39-20, would have exempted those with serious medical problems from the requirement.

SF 103 would have expanded the role of the Select Committee on School Facilities to oversee community college and state capital construction projects. It died on a vote of 51-8.

SF 114 would have allowed companies building industrial facilities to work out contracts for the payment of sales and use taxes on those facilities over 20 years. It was killed in a vote of 33-25.

However, in a session that ran well past 7 p.m., representatives approved SF 111, a bill that would let community colleges offer bachelor’s degrees in applied science, approving the measure on a vote of 51-8.

Also approved was SF 122, a bill that would provide grants for students wishing to pursue technical programs at community colleges. Dubbed the “Wyoming Works Program,” it would also provide funding for community colleges to offer such programs. Students would not be required to have a high school diploma to take part in the program.

SF 134, a bill that would provide exemptions for some oil and natural gas production from wells that had been shut down and then restarted, was also approved.

Gordon’s vetoes detailed

in Government spending/News
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Gov. Mark Gordon vetoed 14 footnotes to the Legislature’s supplemental budget bill on Tuesday, saying many of them went beyond what is allowed under Wyoming’s Constitution.

Gordon, in his veto letter to legislative leadership, said most of the vetoed footnotes in essence created law and should have been addressed in separate legislation or were not directly related to the state’s budget. Others, he said, directed the executive branch to take certain actions in violation of rules regarding the separation of power between the executive and legislative branches.

Below is a list of the footnotes vetoed by the governor and his explanation for the action.

Governor’s office: The footnote would have directed the governor to review and report recommendations on how to make state permanent funds “inflation proof.”

“This provision is not related to the ‘ordinary expenses’ of state government … and should be a single-topic piece of legislation and should not be included in an appropriations bill.

Department of Administration and Information: The footnote directs the Department of A&I to prepare standard procedures to complete a cost benefit analysis of all future state leases.

“Because these types of provisions are substantive lawmaking, they should be placed in single-subject bills and not included in the budget act.”

State Engineer’s office: The footnote eliminated two positions in the office, even though the office was not requesting any additional money.

“The State Engineer’s office … is prepared to have one position eliminated, however, this budget cuts two positions instead of one and there is a person currently in the other position. I must … preserve the one filled position otherwise there could be an unintended riff of an employee.”

Department of Transportation: Two footnotes were vetoed. One would require the department to consult with a senator and representative before entering into long-term contracts for air service.

“This footnote raises a separation of powers issue because the Legislature … is controlling and managing the day-to-day operations of the executive branch — a practice that encroaches upon the inherent prerogatives of the executive branch.”

The second footnote directs the department to hire a consultant to conduct a cost benefit analysis of continued use of a state airplane.

“The subject and directives in this provision are beyond appropriations for ‘ordinary expenses’ of state government and should be ‘made by a separate bill’… Considering there was a separate bill contemplating the same intent that could not pass the Legislature I use my line item veto authority.”

Wyoming Business Council: Three footnotes were vetoed. One would require the WBC to use $100,000 of its budget to develop new markets for Wyoming agriculture products in Asian markets.

“There is nearly $2 million available for this mission in the ENDOW account and I believe that is the right funding source. My veto is based on legislative overreach into the affairs of the executive branch.”

The second footnote would bar the spending of some money from the WBC’s Business Ready Community Program without legislative action.

“Thus, as drafted, this restriction limits an appropriation already given.”

The third footnote would require the WBC to set aside $250,000, to be matched with private funds from Wyoming manufacturers, to hire and defense manufacturing procurement officer to help lure aerospace and federal defense contracts to the state.

“The spending direction in this section of the budget bill is narrow in scope and overrides the well-established process for economic development by directly instructing the outcome.”

Department of Education: The footnote directs the department to spend $100,000 to pay for a “pilot principal education program” to be run by Sheridan County schools, where a similar program is already in place.

“I believe school districts already have access to aspects of this program … (The footnote) bypasses the multi-professional team which works on state and federally funded support programs.”

School capital construction: The footnote sets aside $4.9 million for security projects in the state’s schools that are approved by the School Facilities Comission in consultation with local school districts.

“I believe my line item veto clarifies that this consultation can happen and that the commission will utilize its authority … but does not limit spending to only the specified priorities.”

Wyoming’s Tomorrow Task Force: The footnote creates a “Wyoming’s Tomorrow Task Force” program similar to a program in place in Tennessee that uses scholarships and mentoring to encourage students to attend in-state colleges. The footnote proposes a program similar to that outlined in failed legislation.

“This provision is not related to the ‘ordinary expenses’ of state government … and the creation of a task force should be done with a single-topic piece of legislation and should not be included in an appropriations bill.”

Flood mitigation: The footnote recommends that the State Loan and Investment Board use $5 million from federal abandoned mine lands funds to pay for flood mitigation projects on Bitter Creek in southwestern Wyoming.

“While I agree that Bitter Creek is a deserving project, I am opposed to the precedent of including AML funding in the budget bill acts.”

Military housing: The footnote provides $500,000 to serve as matching funds for design and construction needed to encourage the development of military housing in southeastern Wyoming.

“This project (has received) $3 million in a Business Ready Community Grant and a $1.3 million loan … The project proponent should return to the Business Council with an updated proposal…”

Higher education study: The footnote requires the University of Wyoming and the state’s seven community colleges to conduct a study to determine how bachelor’s degrees in applied science can be made more accessible throughout the state.

“This provision is not related to the ‘ordinary expenses’ of state government … and should be a single-topic piece of legislation and not be included in an appropriations bill. In fact, this was a single-subject piece of legislation that did not pass.”

Hicks predicts difficult budget sessions in 2020

in Government spending/News
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By Cowboy State Daily

If it was difficult for the House and Senate to reach an agreement on the state’s supplemental budget this year, things could get very tough next year when the Legislature reviews a 2-year budget, said a legislative leader.

Sen. Larry Hicks R-Baggs, noted that the biennium budget to be reviewed by the Legislature in 2020 will total about $3 billion, compared to the supplemental budget of about $200 million they debated this year.

Supplemental budgets are adopted in odd-numbered years to fund projects projects that come up between the approval of two-year budgets during even-numbered years.

Debate between the House and Senate over their different versions of the budget grew heated this year and at one point prompted the Senate to kill a bill financing state construction projects.

Hicks, a longtime member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said such debates do nothing to help members of the Legislature get along.

“(The budget debate) always tends to drag out to the last minute,” he said. “What it does to the Legislature, it creates factions. We have a faction here and a faction here and a faction here. It strains those relationships.”

Gov. Mark Gordon on Tuesday signed the supplemental budget approved by the Legislature, although he also vetoed 14 “footnotes.” Such footnotes are often included in budget bills to provide direction for specific appropriation, but Gordon said many of those he vetoed went beyond what is allowed by Wyoming’s Constitution and actually affected existing laws. Such issues should be tackled in separate bills, he said.

Legislators on Tuesday began their review of the vetoes so they could determine whether they would attempt an override.

In Brief: Capital construction bill heads back to Senate after House approval

in Government spending/News
Construction workers using a saw, ALT=Capitol construction bill heads back to Senate
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A measure that would provide about $50 million in state money for various government construction projects won final approval from the House on Tuesday.

SF 162, which died once in the Senate before being resurrected and sent to the House, provides financing for projects including a refurbishment of part of the University of Wyoming’s War Memorial Stadium and new facilities at several community colleges.

The bill had originally provided $15 million for work at the university, but that amount was reduced to $10 million and under the bill, the money will only be released as matching funds to money raised by the university.

The bill was once killed by the Senate, but senators rescinded their vote and sent the measure to the House for review.

The measure will now return to the Senate so senators can decide whether they will support the changes made by the House.

In Brief: UW dorm bill scaled back

in Government spending/News
Female student taking notes, ALT=University of Wyoming dorm bill scaled back
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By Cowboy State Daily

A measure that would let the University of Wyoming borrow $88 million to build new dormitories was cut significantly Wednesday.

The Senate Appropriations Committee decided instead to provide the university with $10 million to begin the project.

HB 293 had originally proposed letting the university borrow enough money from the state’s “rainy day fund” to build dormitories to house 2,000 bedrooms and then destroy or refurbish the old dormitories.

But before sending the bill to the Senate for debate by the full body, the Appropriations committee changed the loan to a direct appropriation for $10 million.

The bill heads to the floor shortly before the deadline for bills to get through the “Committee of the Whole,” their first review by the full body.

All “Committee of the Whole” work is to be completed by Thursday.

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