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Senate prepares for worst-case budget scenario that leaders doubt will occur

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Although Wyoming’s Senate is preparing for a worst-case scenario with the state’s supplemental budget, the leaders of both of the Legislature’s chambers are predicting their members will reach a compromise on the spending bill.

The Senate on Wednesday changed its rules to allow the late introduction of three bills proposing spending of about $45 million to support air transportation, education and the departments of Health and Family Services.

The appropriations are already contained in the supplemental budget bill making its way through both chambers, but Senate President Drew Perkins, R-Casper, said the Senate wanted to address the issues in separate bills should the supplemental budget die.

“If we can’t come to an agreement on the supplemental budget, we’ve got a backup,” he said. “There’s about four things that absolutely have to happen this session because they were uncompleted issues from the biennium budget last year.”

But House Speaker Rep. Steve Harshman, R-Casper, said he believes that a deal on the budget will be worked out and that the Senate’s backup plan is unnecessary.

“I told my secretary ‘Please don’t bring (the bills) into my office even if they do make it over because I’m not going to walk away from the process,’” he said. “It’s been here long before I was even born, it will be here a long time after I’m dead and gone and I’m not going to be part of trying to muck things up.”

The issue arose as the House and Senate looked at each other’s versions of the supplemental budget, which proposes spending needed between the even-numbered years when the Legislature sets a two-year budget.

As sent to both chambers by the Joint Appropriations Committee, the bill proposes spending of about $206 million, including $119 million from the state’s main bank account, called the “General Fund.”

By some counts, the House and Senate are $70 million apart in their versions, although both Perkins and Harshman set the difference at closer to $40 million.

The main differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill stem from beliefs in the Senate that the state should save its money, given uncertainties in the future of oil and gas prices, Perkins said, along with the idea the supplemental budget should only be used for emergency needs.

“The Senate views the supplemental budget as a supplemental budget, which by definition should be unanticipated needs or emergency needs,” he said. “A lot of those issues, we don’t believe, fall into those categories. The other side, too, is as we look at what we’re going to need next year, the Senate feels pretty strongly we ought to be saving money to cover what we’re going to see as a deficit in the school foundation program next year.”

That uncertainty prompted the Senate to kill a bill providing more than $50 million for various construction programs around the state, including repairs and upgrades at several community colleges and roof repairs for the State Penitentiary, Perkins said.

“We’re just trying to know where we can fill the gaps next year,” he said. “If I knew I was going to be short on my household income next year and I had some extra money this year, I’d set it aside because I’m thinking I’m going to need it next year — and that’s kind of where the Senate is.”

Harshman said many of the remaining disputes over the budget center on when spending might be necessary. He pointed as an example a proposed upgrade of the state Revenue Department’s excise tax computer system, which is based on an old computer language.

“It needs to be upgraded,” he said. “This was really a question of when. I think some senators thought maybe they don’t need this money for another 12 months and we can do it (in the biennium budget) net year. If that’s the case, fine.”

Both men said differences between the House and Senate on the budget are common and both predicted the supplemental budget bill would survive the session.

“We’ve still got plenty of time to resolve these things and get them moved forward and bring this in for a landing before the session’s over,” Perkins said.

‘Wyoming Women’s Suffrage Day’ headed for governor’s desk

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Historical Newspaper illustration of Women's Sufferage, ALT=Women's Suffrage Day Wyoming
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By Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming's Suffrage Day bill headed for Governor Mark Gordon's desk. Photo from scene at polls with first woman voter.
Image from Library of Congress: Woman suffrage in Wyoming Territory. — Scene at the polls in Cheyenne / from a photo. by Kirkland. )

Wyoming will celebrate “Wyoming Women’s Suffrage Day” in December under a bill headed to the governor’s desk.

Senate Joint Resolution 3 would have the state recognize the day on Dec. 10.

The bill was sponsored by Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, and was co-sponsored by a number of legislators, including every woman serving in the House and Senate.

Dec. 10 is the 150th anniversary of the day Wyoming — then a territory — became the first to adopt a law giving women the right to vote.

The bill won unanimous approval from members of the House and Senate and on Friday was signed as an “enrolled joint resolution” by Senate President Drew Perkins, R-Casper. It next heads to the desk of House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper, for his signature before going to Gov. Mark Gordon for signing.

Appropriations members say budget difference just part of the process

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By Cowboy State Daily

Differences between the House and Senate over the proposed supplemental budget are just part of the legislative process and center largely on what constitutes necessary spending, two members of the Joint Appropriations Committee said Thursday.

Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Rep. Tom Walters, R-Casper, agreed that the two bodies will bridge the $70 million gap between the House and Senate versions of the budget.

“Being the wonderful process that it is, we’ll get together and figure out our differences and in the next couple of weeks we’ll have a good supplemental budget that Wyoming can be proud of,” Walters said.

The Legislature approves a two-year budget during even-numbered years. The supplemental budget is a mechanism to provide funding for needs that may arise between the Legislature’s budget session. The supplemental budget submitted this year to the Legislature by the Joint Appropriations Committee outlines spending from the state’s main bank account or “General Fund” of $119 million.

The House and Senate finished their independent reviews of the budget this week. The House added $51 million in spending, while the Senate cut $19 million. The Senate is now reviewing the House changes to the budget while the House is reviewing the Senate version. A “conference committee” will later be appointed to reach a compromise between the two versions.

Bebout said many in the Senate consider the supplemental budget a way to pay for emergencies.

“So I felt we ought to deal with emergencies and as we worked through the budget, that’s where the House had differences from the Senate,” he said. “That’s the process. We talk about it, we debate, you take the vote…”

Part of the difference between the two bodies stems from education funding. The House increased the “external cost adjustment” for schools — an amount designed to help ease the impact of inflation on schools — by $21 million. The Senate cut the amount by $9 million.

Another difference is a software upgrade proposed for in Department of Revenue. The House added $15 million to JAC’s recommendation, while the Senate cut it by $5 million.

“Quite frankly, I didn’t think a lot of the things we brought up as we worked through the process … in the House vs. the Senate, that we had $52 million in additional spending that we needed,” Bebout said. “I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have some, but I felt that was more than I was willing to accept.”

Public documents bill clears House committee

in News/Transparency
Tax records stacked, ALT=Public Documents, House bills
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By Cowboy State Daily

A 30-day deadline would be set for the release of public documents under a bill approved Thursday by a House committee.

The House Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions voted 9-0 to approve SF 57 for debate by the full House.

As approved by the Senate and sent to the House, the bill would give the holders of public documents 30 days to produce documents in response to requests from members of the public. It would also create the position of a public document ombudsman in the governor’s office who would be responsible for mediating disputes between state and local government bodies and the people asking for records

Performance bill proposes bonuses for investment professionals

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By Cowboy State Daily

A bill that would reward the state’s investment professionals for making investment choices that perform better than the markets generally could increase the salaries of those professionals by up to 100 percent.

HB 222 would provide bonuses for investment professionals only if the performances of the investments they are managing exceed benchmarks set by certain segments of the stock and bond market, such as the Standard and Poors 500 or the Russell 3000 small stock index.

The amount of the bonus would vary according to the professional’s position. For instance, Patrick Fleming, the state’s chief investment officer, could double his $250,000 salary, while the bonus for a state senior investment officer, who makes $150,000, would be 75 percent of his salary. The bonus for an investment officer would be 50 percent of the officer’s salary.

However, the bonus would be paid out over three years, with 50 percent being paid out in the third year. If an employee left the state during that time, any part of the bonus not collected would be lost.

The bill is waiting for its first review in the Senate.

Bill funding construction projects dies in Senate

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By Cowboy State Daily

A bill that would finance capital construction projects around the state died unanimously in the Senate.

SF 162 provided more than $50 million in state funding for various projects, including $7.3 million for renovations in buildings at Laramie County Community College, $3 million for a new dormitory at Northwest Community College in Powell and $2 million for an agriculture and equine center at Casper College.

The bill was killed on a vote of 30-0 in the Senate on Tuesday. 

Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, said give the state’s financial problems, senators did not feel approving the projects would be prudent.

“To spend another $51 million on capital construction when we have these deficits and you look ahead to the next biennial budget, there’s a $350 million deficit in K-12 (education), it’s just not the right message to send,” he said.

The bill could resurface in another form later in the session. For instance, it could theoretically be attached as an amendment to the supplemental budget bills making their way through the Legislature.

The House or Senate could also amend their rules to introduce a new version of the bill. The Senate changed its rules Wednesday to introduce four new state spending bills.

One bill, SF 163, called for spending $15 million to support commercial air service in Wyoming. 

Another, SF 165, would set aside $15 million for Department of Health programs and $5 million for the Department of Family Services. The amounts would be used to support programs recommended by former Gov. Matt Mead in his proposed supplemental budget.

Felony animal cruelty bill passes House

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Video still shout of dancing and singing dog toy, ALT=animal cruelty
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By Cowboy State Daily

A bill that would give Wyoming its first chance to charge someone with a felony if they repeatedly abuse animals cleared the House on Wednesday.

HB 235 would create Wyoming’s first charge of felony animal abuse. While a conviction of animal abuse once would be a misdemeanor, any subsequent convictions would be felonies punishable by up to two years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000. It won approval on its final House review on a vote of 41-18.

Wyoming has never had a felony charge for animal cruelty, so even if people were found guilty of multiple counts or convicted multiple times, the harshest penalty they could face would be for a misdemeanor violation punishable by up to six months in jail.

The House vote sends the bill to the Senate for its consideration.

Bill to change legislative sessions clears House

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Man's hand adding info to desk calendar, ALT=Bill to change legislative sessions clears House
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By Cowboy State Daily

A proposed change to Wyoming’s longstanding practice of dividing its legislative sessions into “budget” and “general” sessions passed the House on Wednesday.

HJ 6, proposing an amendment to Wyoming’s Constitution, was approved by a vote of 42-16, sending it to the Senate for review.

Currently, on even-numbered years, 20-day budget sessions are held to approve a budget for the next two years. On odd-numbered years, general sessions are held to address other issues.

If approved by the Legislature and then by voters, the measure would continue to limit Wyoming’s Legislature to meeting 60 days every two years. However, there would no longer be a budget or general session and no limit on how long legislators could meet during those sessions. For instance, one year’s session might last 25 days and the next year’s might run 35.

The change is seen as a way to make it easier to introduce bills during what are now budget sessions. During those sessions, any bill not dealing with the budget must be approved by two-thirds of the Senate or House to even be introduced and considered by a committee.

Supporters of the measure maintain the Legislature spend too much time on bill introductions during those budget sessions.

In Brief: Bill calling for grizzly bear hunting clears House committee

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By Cowboy State Daily

A bill that would authorize the state Department of Game and Fish to set a grizzly hunting season cleared a House committee Wednesday.

The House Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee voted to send SF 93 to the full House for debate.

The bill is a response to a federal judge’s decision in September to block a grizzly bear hunt. The hunt was set by the Game and Fish Department after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the grizzly population in and around Yellowstone National Park to have recovered sufficiently to be removed from the Endangered Species List. The federal judge ruled that action was improper. The Fish and Wildlife Service, joined by Wyoming and other groups, is appealing that decision.

SF 93 would allow the Game and Fish Department to set up a grizzly hunt if it determines such a hunt to be beneficial to Wyoming’s wildlife and necessary to protect the safety of its citizens and workers.

The bill notes that federal laws such as the Endangered Species Act are to be administered by the federal government in cooperation with state agencies and adds that the judge’s ruling prevents that from happening.

Cheyenne vet named winner of Rotary award

in News/Agriculture
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By Cowboy State Daily

A Cheyenne veterinarian was named the winner of the Cheyenne Rotary Club’s agricultural recognition award on Wednesday.

Dr. Gary Norwood, a veterinarian since 1981, owns Frontier Veterinary Clinic, one of the few vet clinics in Laramie County that treats large animals.

“Where I grew up, we were raised with only mixed practitioners, so the veterinarian would do  both small and large,” he said. And that was what I based my goals on when I was 7 years old and decided I wanted to be a veterinarian.”

Norwood said Wyoming farmers and ranchers provide a quality of care for their animals that is at the highest possible level.

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