President Bebout (Part 2): Leading the fight to not fix education funding

In this multi-part series, Better Wyoming appraises longtime politician Eli Bebout’s first session as Senate President of the Wyoming State Legislature. Click here to read Part 1.

April 20, 2017

CHEYENNE— At the start of the most recent legislative session, everyone knew that Wyoming’s public education system faced a roughly $400 million annual budget shortfall as a result of the mining bust (under the present revenue model, Wyoming’s schools are funded mostly by mineral taxes).

Obviously, no one enjoys paying taxes, but neither are most Wyoming citizens willing to sit idly by while the significant gains made in Wyoming education over the past couple decades are flushed down the toilet, just so folks (and corporations) can save a few bucks.

Bebout fingerzz

Many lawmakers showed up to the session with their big-kid pants on, ready to do the hard work necessary to create new revenues—as well as administer strategic cuts and draw down from the state’s savings—in order to fill the gaping hole in education funding.

But a cadre of legislators came to the table with their diapers on instead and refused to eat the vegetables necessary to ensure Wyoming’s children have access to a quality education.

Leading this infantile campaign was new Senate President Eli Bebout (R-Riverton).

Bebout began the session proclaiming that he would oppose any new tax, no matter what. From there, he devised a cynical and unsupported rationalization when it came to education funding: Wyoming public schools perform poorly for how much money we spend on them, so maybe we shouldn’t spend as much.

Bebout was front and center in opposing a proposal by the House for a whopping half-cent increase in the state’s sales tax, to be earmarked for education, in the event that the state’s Rainy Day Fund fell beneath $500 million.

Bebout also supported an irresponsible budget bill amendment sponsored by Sen. Charlie Scott (R-Casper) that would have cut $91 million from education funding without identifying where even a single dollar would be cut—a sort of “kill-em-all-and-let-the-schools-sort-em-out” approach.

The House refused to follow suit, and ultimately the two chambers agreed on a $34.5 million cut to education. As a result, schools are axing programs, athletics, support staff, materials, transportation, and several districts are preparing to sue the state—and yet, $34.5 million doesn’t even solve 10 percent of the overall problem.

The brainchild Bebout and his anti-tax cohort came up with to address the other 90 percent is “recalibration,” which is a fancy way of saying they plan to waste some more time, not come up with new revenues, try to administer some more cuts, and generally continue to not solve the problem.

At the first “recalibration” meeting of the interim session, committee members kept asking, “Why are we even here?”

“Are we trying to save $200 million through a recalibration effort? Not gonna happen,” said Speaker of the House Steve Harshman (R-Casper), his head resting on his hand.

But what will happen when lawmakers return in 2018 and find out that recalibration wasn’t the answer Bebout said it would be? The Senate president’s natural inclination is to cut the budgets of agencies and programs to the bone, even if it means threatening their basic ability to function. He’s done it with social services—screwing over the poor, elderly, ill, etc.—and has expressed general disregard for fair treatment of taxpayers. Why not take away children’s education and the prospect of a bright future for the state while he’s at it?

Bebout’s idea of leadership this year—with education funding and the budget crisis in general—was to kick the can down the road and forget about the state’s fiscal woes until next year. But one has to wonder what he’s waiting for. And by refusing to raise taxes or do things other states do to raise revenues, one wonders what his plan is. Does he see a boom in the minerals industry on the horizon that nobody else can see?

We hope he has a plan beyond massive cuts—which would likely prove unconstitutional anyway—but if he does he hasn’t shared it with the rest of us.

Bebout’s long career as a politician seems to be pretty much over, now that he’s achieved notoriety as the first person to serve both as Speaker of the House and Senate President (sort of a runner-up prize after his failed gubernatorial bid).

Maybe he’s just trying to hold on to his tough-guy anti-tax reputation long enough for his career to be over. Then the rest of us can deal with the mess he helped make.

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