The Wyoming Legislature began its 2021 session with a proposal to cut $100 million a year from public education.
House Bill 61, sponsored by the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration, is the vehicle lawmakers hope to use to reduce Wyoming school funding in the face of our budget deficit.
But halfway through the first week of in-person meetings at the capitol, lawmakers are already backpedaling. As the House Education Committee looks to advance HB-61 for consideration on the House floor later this week, members have decreased the cuts significantly.
As it stands now, the bill would trim only $22 million from education. Another proposal would reduce the cuts to $61 million.
One reason for the reversal, of course, is that Wyoming education funding has already been cut by $100 million over the past four years. Now, school districts are alerting legislators that further substantial cuts will result in mass layoffs, increased class sizes, school closures, and likely lawsuits from districts.
In short, lawmakers are having a hard time trimming the fat because there’s no fat left to trim.
But there are other reasons, too. For one, Wyoming isn’t broke. Far from it. Even though the state has a budget shortfall as a result of plummeting fossil fuel industries, it’s not as though we’re scraping the barrel to find funds to educate our kids.
The other deals with the Wyoming Constitution’s mandate to fund education. Lawmakers staring hard at the proposed cuts are realizing they might be treading into unlawful territory.
Cutting school funding while sitting on billions
Some Wyoming Legislators talk about cutting school funding as though it’s the most urgent item on the state’s agenda. Otherwise, they say, we’ll go broke.
But Rep. Jerry Obermueller (R-Casper) doused that notion during the Education Committee meeting on Monday.
Even if the Legislature cut zero dollars from education, he said, the state’s Rainy Day Fund would still have more than a billion dollars at the end of the biennium.
This is not to mention the total $12 billion Wyoming holds in various trust accounts.
“It’s not like we have to rush to judgment in a non-budget year” to cut education, Obermueller said.
At the same time, other pieces of legislation propose to sock additional money into Wyoming’s savings, like one to put $70 million in a new “Deficit Control Account.”
“What if the parents found that out, or if the students knew that?” Obermueller asked. “Would they have the right to be totally disgusted with us? Ethically, it’s impossible for me to vote for cuts knowing we’re promoting savings over students.”
Obermueller acknowledged that lawmakers have been battling a deficit. However, the retired Certified Professional Accountant noted that the state’s audited financial statements show Wyomig has actually increased its balance sheet by $1.5 billion over the past four years.
“Ethically, it’s impossible for me to vote for cuts knowing we’re promoting savings over students.”
Instead of addressing the state’s real underlying budget problem—our tax system that depends on the declining fossil fuel industries—Obermueller said the Legislature is using education as a whipping boy, an “artificial shortfall that becomes the basis for more cuts.”
Finally, Obermueller made a motion to amend House Bill 61 to remove all education budget cuts. But it failed on a voice vote.
The small detail of the constitution
The Wyoming Constitution requires the Legislature to fund public schools according to the amount districts need to provide students a quality, equitable education. Decades of Wyoming Supreme Court cases have upheld this principal, which lawmakers refer to as “an evidence-based funding model.”
Minority Leader Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie) said Monday that HB-61 is not evidenced based. Instead, the Recalibration Committee opted to use its own variety of model to more easily make cuts.
“What we’re left with now are cuts that don’t have evidence associated with them. They are simply someone’s determination that this looks like a good thing to cut.”
“What we’re left with now are cuts that don’t have evidence associated with them,” Connolly said. “They are simply someone’s determination that this looks like a good thing to cut.”
Ignoring constitutional requirements to use an evidence-based funding model could leave the Legislature open to lawsuits from school districts. Nevertheless, other lawmakers insisted on cuts for other, political reasons.
Education Committee Chairman Jerry Paxton (R-Encampment) said with the major cuts totalling hundreds of millions of dollars that state agencies are experiencing, “I think there would be some resentment if we don’t get some kind of cuts out of the education program right now.”
But that’s not how the law works in Wyoming. The Legislature can’t cut school funding just because other agencies budgets have been cut. Education funding is an explicit constitutional requirement.
And the further along the conversation goes, it’s becoming clearer that legislators are having a hard time dealing with this fact.