The second session of the 61st Wyoming Legislature convened on Monday in Cheyenne and began with a “State of the State” speech by Gov. Matt Mead. In his address to the joint session of the Wyoming Senate and House of Representatives, Mead expressed optimism about the state’s future. He said Wyoming is in a strong position but that the state should remain “fiscally conservative,” while at the same time continuing to make important investments in the future.
“We have small businesses that are thriving, teachers that are innovating, community colleges and a university that continue to advance. We have a citizenry that while small in numbers is big in spirit and accomplishment. Hard-working citizens in every sector make our state strong,” Mead said.
However, he did caution that continued fiscal restraint is necessary due to the fact that natural gas prices, which are a big source of revenue for the state, have declined.
“National and global uncertainties and energy price fluctuations require us to redouble our efforts to keep the economic recovery going and growing in Wyoming. Jobs and the economy must remain top priorities,” he added.
The Governor proposed a budget that is designed to slow the growth in government without making deep across-the-board cuts.
Rep. Elaine Harvey of Lovell was not the least bit surprised to hear the Governor’s recommendations in light of falling gas prices but found it somewhat alarming that gas prices are dropping so quickly.
“With gas prices so close to $2, we are proceeding very cautiously with expenditures since so much of our state’s budget depends on that revenue,” said Harvey. “We are being very conservative in what we ask for this session and everything remains on the table right now. Nothing is a done deal.”
Then in the afternoon the Wyoming House of Representatives rolled up its sleeves and began voting on introductions of bills. For a bill to be introduced during the budget session, it must receive a two-thirds vote.
As chairman of the Labor, Health and Social Services Committee, Harvey presented three bills on Monday having to do with refinements to existing labor related programs. The bills will consolidate the Department of Employment and Department of Workforce Services, making the state agencies more efficient. The bills were voted to be heard and will now be assigned to committee before they are read and voted on.
One major bill affecting school funding was rejected by house vote during the introductions on Monday. The bill called for a change to the cost adjustment formula for calculating wages for school employees. Currently, districts are able to use either the Wyoming Cost of Living Index (WCLI) or the Hedonic Index to calculate funding for employee salaries, which allows them to choose the measure that most benefits their district. The bill would have forced administrators to use only the Hedonic model. Cumulatively the four districts in Big Horn County would lose close to a million dollars under that proposal.
The bill was narrowly rejected in the House with a 30-30 vote and will be re-presented again to the Senate. Although the vote was close, Harvey thought it very unlikely that the bill would pass if heard in the House.
“The bill would have changed how school funding is determined and would have cost our local districts a considerable amount of money,” said Harvey, who is opposed to the plan.
The session will continue through the first week of March. This “budget session” will carefully examine proposed expenditures for the 2013-14 year. Most of the bills that are heard will be related to budget, but occasionally others will be heard.
Harvey said she will not be presenting any private bills this session due to the extremely cost conscious mood of the House this session.
By Patti Carpenter