Green River Star -

By David Martin

Education, funding debate continues


Political games and a large percentage of new legislators in the Wyoming House of Representatives have made for a trying session for two local legislators.

John Freeman, D-Green River, said a number of representatives have had to learn what they can and can’t do in the Wyoming House, learning they’re part of a system some campaigned against. Overall, Freeman said the session has been trying for him. Rep. Stan Blake, D-Green River, agrees with Freeman’s assessment of the new legislators.

“They came in to change everything and they’re realizing they’re a part of the system, not a lone wolf,” Blake said.

Blake said another issue many legislators are contending with is a no tax pledge they signed with the Wyoming Liberty Group, whose solution to the budgetary issues the state faces is a zero-based budget, where a budget starts at zero and money is added to the budget based on what the perceived needs are. Specifically regarding education, Blake believes the approach taken by many legislators amounts to the state “bailing on its teachers.”

Education will be an important commodity for Wyoming’s residents as more jobs will require post high school training. Freeman said estimates suggest 60 percent of jobs will require some form of education or training not offered in high school. Freeman also said 41 percent of Wyoming’s residents have either a college degree or certificate received after high school. However, Freeman said both the University of Wyoming and the state’s community colleges have “taken a big hit” during the legislative session. Blake doesn’t think cuts to education make sense as companies seeking to establish themselves in Wyoming look for an educated work force and if companies pass the state over due to education, Wyoming cannot become more economically diverse. Freeman said while research and production of goods made from oil, natural gas and coal is important to the state’s economy, new industries are also needed.

Freeman said the state’s budget issues are not unlike the issues facing “trust fund babies” who discovered their trust fund has dried up. In this case, the state has lived off of the large tax revenues paid by the mineral extraction industries for years, though lower prices have severely hampered that.

“They’re very proud to have paid taxes and provided a good quality of life for people in Wyoming, but with prices down, they can’t do it anymore,” Freeman said.

Freeman said the question facing the legislature is how to spread the tax burden when people are opposed to additional tax. He said one avenue being utilized is fee increases to reduce departments’ reliance on the general fund. Blake said the Wyoming Department of Transportation will increase fees on driver’s licenses and increase its fee for license plates by $5. He said fee increases are proposed within the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, mostly impacting hunters from outside the state.

Though, both legislators are concerned with the possibility of the legislature making cuts, only to have more money flowing into state coffers. A recent oil lease sale will bring an additional $60 million to the state while capital gains payment to the state, which won’t be tallied until after the session, can make a significant impact to the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account, also known as the state’s “rainy day fund.”

Freeman said he’s heard estimates ranging from $30 million to $160 million, which goes directly to the LSRA.

“It’s hard to say to someone we made all these cuts and banked $83 million,” Blake said.

“We’re trying to be prudent and when it’s all said and done in June, I don’t know,” Freeman said.


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