“We can’t cut our way out of this one.”
Gov. Matt Mead, Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody, and Rep. David Northrup, R-Powell, among others, warned us before the 2017 Legislature started up that some significant changes — both spending cuts and revenue increases — would be necessary to resolve Wyoming’s looming $400 million education funding deficit for the coming year.
Despite that warning, the House and Senate could only agree to cut education spending by $34.5 million — less than 10 percent of the projected shortfall.
Meanwhile, the Senate removed a half-cent sales tax proposal from the education funding bill passed by the House, eliminating any possibility of raising additional funding for education for the coming year.
That leaves Wyoming dependent on savings alone to cover the remaining funding deficit for the state’s education system for the coming year. Given the bleak economic picture in the state right now, that’s money that may be needed for something equally as important down the road — but it won’t be available, because it will have been spent on something that was foreseen and preventable, at least in part.
While we wish the Senate and House would have worked together on more long-term solutions during the session, we’re also glad lawmakers didn’t make significant changes to the funding model for K-12 schools. Some of the ideas that were proposed — such as cutting teachers’ salaries — were especially worrisome.
We understand and agree with the Legislature’s plan to create a super committee that will completely re-evaluate education funding — both revenue and spending — during the coming year. Given the enormous funding challenges, it is necessary to come up with the best plan for balancing the budget while still ensuring that Wyoming students will receive a quality education.
But we would argue that more of that work should have been done during the last five-year education recalibration process. While the state’s revenue picture has changed significantly over the past couple of years, it’s not like that was a big surprise. The state’s leaders and the Consensus Revenue Estimating Group had warned us that it would.
Still, the economic downturn did happen more rapidly, and more broadly, than initially expected, and education funding was one of the areas most seriously affected.
Recalibrating education funding is an extensive and expensive process. In addition to legislators, it requires work and input by representatives of the Legislative Service Office, school districts in the state, the Wyoming Department of Education and professional education consultants.
Recalibration is usually tackled every five years. The process is being taken up again now after only two years.
We urge lawmakers to make these important decisions deliberately and carefully.
The choices won’t be easy, and they won’t be made lightly. Unfortunately, some will have painful consequences. It is up to the committee to mitigate those impacts as much as possible while making certain our education system is viable.
The answers the committee and other participants come up with will largely determine what kind of education Wyoming’s children will receive.
Here in Powell, and in Wyoming, we take pride in making sure our children get a high-quality education in a good environment. It will take a strong balancing act to ensure that continues — not only for a year or two, but for decades to come.