On the evening of April 7, residents across the state may have heard a loud clattering in the southeast corner of the state. It was the sound of our state lawmakers kicking the can down the road, as …
On the evening of April 7, residents across the state may have heard a loud clattering in the southeast corner of the state. It was the sound of our state lawmakers kicking the can down the road, as they adjourned the 2021 legislative session without addressing the K-12 education system’s $300 million shortfall.
Members of the House and Senate seemed to all agree that something needs to be done, as the current plan of just dipping into savings accounts is unsustainable. But they abjectly failed to come up with any kind of solution.
The House passed a bill that would have made relatively modest cuts and imposed a 0.5% statewide sales tax for K-12 education if the Legislature’s so-called rainy day fund dropped below a certain level. However, the Senate wanted more cuts and no new taxes.
Ultimately, the two chambers were unable to strike a deal on a final version of House Bill 173. So they left the Capitol having done nothing.
“As a result, education will be fully funded, the way that it previously was, because they couldn’t agree,” state Rep. Rachel Rodriguez-Williams, R-Cody, explained.
Sen. R.J. Kost, R-Powell, noted that, while the education system emerged unscathed, the Legislature cut $430 million from general spending.
It’s possible that a new flood of federal funding tied to the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan will help fill in some of the education deficit, but relying on a congressional bailout is at best a Band-Aid — and far from sound planning.
In the waning moments of the session, Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, warned his colleagues that “we’re going to have a disaster.”
“I had hoped we could get something done,” Sen. Tim French, R-Powell, later told the Tribune, “because we could be looking at a 30% cut in three years, and that would be devastating.”
Everybody seemed unhappy about the stalemate, but that doesn’t change the end result: Our lawmakers failed to address an extremely serious problem. As Gov. Mark Gordon told reporters, “We ended the Legislature much as we began the Legislature: with serious financial difficulties ahead of us.”
Gordon is now seeking to take a more direct role in addressing the shortfall, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle reported, hoping to move the discussion beyond cuts versus revenue to a “customer service approach.”
“What is it that our customers really want? What do parents want from the educational system?” Gordon explained of the concept, adding, “I think the conversation on education has changed from that conversation — about what do we expect and want from education — to ‘more money equals better education, and if you don’t give us more money, we’re not doing as good a job as we can.’”
He added that a solution will take time.
Meanwhile, to their credit, Park County School District 1 leaders have proactively drafted plans to trim its budget in the least impactful ways possible.
It’s encouraging to see the governor and local school officials stepping up to address our K-12 shortfall, but in the end, this issue is one that the Wyoming Legislature must solve.
We know some lawmakers are dead set against new taxes and others are adamantly opposed to reducing funding for education, but there’s a fine line between “no compromise” and “nonfunctional.” Let’s not forget this failure comes on the heels of a 2020 session in which the Senate and House killed off a raft of broadly supported capital projects because they disagreed on a couple of them.
In this case, the Legislature should have found at least a partial solution to the education deficit, honing in on the areas where there seems to be widespread agreement. Does anyone really think it’s fair that most areas of the state budget saw cuts, while K-12 education did not?
It’s past time for lawmakers to step up. With our reserve accounts dropping and our tax-paying minerals industry taking a beating, continuing to do nothing is no longer an option.