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As Wyoming budget session wanes, top solons negotiate in private

(Dan Cepeda, Oil City)

March 6, 2020 by Andrew Graham, WyoFile

There are 90 members of the Legislature, but the fourth week of its 2020 session ended with fewer than 20 negotiating, often behind closed doors, the outcome of key budget session issues.  

As members of the House and Senate appropriations committees and other leading lawmakers negotiated, the majority of lawmakers were sidelined. Leaders sought compromises on the more than $7 billion two-year budget, state-funded construction and the potential purchase of 1 million acres of land and 4 million acres of minerals rights from Occidental Petroleum.

Discussions between the top echelons of the two chambers occurred largely in secret. Committees convened occasionally to vote on deals that often appeared prearranged.

The session began with assurances of increased cooperation between the two legislative chambers, but their positions haven’t changed much over the last few years. “So much for hope,” Senate President Drew Perkins (R-Casper) said Friday morning.

The Senate, again, seeks to cut education funding and stands against building projects at the University of Wyoming that the House wants to fund. 

The difference in the construction arena is one of the largest fiscal fights. The chambers are around $50 million apart after the Senate left the projects nearly entirely unfunded. A similar dispute played out last year, although over different construction projects. 

The House considers the building projects an investment. The university raises private funds to match state investments, Speaker of the House Steve Harshman (R-Casper) said. Building needs “never really stop,” he said. The Senate has argued UW is asking for too much during tight times. 

Another battle is over how to use mineral severance tax revenue streams — a perennial debate between Harshman and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Eli Bebout (R-Riverton). 

Bebout seeks to direct an estimated $100 million a year into the state’s Permanent Mineral Trust Fund, an inviolate account which Wyoming could invest but never spend. Harshman wants to budget that money now. If the Legislature doesn’t use it to balance the budget, he said Friday morning, it will take more money out of different savings accounts.

“We got to keep a little of that in cash, we know that,” he said. “Otherwise it will just increase our structural deficit.” 

Leadership of the chambers also continued to debate education funding. The Senate wants to lessen payments for school employee health insurance and does not want to give a funding increase for inflation and other rising costs. The House supports giving schools the funding increase and maintaining the health insurance levels.

On many of those issues, House and Senate leaders expected resolutions Friday. 

Though some lawmakers consider the leadership of the two chambers as stuck in a years-long, unhealthy deadlock, Perkins called the perennial fights healthy friction.

Harshman, however, was less certain. “I don’t think we’ll always have [the same fights],” he said. “It’s really about school children … but I don’t think we’ve always had that philosophical difference.” 

New battle lines appeared over the most novel idea in the 2020 session — the potential purchase of one million acres of land and four million acres of mineral rights from Occidental Petroleum. Gov. Mark Gordon (R) and the leadership of both chambers want the deal to move forward, but that hasn’t stopped Harshman and Bebout from jousting over how they want negotiations to proceed. 

The House and Senate each have their own pieces of legislation to advance the land purchase. The two bills started identical, but have evolved into different ideas of where the money for the purchase might come from and how the land, if purchased, would be managed. 

At around noon Thursday the Senate Appropriations Committee gathered to hear the House’s land-buy bill on the first floor of the capitol, while the House Appropriations Committee gathered two floors up to hear the Senate’s version. 

Not all the back-and-forth played out in public, however. As Harshman approached the Senate committee to present his bill, Bebout headed him off.

“Can I talk to you for a second?” Bebout asked. The two men spent the next 10 minutes cloistered in a break room while agency officials and lobbyists awaited the public hearing next door.

Friday morning, the House Appropriations Committee announced a compromise had been reached behind the scenes — the two bills would be rolled into one. The public might get a chance at seeing the new bill at a noon meeting Friday, once the Legislative Service Office drafted it.  

Such was the way of things this week. Work toward compromise occurred largely out of sight.

Those legislators not in on the budget, the land purchase or education funding worked myriad other pieces of legislation in committee and on the floor. Lawmakers debated the full range of Wyoming policy challenges even as uncertainty over how the budget session would play out settled in. 

The negotiating process wasn’t new, longtime lawmaker Sen. Jeff Wasserburger (R-Gillette) said. Recent years have seen complex budget showdowns between leaders of both chambers. Harshman, Senate President Perkins and Bebout are veterans of the appropriations process with strong opinions, Wasserburger said. 

“They like it,” he said of the negotiations. 

It wasn’t until Thursday evening that the majority of lawmakers even knew if the chambers would convene Friday. Leadership in both chambers had indicated that if a budget compromise was reached Thursday then the Legislature would take Friday off — part of a numbers strategy aimed at Gov. Mark Gordon. 

The governor has three working days to veto items in the state’s budget. The count includes Saturdays but not Sundays and Gordon’s veto clock ticks down regardless of whether the Legislature is in session. The Legislature, meanwhile, only had allotted itself until Thursday, March 12 at midnight for the session. 

By taking Friday, March 6 off, legislative leaders could preserve Friday, March 13 as a working day with which to override any potential Gordon vetoes.

If House and Senate budget writers were negotiating Thursday, however, it wasn’t clear even to most savvy legislative observers. 

At 5:45 p.m., however, Perkins put visions of a leisurely Friday to rest. “I’ll report to you that we do not have an agreement on the budget so we’ll be here working tomorrow,” he told his chamber.

Friday was much of the same. While the House and Senate continued to work, appropriations lawmakers engaged in an all day contentious debate over narrowing differences.

The majority of lawmakers left the building by 5 p.m., the time negotiators had agreed to come together to consider the latest compromise. Though education advocates, state agency officials, reporters and legislative staff were in the committee room, the lawmakers did not show up for another hour. 

The “head honchos” were talking, House Speaker Pro Tempore Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale), told the waiting group. Just after 6 p.m., the lawmakers returned and took their seats. 

The deal was finally voted on at 6:30. The ultimate compromise involved halving positions on funding increases for schools, how much mineral severance dollars would go to savings as opposed to near-term spending and a number of other areas. The deal will now go back to each of the two chambers for ratification. 

The committee debating state construction spending met once on Friday and did not reach a compromise.

This article originally appeared on Oil City News. Used with permission.