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Wyoming Legislature narrowly passes budget after session of strife

After a rocky and circuitous journey through the 2024 Legislature, the budget bill is headed to the governor’s desk one day after he took the statehouse to task for not getting the job done.

"Spirit of Wyoming" by sculptor Edward J. Fraughton on the Wyoming Capitol grounds. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

By the skin of its teeth, the Wyoming Legislature fulfilled its one constitutionally obligated job this session — pass a balanced budget. 

The vote was particularly close in the Senate, where a leadership shakeup on day one set the tone for much of the session and sparked early concerns about an impending budget fight. The upper chamber voted 17-14 to pass the budget. 

In the House, the budget passed more easily. While many — but not all — Wyoming Freedom Caucus members voted against it, their numbers were too few. The lower chamber voted 41-21 in favor of the budget. 

The votes came after Gov. Mark Gordon fired a shot across the Legislature’s bow Thursday evening, urging lawmakers to get the job done. 

“The three branches of government depend upon the Legislature to enact a biennial budget so that each can carry out their constitutionally and legislatively required duties,” Gordon wrote in a letter. “President [Ogden] Driskill, I know you and the Speaker [of the House Albert Sommers] personally have worked throughout this tempestuous session to make sure all branches of government would be adequately funded to meet the needs of Wyoming people for the coming two years. That was the only constitutionally-mandated job this Legislature was required to do in the 2024 session. However, despite your efforts that duty is not yet fulfilled.”

The final, two-year budget includes $709 million in savings. All of the school construction funding in the original budget bill made the final cut. The fiscal plan keeps funding for the University of Wyoming’s gender studies courses, but restricts support for the school’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. It includes funding for suicide prevention and mental health services, but at amounts considerably less than first proposed. Lawmakers also set aside money for border security efforts in Texas.

How we got here

Almost nothing went smoothly during this session’s budget negotiations. The trouble began on day one in the Senate

In a highly unusual move, the upper chamber voted to defy Senate President Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) and reinstate Sen. Dave Kinskey (R-Sheridan) as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. 

Driskill stripped Kinskey of the position last year, citing concerns about his performance. In Kinskey’s place, Driskill named committee member Sen. Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne) to lead the panel. 

Senate President Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) in the moments after the 67th Wyoming Legislature completed a budget for the state’s coming fiscal biennium. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

But as soon as lawmakers were back in session this year, Sen. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle) brought an appeal to reverse Driskill’s decision. She was among the lawmakers who accused Driskill of overstepping his bounds and violating Senate rules. 

When the Senate voted 17-14 to reinstate Kinskey, some saw it as a sign of a forthcoming budget fight. What followed was a record number of amendments and a string of late-night deliberations in both chambers. 

Ultimately, that landed the House and Senate $1.1 billion apart on their respective budget plans.

More specifically, the $1.1 billion difference was a matter of putting different dollars into different pots, while the actual spending difference was estimated to be closer to $300 million to $500 million. 

Either way, that’s where the first Joint Conference Committee came into play. Appointed by leadership, five senators and five representatives were responsible for negotiating a single version of the budget by reconciling the differences between the two chambers. However, the committee failed to get the job done. 

Led by Kinskey, the Senate side of the committee took four days to respond to an initial offer by the House. It was too little, too late for the House side, which, led by Rep. Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne), walked away from negotiations Monday afternoon. 

The House’s decision to call it quits ushered in a free committee. The new arrangement gave lawmakers more latitude — any amendment to any agency in any amount was allowable. 

It also allowed leadership to select new negotiators. But when Driskill moved to do just that, he was challenged by Senate Majority Floor Leader Larry Hicks (R-Baggs), who sought to upend the free committee. The Senate quickly devolved into an off-the-rails dispute over who was acting in good faith and who was seeking to torpedo the process.

Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) reacts to the Wyoming Senate agreeing on a budget with the House on the last day of the Legislature’s 2024 budget session. The budget passed on a 17-14 vote, with Hicks opposed. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Ultimately, the motion was unsuccessful, and the new set of negotiators met first thing Tuesday morning with the dust just barely settled. 

Less than 12 hours later, a compromise had been struck

Before bringing the bill to the House and the Senate for a vote Friday, the committee met once more Thursday to work out a handful of technicalities and to take additional action. 

Altogether, the committee cut $200 million from the budget starting point developed by the Joint Appropriations Committee ahead of the session. Compared to Gordon’s recommendation, the committee cut $300 million. 

For context, the House had added $360 million in its deliberations, while the Senate had reduced it by about $767 million. 

What’s in the bill 

By the time the committee finalized the details of the bill Thursday, the budget was initially estimated by the Legislative Service Office to be a roughly 47% compromise between the Senate and the House. 

“I’ll fully admit, I don’t like using these numbers because there’s double counting and there’s movement of funds from the left pocket to the right pocket,” LSO’s Don Richards told the committee Thursday. 

Nonetheless, it was worth noting, Nethercott said. 

“We have reached a virtual, down-the-middle compromise, despite being outnumbered,” Nethercott said referring to the Senate being half the size of the House. 

One area of compromise involved several amendments related to the University of Wyoming. 

The committee dropped two restrictions the Senate sought to place on the state’s sole four-year institution. One would have defunded Gender Studies courses at UW, another would have required the university to submit a biennial budget. 

Conversely, the committee kept the Senate’s position to restrict funding for UW’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. That could jeopardize roughly $120 million annually of UW’s federal research funds. 

When it came to mental health, the committee reduced to $10 million an allocation to the 988 suicide hotline trust fund account, which had started the session at $40 million. It also voted Thursday to reduce spending intended to strengthen mental health resources in K-12 schools from $15 million to $10 million. Sommers, who had brought the appropriation as a bill earlier in the session, opposed the cut in committee. 

Both chambers had voted to send $2 million to Texas “for the purposes of securing the United States border.” Ultimately, the committee decreased that to $750,000 and specified that the dollars could only be used to reimburse Wyoming law enforcement that assists Texas. 

Members of the House Appropriations Committee — from left to right, Reps. Lloyd Larsen (R-Riverton), Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne), Tom Walters (R-Casper) and Clark Stith (R-Rock Springs) — sit at the front of the lower chamber as the body works through amendments to the budget during the 2024 legislative session. (Maggie Mullen/WyoFile).

The House had added language to the budget to bolster duty-related death benefits for police officer spouses, but the committee removed that language after a bill with that same language passed both chambers. 

One of the larger cuts the committee adopted fell on the state’s capital construction fund. That included removing funding for a new state office in Riverton as well as $69 million for the Veterans’ Home of Wyoming in Buffalo. Conversely, the committee added $2.5 million for a community recreation center in Riverton, as well as $55.8 million of federal funds for the Military Department’s entry facility in Guernsey and the F.E. Warren power station. 

Rep. Lloyd Larsen (R-Lander) saw that portion of the budget as an especially telling part of the process. 

“Both sides had to compromise,” Larsen said on the House floor Friday morning. “For example, we got [capital construction] in but we had to back away from the [Veterans Home of Wyoming] and the Riverton office building renovation. And they put some other stuff in. That’s part of negotiating.”

To combat invasive grasses, the committee kept $9 million in the budget compared to the $20 million the governor had requested. 

Lawmakers socked away a record $1.4 billion in the supplemental budget during the 2023 session. This year, about $709 million was put into savings, Rep. Ken Clouston (R-Gillette) said on the floor Friday. 

“That’s over $2 billion in savings in two years,” Clouston said. “Proud of that number and I’m proud of all of us.” 

The House 

“I didn’t get all I wanted,” Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper) said Friday on the floor. “And none of us did.” 

But that’s the nature of the budget process, Harshman said. 

“There was a lot of the good work we really did here in the House that is essentially gonna end up on the cutting-room floor,” Minority Floor Leader Mike Yin (D-Jackson) said. “Of course, there are things we can bring back in the next session, but I think there are things that would have definitely helped people right now.”

That immediate kind of assistance included Wyoming Office of Tourism grants and energy matching funds. The latter was cut down from $200 million to $100 million, while the House’s position was around $400 million. 

But as a whole, Yin said, he remained in support of the budget. 

Freedom Caucus Chairman Rep. John Bear (R-Gillette) was also disappointed with the budget, but for different reasons. For one, Bear criticized the budget process for being too complicated. He also criticized the Legislature for building up the state’s savings while property taxes have gone up for many residents. 

Rep. John Bear (R-Gillette) at the 2024 Wyoming Legislature. (Ashton J. Hacke/WyoFile)

“I’ll remind this body that there was a lot of discussion about how we can’t afford to give too much back to the people,” Bear said. 

Property taxes do not go to the state. Instead, those taxes fund local services, but lawmakers often conflate state revenue streams with local revenue streams. 

Before the House recessed for lunch, they took a vote, leaving the fate of the budget in the Senate’s hands. 

The Senate 

The House got more than a two-hour head start over the Senate, partly because the upper chamber chose to take on the governor’s line-item vetoes ahead of dealing with the budget. 

Gordon vetoed $50,000 of the Legislature’s own budget — the spending plan for the legislative governing body, not the state — that would have paid for new furniture. 

“Surely this is a cost your branch can sacrifice while my branch deals with an enormous cut to our needs — not our wants,” Gordon wrote. 

Hicks brought a motion to override this veto on the basis that it represented the executive branch interfering with the legislative branch. Sen. Ed Cooper (R-Ten Sleep) objected to that argument. 

“This is just another statement to the hypocrisy of this body in this last month,” Cooper said. “We came in here and we cut many many millions out of the budget across the board. We came in here with not a scalpel but a train wreck to the budget. But we think we should have some nicer furniture? That’s completely hypocritical.”

The motion failed.

Sens. Stacy Jones (Rock Springs) and John Kolb (Rock Springs) both voted to pass the budget for the state of Wyoming’s coming fiscal biennium. The budget included funding for a new Rock Springs High School, and both the senators voted in favor of passing the negotiated budget. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

When the upper chamber got to the budget bill around 11 a.m., some of the initial debate centered around procedural matters such as how much each member could speak — echoing much of the quarreling of the last four weeks. 

Much of the budget-bill heartburn in the Senate related to school construction, particularly when it came to funding a new high school in Rock Springs. Earlier in the session, lawmakers sparred over the process that was used to select new school sites. 

Ultimately, however, funding for the new Rock Springs high school worked to bring in two critical swing votes — Sens. John Kolb (R-Rock Springs) and Stacy Jones (R-Rock Springs). 

The time to vote on the budget came up somewhat abruptly when Sen. Troy McKeown (R-Gillette) brought a motion to end debate, which put the budget up for an immediate decision. 

It was a roll call vote. 

After the vote tally was announced, the silence was broken by Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander), shooting up from his chair in a hearty applause.

Lawmakers were going home — constitutionally obligated duty completed.

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.