Over 999,000 readers this year!

Gordon signs budget, Freedom Caucus calls for special session to override his vetoes

The Wyoming Capitol in the twilight during the opening days of the Legislature's 2024 budget session. (Ashton J. Hacke/WyoFile)

Gov. Mark Gordon made the final mark on Wyoming’s next two-year budget Saturday morning with his signature and dozens of line-item vetoes.

“This budget addresses our challenges and positions Wyoming for a prosperous future,” Gordon said in a statement. “We are fighting federal overreach, advancing our industries, providing practical property tax relief, ensuring adequate funding for our schools, counties, and communities and providing the services Wyoming residents expect.”

Gordon thanked the Legislature for including many of the provisions his administration had requested, including funding for the 988 suicide lifeline, new school construction, a property tax refund program as well as increased savings. 

On the other hand, Gordon said many of his line-item vetoes were meant to uphold the separation of powers and limit the scope of the budget bill to regular government expenses. 

Gordon struck language — but not appropriations — related to employee compensation, border assistance and diversity, equity and inclusion programming at the University of Wyoming. He also axed funding for a Wheatland water tower and a Riverton recreation center but kept 24 state positions the Legislature voted to cut. 

While Gordon approved the final product, he also let lawmakers know he was less than impressed with the contentious and chaotic way the budget came to be. The session began with a leadership fight in the Senate then the House temporarily walked away from budget negotiations and members of the Senate Appropriations Committee voted against their own work product. Ultimately, it ended with the upper chamber only narrowly passing the budget. 

“Last year in my budget line-item veto letter of the supplemental budget, I congratulated both chambers on passing a budget in record time — all while increasing transparency. It is unfortunate this session did not follow suit,” Gordon wrote in his veto letter. “Over 300 amendments to this one bill, some of which were introduced to save legislation that failed earlier in the session, almost caused the budget bill to share the same fate.”

Lawmakers cannot override any of Gordon’s line-item vetoes since they are no longer in session. However, in the wake of Gordon’s budget announcement, Freedom Caucus Chairman Rep. John Bear (R-Gillette) called for a special session in a press release.

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

The Legislature met for the full 20 days of the budget session, but Bear accused leadership of adjourning early since three extra days were technically available to lawmakers. 

“The decision of legislative leadership to adjourn early served as an open invitation to Governor Gordon to veto measures important to the people of Wyoming with no recourse,” Bear wrote, pointing to Gordon’s action on the budget and several rejected bills including a ban on gun-free zones and new abortion restrictions. 

Returning to Cheyenne won’t come cheap — a special session costs approximately $100,000 a day. 

Details

Gordon did not shy away from the budget’s more controversial appropriations. 

Lawmakers included $750,000 to reimburse Wyoming law enforcement that assists with “securing the United States border” in Texas. Gordon kept the funding but struck the language limiting use of the funds to law enforcement. Any state agency may now be eligible. 

“I greatly appreciate the intent of this footnote and I will note the requests received by my office to assist with the border crisis are ever changing,” Gordon wrote in his letter. “To best meet these needs as they are expressed I have sought some flexibility in the way these funds are spent.”

Gordon vetoed a portion of a budget footnote to defund UW’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and related programming — a major target of Wyoming’s far right. More specifically, Gordon removed a line that would prohibit state funds from going toward “any diversity, equity and inclusion program, activity or function.”

That portion was estimated to jeopardize roughly $120 million of UW’s federal research funds per year. 

“These grants are vital to research and other core purposes of the university, but with the condition that the recipients extend opportunities to participate to underrepresented and underserved populations, including veterans, people with disabilities, Native Americans, and others,” Gordon wrote.

Regardless of Gordon’s decision, UW President Ed Seidel indicated his focus was on the will of the Legislature. 

“We certainly will continue to value and serve students, employees and community members of all genders, ethnicities and backgrounds, and work to make everyone feel welcome,” Seidel said in a statement Saturday morning. “But the message from lawmakers, regardless of the welcomed line-item veto from the Governor, is that our DEI efforts must change, and discussions are underway to determine the best path forward.” 

The university’s trustees, who oversee Seidel, indicated support Thursday for the school’s DEI programs.

Much of the budget bill heartburn in the Legislature related to school construction, and lawmakers sparred over the process that was used to select new school sites. 

Weighing in, Gordon removed language that would define “priority” in the school capital construction section as a project that was recommended by his office and not included in the budget recommendations of the school facilities commission.

“I am not vetoing the project, I am only vetoing any implication that I support the Legislature deviating from the standard prioritization process for the constriction of school facilities,” Gordon wrote. 

As governor, Gordon has made employee compensation a priority of his administration. As such, he removed language that placed a limit on executive branch salary increases, adding that it’s in the purview of the executive to make such decisions. 

“This provision infringes on the separation of powers and encroaches upon the inherent prerogative of the executive branch,” Gordon wrote. “This is contrary to my budget recommendation authority as it removes my discretionary power relating to the next biennial budget.” 

For similar reasons, Gordon struck language that prescribed where funding for executive-branch employee compensation could be allocated and cut a provision that would require him to identify 24 executive-branch positions for elimination by October. 

“As I noted in the beginning of this letter, I believe the Legislature has a practice of encroaching upon the inherent prerogatives of the executive branch,” Gordon wrote. “Requiring the executive branch to eliminate positions is just another example of this encroachment.”

Gov. Mark Gordon conducts an interview during the Wyoming Legislature’s 2024 budget session. (Ashton J. Hacke/WyoFile)

When budget talks moved to a second committee of lawmakers, negotiators added $2.5 million for a community recreation center in Riverton. However, the appropriation was not an ordinary expense of state government, Gordon wrote. He also noted the fact that Sen. Tim Salazar (R-Riverton) ultimately voted against the budget. 

“The principal sponsor of this provision did not support the final budget and, therefore, I must assume his enthusiasm for it had waned,” Gordon wrote. 

Gordon applied a similar approach to a water tower in the district of Rep. Jeremy Haroldson (R-Wheatland), who also voted against the budget. 

“Following the lead of local legislators who voted against the budget thereby indicating their regard for the inclusion of this project in the budget,” Gordon wrote. 

Gordon added that the State Loan and Investment Board is aware of Wheatland’s circumstances “and is anxious to help the town using [Mineral Royalty Grant] funds as is customary for situations such as this.”

The budget goes into effect July 1. 

This story may be updated with reaction from stakeholders. 


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.


Back

Related