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Senate and House must bridge $1.1 billion budget chasm — and soon

Budget talks between the Wyoming Legislature’s two chambers kicked off Wednesday. Negotiators have major differences to resolve and only days to do it.

The exterior of the Wyoming State Capitol is pictured during the 2024 legislative session. (Ashton J. Hacke/WyoFile)

by Maya Shimizu Harris and Maggie Mullen, WyoFile

With two fiscal plans that differ by more than a billion dollars, lawmakers appointed to negotiate a unified state budget have more than their share of work cut out for them. 

On Friday, lawmakers finished sorting through 295 budget amendments — a record number of proposals that foreshadowed the $1.1 billion chasm between the House and Senate versions of the budget bill that emerged from this process. For context, the Joint Appropriations Committee’s draft, which acts as a starting point for lawmakers, appropriated $3.7 billion in general fund dollars. 

That gap in spending between the two chambers’ versions of the budget is unusual. Senate President Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower), who has served in the Legislature since 2011, told reporters last week he’d never seen the two bodies so far apart. 

The Senate version of the state’s budget is the more conservative of the two. Senate lawmakers cut $200 million in large energy projects, more than $110 million in K-12 capital construction projects and $75 million in University of Wyoming research matching funds, to name just a few areas where they reined in spending. 

Overall, some Senate lawmakers sought to simplify the state’s budget, which can be complicated owing to the number of funds — or, as some lawmakers refer to them, “coffee cans” — that the state relies on to pay for various state services. 

Meanwhile, House lawmakers added $69 million for veterans’ home construction projects, more than $63 million for various state capital construction projects, $40 million to fund Wyoming’s 988 suicide lifeline and $18.5 million for K-12 mental health grants, among other appropriations. 

While the two chambers vary by about a billion when it comes to putting different dollars into different pots, House Appropriations Chairman Rep. Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne) said the actual spending difference is much smaller.

House Appropriations Chairman Rep. Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne) speaks on the House floor during the 2024 legislative session. (Ashton J. Hacke/WyoFile)

“In a nutshell, the dollars that are different are about $1.1 billion,” Nicholas said Tuesday on the House floor. “A lot of that is just money shifting right and left, one pocket to the other, and how we administer the dollars through the budgetary process, what funds we use. Those are just the differences. If you put it all together, it’s probably, roughly, $300 to $350 million difference of hard dollars.” 

In terms of mirror amendments that have a significant fiscal impact, both chambers added more than $15 million for the Wyoming Military Department land exchange and $5 million to combat invasive grasses. Since the House and Senate adopted identical amendments for these appropriations, they won’t be up for negotiation. 

As for social issues, the two chambers mostly diverged. 

The House, for example, rejected amendments to defund the University of Wyoming’s Gender Studies program as well as the UW Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. The Senate adopted both of those amendments, the latter of which would also prohibit funding for “any diversity, equity and inclusion program, activity or function.”

The Senate also adopted an amendment that would require UW to submit a budget to the state every two years. And this particular amendment is one area where fireworks have just begun to fizz on the Joint Conference Committee. That’s the appointed group of lawmakers from both chambers who are tasked with negotiating a unified state budget. 

They met for the first time Wednesday, mostly to hear an explanation of their two budgets by the Legislative Service Office. 

“We meant no ill will towards the university,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Dave Kinskey (R-Sheridan) said when the university budget amendment came up in discussion. “We think this is good for the university in the long run — more transparency, more oversight.”

“Yeah, the ill will doesn’t come until the next paragraph,” Nicholas shot back in reference to the gender studies amendment. However fiery, the exchange was met with laughter.

The door of the Joint Appropriations Committee meeting room is pictured during the 2024 legislative session. (Ashton J. Hacke/WyoFile)

Speaker of the House Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) appointed Nicholas alongside Reps. Lloyd Larsen (R-Lander), Trey Sherwood (D-Laramie), Clark Stith (R-Rock Springs) and Tom Walters (R-Casper) to the JCC. All five representatives serve on the Joint Appropriations Committee (JAC) — the panel responsible for drafting the budget starting point. 

It’s typical for JAC members to be appointed to the JCC, but Driskill took a different approach. 

After telling reporters last week he planned to appoint “conservative” lawmakers to reflect the will of the upper chamber, Driskill appointed mostly non-JAC members including Sens. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne), Troy McKeown (R-Gillette) and Dan Laursen (R-Powell). 

Kinskey and Sen. Tim Salazar (R-Riverton), who also serves on Appropriations, are the other two members. 

Senate Appropriations Chairman Sen. Dave Kinskey (R-Sheridan) speaks on the Senate floor during the 2024 legislative session. (Ashton J. Hacke/WyoFile)

If the JCC is able to iron out one budget, it will still need the approval of both the House and the Senate. 

If that doesn’t happen, what’s called a free committee can take over the process. 

“You can call [the first JCC] a failed committee, or you can come to a negotiation, return to your bodies, and maybe one of those bodies does not adopt the resolution. That’s two ways that you can arrive at a JCC O2, which is a free committee,” LSO’s Don Richards explained Monday to the House Appropriations Committee. 

“A free committee — all of this goes away,” Richards said. “You have the Joint Appropriations Committee bill as introduced, and any amendment on any agency in any amount is on the table.”

The last time that occurred was in 1999, Richards said. 

With such a significant chasm in spending to negotiate, it’s uncertain whether the Legislature will ultimately have to go into a special session to pass a budget bill, which it’s constitutionally required to do. 

For now, lawmakers have three additional days leftover from the 2023 session to work with. Plus, there are seven more regular days allotted for the budget session.

Then there’s the governor. 

If the Legislature wishes to override any line-item vetoes from Gov. Mark Gordon — the Legislature must be in session to do so — a budget must be on his desk by midnight next Monday. 

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.