Friday, May 16, marked the beginning of the Wyoming Legislature's 2020 Special Session. The special session worked to allocate funds received by the state of Wyoming from the Federal Government, through the CARES Act.
Wyoming currently faces an economic crisis. SF/HB1003 Emergency Budgeting COVID 19 was established to allow school districts to save funds received through the CARES act, in an effort to bolster themselves against looming budget cuts. The state has already allocated funds for the 20/21 school year. Some school districts have already completed their contract negotiations, and funds are allocated for contracts and supplies. The ability for districts to 'carry over' money has been a contentious issue for Wyoming education. As this bill was initially written, it would have allowed districts the ability to carry over 25% of their funds, instead of the 15% as was previously allowed. The hope was that instead of spending these funds, districts would save this money, as it's been voiced by many lawmakers that cuts are coming. It seems an inevitability for every service provision, department, agency, and economic sector in the state.
Senate members were concerned that districts would see this money as an opportunity to bolster superintendents' and administrative salaries while forcing classroom teachers, paraprofessionals, and access to supplies, to bear the brunt of the district's financial hardship.
Amendments were added by Senators Kost, Hicks, Kinskey, and Bebout. The two most detrimental of these amendments were those proposed by Senators Hicks and Bebout. Sen. Hicks' amendment provided that the additional 10% 'carry over' funds must be tied directly to classroom and educational standards. This proposal would have hamstrung districts' local control and ignores the fact that districts are in the best position to understand their specific needs and shortfalls. For example, if a school building were damaged, as one was by hail and needed a new roof, these funds could not be utilized to make any necessary repairs to the school's structure. Sen. Bebout's amendment granted the Governor authority to reduce the funding in the School Foundation Program and reallocate those funds to other governmental agencies, departments, or programs, at his discretion. This proposed amendment would have allowed the Governor to ignore the funding model and proceed to reduce education funding in the state, if he so chose. The Wyoming Education Association lobbied dedicatedly against these damaging amendments, contacting nearly all senators and urging them to vote against them. Unfortunately, these amendments passed in the Senate. Thankfully, the House defeated, and killed the bill, in its entirety. While education has been spared gubernatorial discretionary cuts, districts have been halted in their ability to increase carry over and save these funds.
SF/HB1001 Emergency Appropriation-COVID-19-funds, allows for the allocation of $1.25 billion in federal relief monies to four priority classifications, including: the limited COVID-19 relief programs; relief aid to state and local programs to support businesses, families, and individuals; economic development projects as an opportunity to invest in infrastructure and create employment opportunities for Wyoming residents; and the replacement of lost revenue for public entities to the extent allowable under the CARES Act, or other similarly purposed federal act.
This last priority is not currently allowed under regulations for the CARES Act funds, as espoused by the U.S. Treasury Department. But, the legislature wished to implement foresight into this bill, as the understanding is that every city, county, and region in the state is desperate for funds to allow them to make up for lost revenue. Appropriations from this bill can be expended only for any expenses incurred by state, cities, towns, and counties to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic; to provide grants for expenses incurred by Wyoming health care providers; capital construction; and related expenses for the judicial and legislative branches. This bill passed and is awaiting a signature from the Governor.
SF/HB1004 COVID Business Relief Programs, is the legislature's attempt to bolster and aid small businesses across the state that have been negatively impacted by the coronavirus outbreak. The bill creates three relief programs: the Wyoming Business Interruption Stipend ($50 million allocated), the Coronavirus Business Relief Program ($175 million allocated), and the Coronavirus Mitigation Stipend Program ($50 million allocated).
The Wyoming Business Interruption Program provides stipend monies to businesses in the state of Wyoming that meet specific criteria. To be eligible, the business must: be independently owned and operated; be headquartered in Wyoming or has its principal operations located in Wyoming; have had less than 50 employees as of March 31, 2020; and have been required to close. The Coronavirus Business Relief Stipend will be administered by the Wyoming business council, for the purposes of providing stipends to eligible businesses. These stipends are to be utilized for payroll costs, business supplies, necessary business equipment, rent or mortgage of associated commercial property, utilities, and other operational costs. Finally, the Coronavirus Mitigation Stipend Program's purpose is to provide relief for eligible businesses.
During the meeting of the Joint Conference Committee, the debate was focused on the provision determining the number of employees that a business must have to qualify for the stipend. It was noted that roughly 98% of local Wyoming businesses employ less than 100 people. This number became the focus of debate, as it was suggested that the Wyoming Business Council would be allowed to grant stipends for businesses employing 100 people, or even more, if the business met other criteria and could prove a need. The suggestion that discretion would be allowed became the sticking point that halted these proposals.
SF/HB1002 Emergency Powers COVID 19 in its original form, sought to expand unemployment benefits, amend the workers' compensation program, and create a program that would halt the eviction of needy persons. The focus of protecting those individuals quickly shifted to an emphasis on how to protect the businesses employing them. Arguments were made that employers should not be on the hook for unemployment, as there is no way to determine whether or not the employee may have contracted the coronavirus during the course of performing job-related duties. These arguments were eventually broken down, but after the bill had passed third reading in both houses, the contentious focus of protecting businesses instead of the workers reared its head again in the Joint Conference Committee.
As was mentioned previously, a fifth bill was introduced into the special session without any public comment or thorough vetting. SF/HB1005 Coronavirus Immunity Provisions sought to expand the immunity against civil liability for businesses for damages and injuries resulting from exposure to coronavirus. This bill was ultimately referred to the Rules Committee, which will meet later this summer to properly vet the bill and allow for the necessary public comment. However, in the Joint Conference Committee, SF/HB1002 hit a brick wall when Senators Ogden Driskill and Lisa Anselmi-Dalton insisted that the bill contain a provision that would expand civil liability to businesses. What made this issue so contentious was that by doing this, the legislature is essentially taking away a right of Wyoming citizens without allowing for any public testimony or testimony from interested organizations. The JCC debate culminated with the addition of language by Senator Nethercott that would allow for this immunity. However, when the bill went for the full vote, it sparked some of the most lengthy and interesting debate. The three-hour debate can be heard on the Wyoming Legislature's YouTube channel. It begins at the 4:12:50. Ultimately, the bill passed and is awaiting the signature of the Governor.
Friday and Saturday's special session is only the beginning, and other sessions are expected. Committees are scheduled to meet to address committee-specific COVID related topics. The Wyoming Education Association will continue to lobby and work on behalf of educators, students, paraprofessionals, and education in the state of Wyoming. Please stay on the lookout for legislative updates and keep your eyes open for Action Alerts from the WEA.
School Finance Recalibration
For other meetings, please see the Wyoming Legislature's website