Both the Select Committee on School Finance and Recalibration and the Revenue Committee met in December.
On the Revenue Committee’s agenda were several measures aimed at increasing revenue in the state, including a bill that would raise ad valorem, or property taxes, to a level of 9 mills over a graduated period helping to fund K-12 education in the state of Wyoming. Other revenue bills were a proposal to increase taxes on wind energy, alcohol, and tobacco products. A number of WEA members provided testimony to the Revenue Committee, including WEA Vice President Kim Amen and member, Josh Thompson. WEA Government Relations Director Tate Mullen also provided testimony for the Revenue Committee. Testimony reflected the state’s dire need to generate significant and substantial streams of revenue to fund education.
Despite efforts to move the bill forward and despite amendments to appease extraction industries by removing industrial properties from the proposed taxation, the measure fell short on a tie vote of 7-7. The only revenue bill that passed was a bill to increase taxes on tobacco products.
The School Finance and Recalibration Committee elected to work from the legislative model for school funding instead of the evidence-based model. The Wyoming Education Association has advocated that the legislature works from the legislative model bill as opposed to the evidence-based model bill, despite the evidence-based model bill adding $100 million for education.
While the evidence-based model added this money, it did so at the expense of close to 900 teaching jobs across the state. The proposed tradeoff for the $100 million at the cost of 900 educator positions was a demand for substantially more instructional facilitators to be hired and paid for outside of the block grant utilizing categorical grants, and increased class sizes. When the initial vote went through, despite our members’ willingness to speak out actively against the evidence-based model, the committee had previously decided to work from the evidence-based model. During their most recent convening, this all changed. The Select Committee on School Finance and Recalibration moved and passed a motion to work from the legislative model as opposed to the evidence-based model. The nuance between these two bills comes with inevitable pros and cons.
On the plus side, the legislature will be working a bill that does not immediately move to reduce the number of positions for educators across the state. However, the model is not cost-based and is at a minimum, $100 million short of being so. Additionally, the legislature moved that an additional $100 million in cuts to education be added to the bill with a later provision calling for the legislature to pass some sort of sales and use tax in an attempt to backfill the $100 million in loss. This ultimately brings the price tag of this bill at $200 million below what a cost-based model should be. Discussions focused on that it was the goal of the Recalibration committee to determine where to make these cuts. WEA reminded the committee that education is a constitutional right in the state and that the legislature is tasked with providing the best education, and that a lack of revenue is no excuse to underfund education. WEA Government Relations Director Tate Mullen testified that the committee is “moving away from the purpose of recalibration,” and that the “$100 million in proposed cuts is arbitrary and capricious.” Other WEA members, including Bryon Lee of Albany County, testified during this committee meeting. The bill quickly passed unamended, with only Senator Rothfuss and Representatives Connolly and Schwartz having voted against the measure.
Absent this bill moving forward, there were distinct possibilities that something more sinister may have taken its place. However, if this bill is to receive any support from WEA, it must come with an increase in revenue to backfill the $100 million in cuts that are laid out in the bill. Without revenue-generating measures, this bill would mean one of the most significant cuts to education the state of Wyoming has ever seen. Also of note from this committee meeting: additional proposed bills to cap special education and transportation ultimately failed.
The WEA lobbying team wants to extend a very heartfelt thank you to all those who engage around these issues. While the 7-7 vote in Revenue was not what we had hoped for, that is genuinely a substantial victory given that committee’s composition. Even Senator Biteman alluded to the work done by WEA members in reaching out to the members of both committees, noting “Big Ed’s substantial lobbying capabilities.” While the outcome is not what the WEA wished, members of the legislature are aware that educators are engaged and vocal. We need to continue to be so.
It will require a sustained effort on all fronts to save education in the state of Wyoming. The focus now turns to revenue-generating measures, and all emphasis should be placed on them. The opportunities for the WEA lobbying team and WEA members to engage the legislature are bountiful. The legislature is working from a far more amenable bill than they were previously and WEA, and educators across the state still have ample opportunity to move the needle and save education.
The WEA wishes all of our membership very happy holidays and a happy new year. We hope this finds you all safe, peaceful and—even if it is virtually—with your loved ones. We have work ahead of us in the new year, but WEA is optimistic that 2021 will be a great year for educators and education in the Cowboy State.