Legislature holds full plate with little time to address everything

SHERIDAN — Even more so than usual, the Wyoming Legislature has a lot of work to do at its upcoming budget session.

In 20 days, the Legislature will not only have to approve a budget but also pass a redistricting bill and develop a spending plan for $1.68 billion in federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars, said Sen. Bo Biteman, R-Parkman. Throw in dozens of committee and legislator-sponsored bills, and there is much to be done in a short amount of time.

“We definitely have to pick and choose the bills that we think will help the most people in the biggest way because time is short and the ability to pass any amount of legislation in such a short amount of time is difficult,” Biteman said.

At the Sheridan County Chamber of Commerce’s annual Eggs and Issues breakfast Wednesday, five Sheridan County legislators — the entire delegation, minus Rep. Barry Crago, R-Buffalo — discussed priorities for the coming session, which starts Feb. 14 and ends March 11.

First and foremost is the budget, said Rep. Mark Kinner, R-Sheridan. And in many ways, the state is in a better financial situation than it was 18 months ago.

“A year ago, we were facing quite a few cuts, about $450 million in cuts the governor put in place,” Kinner said. “But a year later, who would have guessed that oil prices are back in the $88 range? That’s had quite a dramatic effect on our revenue streams.”

Kinner said the state would use that influx of cash to bring back some state-funded healthcare programs, including programs for people with special needs and Wyoming Home Services, which allows elderly residents to live in their homes with assistance.

But overall, there are few big budgetary increases, Kinner said, because the state doesn’t know when another bust could put the state back on the brink of financial insolvency.

“The reason we wanted to come up with a responsible budget is we don’t know how long that’s going to last,” Kinner said. “We are putting money back into the rainy-day fund, because who knows when it’s going to rain even harder.”

Rep. Cyrus Western, R-Big Horn, said the Legislature should use this time to formulate a plan for how to diversify the economy and handle the next oil and gas bust everybody knows is coming sooner or later.

“About 18 months ago, the state of Wyoming was quite frankly facing financial insolvency,” Western said. “That was a realistic conversation. But in classic Wyoming form, 18 months later, we’re flush with cash. The price of coal, oil and gas has doubled and tripled, and we’ve got a ton of federal money in the form of ARPA money as well as infrastructure money, and that’s obviously good… But the reality is, we are trapped in a (boom and bust) cycle, and I really hope we will use this extra time on the clock to finally answer that question of ‘How do we drive our state forward economically?’”

Another economic issue at the forefront of conversation is what to do with more than a billion dollars in federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars, said Rep. Mark Jennings, R-Sheridan. 

Gov. Mark Gordon has recommended the majority of the ARPA funding be set aside for savings with other dollars allocated toward projects ranging from the Wyoming Innovation Partnership to the Wyoming Wildlife Trust Fund. Wyoming has until 2026 to find ways to utilize the ARPA funding.

When considering uses for the money, Jennings warned the state should be cautious of the “strings attached to the federal dollars.” 

And the Legislature needs to ensure there is a longtime funding source in place for the agencies and programs receiving ARPA dollars, Western said.

“We absolutely have a lot of money from the federal government, but this is a one-time thing,” Western said. “So if we’re going to spend it on things that require recurring funding, we need to ask how we are going to pay for this one budget from now, two budgets from now, three budgets from now. So that’s my personal philosophy…Trying to fund things that are going to require a continuous funding mandate, we really need to think that through.”

While budget conversations are sure to be heated, the big contention point of the session is going to be the ongoing redistricting conversation, Biteman said.

After every 10-year U.S. Census count, state governments take on the task of redistricting, or redrawing the maps that determine who will represent a given area.

While Sheridan County legislators quickly agreed on a plan that worked well for the region, other parts of the state have been much more contentious, said Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan.

“What you see is power plays by some counties that want more representation, more than they’re actually entitled to based on the one-man one-vote principle,” Kinskey said. “So lines are getting moved around.”

The redistricting conversation is a reflection of a general spirit of confrontation and lack of cooperation among legislators right now — something Biteman and Kinskey said will make this year’s session more challenging than most.

“That anger we see on the national scene is reflected here in the Legislature,” Kinskey said. “Those of you who follow the political scene know some of the things that have happened. One precinct committeeman wrote to a state legislator that he hoped she would just kill herself and then ended with some vile curses…We have some colleagues on the floor posting on social media that such-and-such is a liar or a RINO, right from the floor. It’s mean-spirited, and it’s reflected in this redistricting.”

“This session is honestly going to be brutal,” Biteman said. “I’m not looking forward to it. Usually, I’m pretty optimistic going into a legislative session, but with the current spirit of politics being what it is, it’s just not going to be fun, to be honest with you. But we will continue to work together to do what is best for the people of Sheridan County.”