CHEYENNE — Education advocates found themselves in an odd position last Thursday, reluctantly backing a House bill that includes more than $20 million in cuts to Wyoming public schools in order to ward off deeper cuts, around $75 million, proposed by the Senate.
“It’s very difficult for me to say we’re OK with any kinds of cuts,” Brian Farmer, the executive director of the Wyoming School Board Association, told the House Education Committee last week. “But if we’re going to have to do reductions, (your bill) is a far better alternative than what we look at down the hall.”
The House committee was meeting in a small room on the south side of the Jonah Business Center. Down the hall from the House’s temporary quarters lies the Senate chamber, and just beyond that is the office of Senate President Eli Bebout.
In that office Friday morning, Bebout leaned back in his padded leather chair. A large, silver belt buckle sat high on his waist and met his tie. First elected to the Legislature in 1986, Bebout has slicked-back silver hair, a salt-and-pepper goatee and the ability to strike fear — or anger — into the heart of the school lobbyists at the capitol.
The fear or anger stems mostly from his refusal to go along with House Speaker Steve Harshman’s plan to pay for education with minimal cuts, lots of one-time cash and shuffling around the state’s earnings from its trust funds.
The Senate stripped much of Harshman’s plan out of its version of the budget bill with amendments proposed by Bebout.
“We lose transparency,” Bebout explained. “That’s why we took those out.”
The Senate has its own plan for education that would cut $76.2 million from public schools in the state over the coming two-year budget cycle. It has also considered a constitutional amendment that would allow the Legislature much more leeway to slash school spending without interference from the courts, which have loomed in the background of education finance debates since the landmark Campbell v. Wyoming case in 1995 found a requirement for equitable funding across school districts.
Harshman, a teacher and football coach at Natrona County High School, has dismissed the idea of constitutional amendments to block judicial intervention nearly out of hand — “I think most folks believe in three branches of government,” he said — and has not taken the Senate’s proposal as much of a threat to his careful balancing of school finance accounts.
“For me personally, I think — seriously?” Harshman said of the Senate’s cuts. “I don’t think anybody is serious about that.”
Noting that he had not carefully reviewed the Senate bill, Harshman suggested that Bebout’s deep proposed cuts were part of a strategy for future negotiations with the House, effectively asking for more than they could get to shift the midpoint of the discussion.
“I don’t operate like like that,” Harshman said. “Budgets are people’s lives. I’m not into the ‘Art of the Deal’.”
Harshman’s own plan is based on a concept that he describes as akin to shifting lines around a pie chart. The pie is the amount of new money flowing into Wyoming’s public coffers each year — mostly taxes and revenue from savings accounts — and the lines denote how much money goes to which accounts.
The shifting of lines in the plan backed by Harshman and the Joint Appropriations Committee, which created the budget bill being used as a starting point in both the House and Senate, has turned up an additional $269 million for schools, helping close a $660 million deficit in education funding. That gap makes up the bulk of the total $850 million deficit facing the state.
Harshman notes that he opposed sending any less money to savings accounts for many years, arguing it was necessary to build up the savings fund, but that now is the time to start putting those dollars toward the cost of operating schools.
Bebout is skeptical. He doesn’t like shifting the distribution model for interest generated by the state’s largest trust fund, the Permanent Wyoming Mineral Trust Fund, and doesn’t like locking in too many dollars for education.
“Why not have everything go to the top?” Bebout asked, suggesting that more money be put toward the general fund first and appropriated from there, rather than being funneled directly into education accounts.
The Senate’s plan remained in flux Friday afternoon, and the solutions generated by both chambers were likely to change dramatically as a committee made up of both senators and representatives meets to hash out a middle-ground. But by press time, the Senate’s bill was seeking to increase class sizes slightly and change the model that calculates how many students a district has as a means to allocate funding.
While Bebout praised teachers and Wyoming’s public schools in an interview with reporters Friday, the mood among education lobbyists seems to be that his plan is far more hostile toward their interests.
“It’s been a delight to be on this end of the building and hear the good things you’re saying about our schools and our teachers,” Tammy Schroeder, government relations director at the Wyoming Education Association, told the House education committee. “I just want to say thank you for your hard work.”
But for some, even the House plan, which includes roughly $20 million in cuts to education over the next two years, along with an additional $15 million in savings that do not come through cuts, were approaching the issue in the wrong way.
“I’m having trouble cutting more from our schools,” said Rep. Debbie Bovee, D-Casper, a retired schoolteacher. “We have not been funding our schools adequately all along and now, because we have this idea that everyone should take an equal percentage hit, we keep cutting.”
Education took a roughly $70 million cut last year and Farmer, of the school board group, said that when taking into account the lack of cost of living adjustments in district funding over the last several years, the actual reduction in funding could be tens of millions more.
Educators and some lawmakers say a recently completed consultant’s report shows that Wyoming is underfunding its schools. The report offered an alternative funding model that was $71 million more expensive than Wyoming’s current model. By Harshman’s recent estimates, Wyoming schools have had $77 million slashed in recent years.
But both Bebout and Harshman have remained confident that whatever solution the Legislature finds to school funding will protect students and classroom learning.
“I’m confident we’re going to land this in a really good way,” Harshman said.