Wyoming Lawmakers Adjourn With $300M K-12 Deficit Unresolved

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Wyoming lawmakers ended a month-long legislative session without agreement on resolving a $300 million education funding shortfall.

House and Senate members remained at odds late Wednesday on where cuts should occur, how to spend federal funds and whether to impose a 0.5% sales tax if state reserves fall below a certain level, the Casper Star-Tribune reported.

The legislative session, extended two days because of a blizzard that shut down the Capitol in March, ended with one of the session's major items still on the table.

“I have to say I was disappointed we were not able to come to some sort of agreement on school funding. It wasn’t necessarily a surprise,” Gov. Mark Gordon said in a news conference Thursday.

Lawmakers have been aware of a looming education funding crunch for years, Gordon added.

A new state panel to be appointed will take a “customer service approach” and listen to what parents and others around Wyoming want from the state's education system, Gordon announced.

The K-12 shortfall has been exacerbated by a coronavirus-related downturn in fossil-fuel markets that is straining Wyoming's economy and state revenue.

Lawmakers last week agreed to a supplemental budget with $430 million in cuts, an unusually big revision for a general session. Legislators write the state’s two-year budget in even-numbered years and focus mainly on non-budget matters in odd-numbered years.

Last year, state agency cuts imposed by Gordon, a Republican, slashed 10% from the $3.3 billion, two-year budget he signed just months earlier. The cuts in this year's supplemental budget bring the overall budget well below $3 billion.

Now, with no agreement on the separate but equally dire education deficit, Wyoming will keep burning through state savings to keep its school districts funded.

A proposal to cut education spending by $80 million over three years while imposing a conditional sales tax if needed made it through the House but the Senate balked, stripping the tax and changing how districts could spend on teacher salaries.

The changes moved the legislation to a conference committee of senators and representatives to try to work out a compromise. After meeting several hours Wednesday, senators on the committee declined to keep negotiating when it became apparent no agreement could be met, said Sen. Charles Scott, a Republican from Casper.

School districts should make up for less state funding by putting federal economic stimulus money in reserves, Scott said.