Lawmakers discuss funding fix for emergency communications system
CHEYENNE — With money expected to run out by next summer for the state’s emergency communications system, known as WyoLink, lawmakers discussed potential ways to fund the radio system during a committee meeting Tuesday.
First established in 2005, WyoLink connects more than 500 local agencies via communications towers, allowing public safety officials to coordinate rescue missions and other emergency responses across the rural landscape of Wyoming. However, with its funding largely coming from local governments’ share of mineral royalties, its current account is expected to run dry by the end of the 2021-22 biennium.
While a few proposals to fund the system through small fees have failed in recent years, lawmakers on the Joint Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Committee took another look at possible solutions to the issue during their meeting Tuesday in Casper. Although the committee took no action, it will likely revisit the issue during its next meeting in June.
One potential route to fund the system, at least for the next few years, could come through use of the roughly $1.1 billion that Wyoming is receiving through the federal American Rescue Plan. With lawmakers likely to convene for a special session in July to deploy those funds, it is unclear whether spending on WyoLink would be allowed under federal guidelines. Even if it is, the long-term issue would reemerge a few years later, as Wyoming County Commissioners Association Kelli Little reminded the committee.
“When you get the ARPA funding, if it’s available, that’s a band aid and gives us a little bit of time to figure it out, but it doesn’t give us a lot,” Little said Tuesday. “If it’s not available – if, for some reason, there’s more guidance from the Treasury saying that it doesn’t really fit – then the need becomes very urgent.”
Little, who has contributed to a working group in search of a long-term approach, said the members hope to come up with a sustainable funding solution and present it to the committee sometime in the coming months.
Erica Legerski, a member of Gov. Mark Gordon’s policy team, said the governor would be interested in using some federal funds for WyoLink, noting he wanted to deploy some CARES Act funding for it last year, but was unable to due to spending restrictions. On Monday, Gordon announced he plans to unveil an initial spending framework for the new federal funds next month.
A few lawmakers agreed that the issue needs to be addressed somehow.
“When you live in a frontier state like we do, with the limited health resources that we have, the struggles that we’ve had with everything from air ambulance to all of the issues that we all know about, it just seems to me that that we wouldn’t be doing the right thing if we didn’t go after it,” committee co-chair Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper, said.
The funding issue for WyoLink is far from the only one facing the Wyoming Department of Transportation. During the meeting Tuesday, lawmakers received another rundown of a report first released last fall that shows WYDOT faces annual unmet needs totaling $354 million across the department. The needs for roads, bridges and other infrastructure make up roughly $196 million of those annual needs, according to the report.