The end of the 2021 session

K-12 education debates

Hello Sublette County, this is Rep. Albert Sommers reporting to you from Cheyenne at the close of the 2021 General Session of the 66th Wyoming Legislature. We ended the session at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, April 7. The final hours of debate and negotiation in conference committees involved three bills that had implications for K-12 education.

The first bill was SF0121, State funds - investments and distributions, which raised the amount of investment earnings that could be spent from the inviolate Common School Permanent Land Fund. The bill also sent a portion of severance tax to grow the corpus of this permanent account. The Common School Permanent Land Fund has $4.1 billion, and the investment income from this constitutionally created account helps fund K-12 education.

The second bill, SF0130, Charter schools, was a hotly debated bill that allowed an entity other than a school district to authorize a charter school in Wyoming. The final deal struck between the House and the Senate allowed the State Land and Investment Board (which consists of the governor, secretary of state, state treasurer, state auditor and superintendent of public instruction) to be the second authorizer.

However, the final agreement allowed only three charter schools to be authorized under this new system before review and further study of the charter school program by the Legislature.

The third bill was HB0173, School finance funding-2, which was designed as a comprehensive solution to the K-12 funding shortfall. The 66th Legislature entered the 2021 General Session with a $300-million annual K-12 education funding shortfall, with $250 million related to the general operations of schools and $50 million associated with capitol construction. This shortfall is largely the result of Wyoming mining 250 million fewer tons of coal per year, with subsequent declines in ad valorem tax, federal mineral royalties and federal coal lease bonus payments.

Unfortunately, on our last day, the House and the Senate deadlocked on HB173. The conference committee could not agree on a solution to the K-12 deficit, and the bill died.

Let’s recap how we got to this point. When HB173 bill passed the House on March 23, it was a four-part solution that included constitutional funding model reductions, diversion of existing revenue flows from savings to education, federal America Recovery Plan (ARP) dollars and an insurance policy of a 1/2-cent sales tax for education that would kick in only if our “Rainy Day” account dropped below $650 million. By utilizing some of the federal ARP dollars as a local resource, the House created a provision through the distribution of these ARP dollars that would have allowed the state to save $135 million of school foundation money, while still fully funding the K-12 funding model.

By 2026, the deficit reduction measures created in HB173 would have shrunk a $250-million annual operations shortfall down to a $38-million shortfall.

The Senate did not agree with a comprehensive solution to solving Wyoming’s education funding shortfall. It eliminated both the 1/2-cent sales tax and the diversion of existing revenue streams from savings to K-12 education.

Senate amendments to the House ARP distribution plan produced the following three outcomes. First, they cut K-12 education funding to districts by $135 million; second, they captured nearly all of the $273 million in federal ARP dollars in school district reserves; and third, they placed restrictions on the permissible uses of school foundation program dollars and federal resources. These actions were hidden within large Senate amendments and it took the House conference committee several hours to realize what the amendments did.

The reductions and restrictions the Senate created through the distribution of the ARP dollars would have disproportionately affected districts with higher numbers of disadvantaged Title 1 students, because the federal ARP program was based upon the number of Title 1 students in a district. By accepting these federal dollars, Wyoming is obligated to limit cuts to education. As HB173 left the House, its funding model reductions amounted to about a 3-percent cut and this cut was within the federal guidelines.

In conference committee, where differences between House and Senate are negotiated, the first compromise that the House brought to the Senate would have reduced the annual K-12 funding deficit by $154 million without taxing Wyoming citizens. Within this compromise, the House agreed to eliminate the sales tax from the bill and the House met the Senate halfway on the timetable for phasing in cuts. Eventually, the House agreed to alter the revenue diversions and temporarily redirect them.

The Senate would not budge from its position with respect to the distribution of federal ARP dollars. The House remained willing to negotiate a compromise but the Senate announced the end of discussions on the floor of the Senate in a fiery speech.

In the end, the Senate was unable to move in our direction to help solve the state’s largest financial problem, as the only tool it brought to the discussion was cutting education funding.

I am confident that the House and the Senate will rebound from this emotion-filled interaction and continue to look for solutions to Wyoming’s school finance challenges.

Wrapping up on April 12

Hello Sublette County, this is Rep. Albert Sommers reporting to you from the ranch, after the end of the 2021 General Session of the 66th Wyoming Legislature. Prior to and during this session, there were 690 drafting requests for bills. Of these, only 441 bills were numbered for introduction. Of the 441 numbered bills, 101 (36 percent) House Bills and 77 (48 percent) Senate Files passed both bodies and were headed to the governor.

I was the prime sponsor on three bills that made it through the entire process this session. They were HB0039, Optometrist practice act amendments; HB0101, Elk feedground closings-requirements; and HJ0011, State sovereignty impacted by federal actions.

One of the more heavily debated issues that swirled around Wyoming during this pandemic was whether an appointed state health officer should be able to restrict the rights of Wyomingites or should those decisions be made by elected individuals? The Legislature took that issue up through several bills, but the one that passed the legislative process was HB0127, Public health amendments. The bill passed by the House would allow a local health officer’s order to stand for only 10 days. Any extension of the health order would be decided by the governor or by a locally elected body. This was designed to address the issue of restriction of movement and business but did not apply to health orders that quarantined individuals. Further, the bill provided that the state health officer will be appointed and removed by the governor, not by the director of the Department of Health as current law states.

The Senate passed SF0080, Public health orders-local and legislative oversight, which would have required a 48-hour notice of a health order and legislative ratification to continue a health order after 60 days. This bill did not get heard in the House, because HB127 was determined to be a better vehicle for the discussion. SF0095, Election of state health officer, would have made the state health officer position a statewide elected position. The bill failed in a Senate standing committee.

When the Senate worked HB127, it turned the bill into SF80, which required a vote of the Legislature to continue a health order. The House did not concur with those changes and the bill went to a conference committee. The compromise put in place a 48-hour notice to allow for public comment, except when the delay will result in immediate and life-threatening physical harm, exposure or transmission beyond the existing affected area. The rest of the bill remained the same as when it left the House.

I was a cosponsor of HB127 because I believe that the governor and locally elected officials should be the ones who decide whether a health order should continue after its initial timeframe. I do not believe the Legislature should be the decision-maker on health orders. The Legislature is slow, unwieldy and is not nimble enough to act in a timely manner to respond to a crisis. The Legislature has the power to bring ourselves into a special session, if we choose to question a governor’s order. The Legislature must be careful not to violate the separation of powers, as prescribed by the Wyoming Constitution in Article 2 Section 1. The Legislature makes the laws; it does not execute the law, enforce the law or interpret the law.

I believe HB127 walks a fine line between listening to the science and listening to the people.

The federal American Recovery Plan (ARP) Act will provide the state of Wyoming with more than $1 billion to allocate. The ARP Act will also provide K-12 education with at least $303 million, local government $175 million and higher education $44 million. The Legislature will likely convene a special session sometime in July to appropriate the ARP dollars through various programs.

I worry about the debt that our nation is taking on, and the long-term consequences of that debt for future generations. I can be reached at [email protected] with question or comments.