Legislature to face tough budget, education decisions

The March 1 legislative session in the Senate. // By Michael Cummo, Wyoming Tribune Eagle, Wyoming News Exchange

CHEYENNE — When state lawmakers gavel in at the state Capitol for their month-long session, they will have a lot on their plates.

At the top of the Wyoming Legislature’s agenda will be consideration of Gov. Mark Gordon’s supplemental budget, which contains roughly $515 million in cuts to state agencies, a portion of which were implemented last summer.

In Gordon’s supplemental budget, the largest proposed cuts are to the Wyoming Department of Health, which would see its state funding cut by about $135 million, along with roughly $48 million in federal funding. The cuts will impact programs across Wyoming, with substantial impacts on the most vulnerable populations.

Health programs aiming to help Wyomingites through tough times are on the chopping block. Andi Summerville, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Centers, said her members’ greatest concern is the wide-ranging reductions within a roughly $15 million cut to the department’s Behavioral Health Division.

“That funding makes up the bulk of the state contracts for community mental health centers, who provide mental health and substance use services to anybody, regardless of their ability to pay, and so it really targets a group of residents in Wyoming that don’t have any other options in terms of mental health care,” Summerville said.

While the budget cuts could bring immediate savings in Wyoming’s general fund, Summerville questioned how much the state would ultimately save, with other health care costs likely to accrue due to the loss of community-based services.

“What we know on the ground is that if somebody can’t get into treatment, if they don’t have access, then those people don’t receive treatment, and then things culminate into a crisis situation, which sends them to the ER or in law enforcement encounters, potentially leading to going to the state hospital,” Summerville said.

Her point was echoed in a recent statement from AARP Wyoming, which highlighted another budget proposal: the elimination of the Wyoming Home Services program, which provides in-home services to roughly 1,900 elderly and disabled residents across the state. Some 98% of the program’s participants need help with at least two “instrumental activities of daily living,” according to AARP Wyoming.

At a total cost of roughly $2.75 million, the Home Services program provides care at a monthly cost of roughly $200 per participant. By comparison, nursing home care can cost the Medicaid program roughly $4,300 per person each month.

Rep. Sue Wilson, R-Cheyenne, who chairs the House Labor, Health and Social Services Committee, said with recent revenue forecasts improving from the dismal projections of last spring, there could be some opportunities to put funding back into the Department of Health.

Debate over the supplemental budget, which is detailed in a 2,056-page document, will be lengthy. Wilson said she was aware of some individual lawmakers planning to bring as many as 50 to 100 budget amendments, each of which could produce some discussion.

The decisions lawmakers make over the next month will have effects that last well beyond the upcoming fiscal year. For mental health and substance abuse services, the work that has gone into building out that network of providers could be swiftly undone, Summerville said.

“There is a lot of concern that if we have to reduce (mental health supports), it’s not something we could put back in place in two years if the state’s fiscal picture just suddenly improves,” Summerville said. “If we have to lose providers and cut services or close programs, those are things that may not come back at all, or they may take 10 or 15 or 20 years to come back.”

While much of the focus will be on the supplemental budget, education spending is also expected to be front and center during the general session, with lawmakers set to consider a bill that would cut $100 million from the K-12 funding model.

During a House Education Committee meeting, legislators heard from educators across the state, many of whom pushed state lawmakers to consider revenue-raising measures in lieu of cutting Wyoming’s public education system.

“For the most part, the Senate is cautious about new revenue, from what I gather, but we’ll see,” Senate President Dan Dockstader, R-Afton, told reporters during a January press conference.

Any revenue-raising legislation is required to start in the House of Representatives, and during the same press conference, House Majority Floor Leader Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, said he expects “robust discussion” in his chamber about revenue options for education.

During lawmakers’ virtual meetings in recent weeks, two revenue-raising bills — one to raise the state’s tobacco tax on cigarette packs by 24 cents and another to hike the state’s fuel tax by nine cents per gallon — have gained approval from legislative committees, meaning they could be debated in the House as soon as this week.

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