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Driskill weighs in on budget session

District senator discusses funding issues and upcoming bills

 

January 23, 2020

There’s good news and bad news about the upcoming 2020 Legislative Session, says Senator Ogden Driskill. On the one hand, the state’s budget seems to be on track; on the other, there are funding disasters for education looming just the other side of the horizon.

“Our budget this year is pretty close to being balanced on the general fund side. The governor brought a budget that actually left a little bit of money on the table and Appropriations has actually left it with a little more on the table,” Driskill says of the overall budget.

“Barring disasters in our income – because we do live off projections – in either energy prices or the stock market, the state should be fine.”

Wyoming is living off the fruits of actions taken in the past, Driskill says, when legislators set up robust savings accounts. However, 20 to 30 percent of expenditure is now from investment income, he says, meaning the state is exposed to big corrections in the stock market, and Wyoming is still dependent on energy for another huge chunk of its income.

While oil is looking good, the senator points out that the continued slide in natural gas prices has hurt and coal is showing signs of an even steeper decline than predicted. Looking at projected power plant closures on a national level shows “a pretty steady decline of coal into the future,” he says.

Nevertheless, putting the budget together went more smoothly than it has in years, he says. The House and Senate committees put together a good budget, “and they did it holding hands, which is, in my opinion, exactly how government should function.”

Education Funding

Then there’s the bad news: “The education side of the budget is off by [around] $250 million.” With additional elements still to be factored in, that’s likely to rise to $300 million, he adds.

“There just isn’t any funding to fill that gap, so it’s very likely the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account (LSRA) or rainy day fund will take a $250-300 million hit this year,” he says.

The even worse news, according to the senator, is that the shortfall for the next biennium looks like it will sit at around $500 million.

Within the next four to six years, he predicts that the legislature will have to make a choice: find a way to rein in education spending (requiring a change to the Wyoming Constitution, which dictates education be funded at a certain level) or make sweeping cuts elsewhere.

“Ultimately, most likely what would happen would be a pretty big push on the general fund budget and taxes being raised. Everybody has made it clear they don’t want to raise taxes but, constitutionally, Wyoming can’t deficit spend,” he says.

The rainy day fund doesn’t technically count as deficit spending, he says, and is working exactly the way it was intended: to provide a bridge on years where there isn’t enough money to make it.

“It’s allowed government funding to stay on an even keel,” he says.

But there’s only so much money in the rainy day fund and Driskill feels that, eventually, the public will be faced with a choice: do we want to raise taxes, or do we want to let education take over more and more of the state budget until the roads are no longer plowed or mental health services are no longer available? The constitution is clear, he says: education must come before everything else.

However, the senator also feels there is a third option, albeit one more difficult to achieve.

“We’ve made good choices – we’ve built new buildings, our teachers are paid well. We expect that continue, but the real question is – and we don’t really know because we’ve never tried it – can we do more with less?” he asks.

“I’ve got to believe that education can do similarly to what other agencies did. Back in 2016, we cut roughly 12 percent out of every government agency in the State of Wyoming outside of K-12 education and I challenge most of Wyoming to tell me where we’ve seen a cutback in services.”

If other agencies can provide the same service on less money, Driskill thinks education can do the same.

“I think those efficiencies are there in education,” he says. “If we really sat down, heart to heart, and said we’re not trying to hurt education but we’re really trying to be the most efficient we can, and educate to at least as good a standard as we are but more finely focused, I think we can do that.”

Driskill also notes that Rep. Tim Hallinan (Campbell) has a bill out to divert funding for the next seven years from the permanent education account. The senator feels this could hurt future generations.

“House Bill 308 last year diverted all $50 million [meant for the permanent education fund] and the net result is that, 30 to 40 years down the road, we would have had a fund that had $3-5 billion in it but that now will have zero,” he says. “What we’re really doing is starting to drain pots to fund education when we know long term that we can’t sustainably pay the way.”

Revenue

In terms of possible new sources of revenue, Driskill says he has always been an opponent of the proposal to expand Medicaid and is even more so after hundreds of hours of research. Wyoming is one of 14 states that have not expanded Medicaid to fix coverage gaps following the introduction of the Affordable Care Act.

“Almost unequivocally, almost any state that has done expansion has seen a net negative on the state,” he says. “It brings a windfall to the hospitals at the expense of the state budget.”

Though it’s not negative for the economy as a whole, he says, “The state is required to pay ten percent, so it becomes a drag on the state budget.”

The second issue Driskill takes with Medicaid expansion is that there are usually far more people looking to enroll than projected as employers figure out they can drop people from their workplace plan. This turns any calculations made and charts created upside down, he says.

His third issue is that a person cannot back away from Affordable Care Act insurance once they have signed on. Finally, he feels the situation nationally is still up in the air and it would be foolhardy to make changes when things may be very different within the next four years.

Meanwhile, as far as tax increases, Driskill reminds his constituents that, other than fee increases (which he says count as user fees), “I haven’t voted for a tax increase in the ten years I’ve been in there.” This year, the Revenue Committee has already seen a number of tax increase bills, he says – “piles of them”.

From corporate income tax to property tax bills, Driskill says his pledge is that he “will not vote for a tax increase other than incidental stuff until education gets brought to the table and we figure out what the actual costs are going forward.”

Bills of Interest

Close to 500 bills have been filed for the upcoming session, Driskill says. This year, a two-thirds vote is required to introduce a bill so he expects this to whittle down by at least a third.

“Probably we will hear more than we normally do, if the budget goes well. The last three years or so it’s gone until midnight on the last day,” he says. “Hopefully, where both sides are kind of in agreement, we can get the budget knocked out and actually have time to take a look at some other bills.”

Bills that Driskill expects to gobble up both time and attention include House Bill 22 from Corporations, “another bill looking at abuses that are happening in Teton County.”

The city and county governments have wandered into a gray area of the law and taken advantage of it, he explains. The bill would prohibit exactions, which are fees demanded of anyone wanting to, for example, build a new motel or major expansion.

“Prior to building anything, you pay a tax that they use to purchase affordable housing for their community. As we all know, Jackson has a huge problem because the housing is so expensive,” he says.

“They buy housing and do a lottery. You get to buy that housing at an extreme discount to the market and then, after a number of years, you actually have the chance to sell it unrestricted. Ironically, the mayor of Jackson and one of their city councilmen live in this exaction housing, which seems to be a bit of a conflict on the surface.”

Meanwhile, repeal of the death penalty is up for discussion again.

“That bill received national attention and robust debate and passed the House last year but failed in the Senate by maybe one or two votes,” he says.

A third bill Driskill expects to see dominate the session applies to the gaming commission and would add regulation for what’s known as “gray games” or skill games.

“Right now they are under no regulation whatsoever, it’s just the wild west – they put them in wherever they want and nobody guarantees that the payouts are legal or right,” he says. “It’s up to them to self report what they do and don’t do and we’ve seen some egregious abuses of it already.”

According to the senator, someone in Weston County recently hit a $20,000 jackpot but was told it was due to a malfunction in the machine and never received the payout. This is a classic example of an unregulated industry, he says.

“This does not really expand gaming, but it allows the ones that are out there to be regulated fairly tightly with somewhere you can go to if you think you’ve been cheated,” he says.

“It does not in any way regulate bingo pull tabs, poker or the other things going on, all it does is deal directly with skill games or existing gaming that’s legal. The commission will not be able to expand gambling or bring in new types of gambling, all of that would require a law.”

The bill would also introduce the idea of opting in. If a city or county wanted to introduce the machines, they would need to put it on the ballot for a public vote.

“It really hands control to the locals: do you want these machines in your city or county?” Driskill says.

Driskill’s Bills

Driskill himself has two bills pending. The first, in conjunction with the Superintendent of Public Instruction, is a resolution to encourage schools to teach gun and hunter safety in their PE curriculum.

“By the Constitution, the Legislature can’t dictate curriculum, so the bill doesn’t say they have to do it, but it very nicely asks them to teach those subjects. I think it’s really critical right now in Wyoming, we’ve got lots of people coming into the state who…have not been exposed to firearms,” he says.

“Some of them may not like firearms and that’s fine, it’s a public right, but in Wyoming necessarily a lot of homes and vehicles people have firearms. I really want it where, at a bare minimum, even if you hate guns, your child knows what one is and what it’s capable of doing and knows it’s not a toy to be messed with so they don’t inadvertently pick one up and do something that we all feel is really tragic.”

It would also allow the kids to get their hunter safety certificate without doing a class outside of school.

The second bill relates to the closure of coal plants; in particular, the announcement from Rocky Mountain Power that they will prematurely close nearly all their coal plant generation across the west.

“These plants have had hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars spent to bring them up to environmental standards. They have a clean bill of health and are able to generate power in many cases for 20 more years,” he says. “They’ve announced they’re going to take these facilities that were paid for by rate payers and shut them down so they don’t have to have coal fire generation in their portfolio.”

What they’re not saying, he continues, is that there is a tendency for these companies to partially convert to natural gas generation so as to keep the facility open and delay clean-up and remediation.

“It’s just kicking that environmental thing down the road,” he says. This bill would require a cash bond for each percentage of the facility shut down. When the clean-up actually happens the company will either get money back or need to pay additional.

In conclusion, Driskill says he is grateful everyone who attended the recent town halls he hosted with Representative Tyler Lindholm to share their concerns and provide input. “We did four town halls and people numbered in the hundreds, and that makes you pretty proud of Crook County,” he says.

 
 

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