CHEYENNE, Wyo. — What to do about a looming, $684 million budget deficit will be the top priority as Wyoming lawmakers begin their annual legislative session Monday, but major changes to taxes or spending don’t appear imminent.
Gov. Matt Mead will offer his ideas in his annual state of the state address in Cheyenne. The speech kicks off a four-week session dedicated primarily to developing a budget for the next biennium.
The Wyoming Legislative Service Office puts the deficit at $850 million but House Speaker Steve Harshman told the Casper Star-Tribune he’s subtracting over $150 million in cash and one-time payments Wyoming got last year.
Complicating matters, the Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee recently rejected a series of major tax proposals. That leaves spending cuts the focus for fixing the shortfall caused by weak revenue from fossil fuels.
Where and how much to cut remains very much an open question, however.
“It’s awfully hard for me to be starting brand new building programs,” Senate President Eli Bebout said. “The flip side of that is we got things we need to build.”
A third option could be to tap the state’s billions in savings. Such savings could provide more time to look at both long-term spending patterns and diversifying Wyoming’s tax code, Harshman said.
Others including Bebout oppose savings diversions as unsustainable.
Oil prices have recovered somewhat, reaching around $60 a barrel, but economists don’t expect the energy markets that supply about 70 percent of state revenue to fully recover any time soon. The outlook for coal demand and natural gas prices remains weak.
Meanwhile, as Wyoming faces an adjustment to permanently lower spending or gain higher revenue, some lobbyists and others doubt such big decisions can be made this year.
“There will be changes down the road,” said Mike Moser, executive director of the Wyoming State Liquor Association and a longtime Cheyenne lobbyist. “But I’m not sure if this session is going to lay the groundwork for that or not.”
Harshman said state residents will have to make their priorities clear, including what spending cuts they will be comfortable with in exchange for no new taxes.
“The people are going to decide whether they can give up schools in our small towns,” Harshman said. “People will decide whether that’s what they want or not and it’s not a thing that happens in a four-week budget session — nor should it, frankly.”
All bills unrelated to the budget will need a two-thirds vote for consideration in the budget session, which alternates with an eight-week session devoted to broader matters in odd-numbered years.
Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com