Wyoming PBS

Capitol Outlook - Week 3 (2016) Web Extra - Feb. 26, 2016

Senate Minority Leader Chris Rothfuss

House Minority Leader Mary Throne

Craig Blumenshine, Wyoming PBS: We welcome our viewers to this special web extra, additional content from Wyoming PBS with the leadership of the minority party in the Wyoming legislature, Senator Chris Rothfus and Representative Mary Throne. A lot of discussion about people or building has been voiced by minority since the budget has passed. Senator Rothfus, what are your thoughts on Senator or Representative Harshman on this said, a couple weeks ago said, "you know what, this budget does invest in people. "It's fiscally responsible. "It repairs buildings as a fiscally responsible "thing to do." Yet, there is an argument that this budget has placed buildings over people that you've tried to articulate.

- Yes, what we see is that we've got a state capital construction budget that's over $330,000,000 and a lot of that is reasonable and a reasonable expenditure, but certainly not all of it when you're looking at a situation where you're also cutting $45,000,000 from K-12 education. If you're cutting money from education while you're building new buildings that are non-essential buildings, it's not all repairs. There's a new state office building in Casper. There's a new building on two of our college campuses around the state that again, are good projects. They're projects I support but, to prioritize them above K12 education is unacceptable and then you look at the Department of Health budgets, the Department of Correction budgets, Department of Workforce Services and Family Services and you're seeing cuts to programs that make substantial differences in people's lives. If we can afford to spend $340,000,000 on buildings, we can afford to fund all of those projects first and that's not what we're doing.

- Let's talk about the cuts to education briefly. Alright, unless Representative Throne, do you have something to add?

- Well, I think what I would really like your viewers to understand is that the budget that the legislature passed is not fiscally conservative. It spends, if we pass the cap con bill, there's 360, going from memory here, over $300,000,000 of new spending in that budget and they're taking money out of the permanent mineral trust fund to do that.

- The Governor said though that we must move forward. We can't stay stagnant. Is that the agreeable view to you? That we need to move forward still?

- Of course we need to move forward, but we have to take care of our people and building what could best be characterized as pork barrel projects is not moving forward. It's wasting money.

- On that point Craig, we fully supported the Governor's budget. It was a great budget. It balanced. It made some tough choices, but those choices were appropriate and thoughtful in that there was a prioritization process that took place. There were not cuts to education. There were not cuts to key programs. There was less money available for capital construction, but things were being accomplished and moved forward along that front also. So, that was a budget that had the vision that we're looking for and again, the Governor put together a pretty good approach for a hard time for the state of Wyoming and if you, if we'd have had the opportunity to vote on that budget, I believe we both would've voted on it.

- Want to talk to you about these cuts in education, the joint appropriations committee also, in the first week said, "Look, we're not cutting. "The fact is that, the model's been overfunded, "that we're funding the model." Is that something you agree with or do you disagree with that?

- Well, but I'll let Senator Rothfus get into the nuts and bolts but, we went through recalibration. We have a process for that and that process was followed and the recalibration committee, which Senator Rothfus was on, made a decision about what the model had to be. So again, you can't come back in this truncated JAC process and you know, decide, "Oh, well, they must have been wrong. "So, we're going to take $45,000,000 out."

- Where did the thought come from that it had been overfunded then? Senator Rothfus?

- We have a model that's provided by some expert consultants on what they see as a sufficient amount of resources to provide to meet the educational needs of the state and with that model comes assumptions, like with any model. So, they believe, for example, that a classroom teacher to student ratio of 25 students to one teacher for grades four through 12 is sufficient. That's what the model says. The Wyoming legislature believes differently. The Wyoming legislature says, "No, we should have "better ratios than that." 16 to one in K through six and in seven through 12, 21 to one. That is a tremendous amount of additional expenditures required to achieve it and we put that in statute. So, when you say that we've overfunded the model by $50,000,000, it neglects the fact that it costs over 100,000,000 additional dollars to achieve the funding ratios that we want as well as all of the other programs that we've put in place that are above what the model requires. So, it is true that at the end of the day, when you look at the consultant's model, that number was less than what the state of Wyoming has been paying, but it's less because of the mandates that have been put in by the Wyoming state legislature and the districts do not get to let up on that. There has been no reprieve from those teacher to student ratios that have been put in place because of the shortfall of the budget.

- Generally though if you listened to what was discussed in our first week, Superintendents are okay with these cuts, they say, that they can make due. Is that an argument that the cuts are viable?

- I don't think that's what my local superintendent has been saying.

- [Senator] Yes, I haven't heard that either.

- It was a huge cut to Laramie one. We're the largest district in the state and unlike other districts in the state, we're growing. The other big education piece that we're continuing to ignore is school capital construction, which is extremely important in Laramie county because we are the largest school district and we continue to grow. We have kids in modulars. We have old buildings that have been on the condition list forever and we don't have an answer.

- There are two more issues that I want to talk about and this gets to one of those. The joint revenue committee is going to be in the interim talking about modifications to the tax structure of the state of Wyoming, whether our tax code is equitable, whether it needs to change, whether additional revenues need to be raised. What are your thoughts relative to Wyoming's revenues, not just that equity prices are down, but on tax structure. Do we have an equitable tax structure and does it need to be taken a look at and does it need to happen soon?

- We have a poor tax structure. The only things that we effectively tax are coal, oil and gas. If you're not one of those three things, you're probably not paying your fair share in the state of Wyoming and that's just the reality. And that's been fine for a long time. Coal has paid for our schools for over a decade, almost entirely. Oil and gas have done tremendous things for the state of Wyoming for our development, but the reason we are so susceptible to this boom and bust cycle is that we have no tax structure diversification so that when we are down on coal, oil and gas at the same time, as we are right now, there's nothing left to really make up for it.

- So, what is the answer? Are we looking at corporate tax, personal income taxes, reviewing tax exemptions? What's on the table now?

- I think everything should be on the table. you know, I think sometimes, the majority party thinks the LIZRA is going to carry us through and I think if we learned anything in the 90's, it was that that was not great policy making. you know, we have plenty of money for four to five years. This notion that we can make the LIZRA last 10 years, I mean, I worry that we're going to look like a third world wasteland on the eastern side of the state with some really lovely national parks on the west and that's what's going to be left. We diversify our economy. In Laramie county, we have a pretty diverse economy, but we don't diversify our tax base because 65% of our revenue still comes from the mineral sector and we have to take a look at that. I don't know what the answer is because for the entire time I've been in the legislature, most of those years, you know, we certainly had huge surpluses and then kind of a plateau. We weren't really facing any sort of decline. So, I think we just, we really need to take some time and look at what our options are and what would be fair and also, what would give us the sustainable revenue flow without all these ups and downs because it really leads to bad planning.

- Last issue I want to discuss is what was discussed this week in the legislature relative to boards and commissions and whether there are enough good people from both parties to be mandated to be on boards and what that distribution should be and should political affiliation even be looked at for many of these boards and commissions. Representative Brown said that it's just, in fact, it's hard to find democrats to represent these boards in some areas. What is the issue? How should Wyoming consider political affiliation with its boards and commissions?

- Well, on some boards and commissions, it really doesn't matter, but on the major ones, state board of education, UW board of trustees, environmental quality council, public service commission, it really does matter. You wouldn't want all of one or the other. I think our frustration with that bill is that it dealt with one aspect of the issue, party affiliation. When you probe deeper, you understand, you discover, especially with like, the UW board, that it's really the geographical district issue that is more the problem. you know, it looks like it's probably going to pass, but I wish they had taken a broader look at the question.

- Senator Rothfus, what's your thought on political affiliation and boards of commissions?

- Well, what Representative Throne was saying is exactly right. It is more about geographic distribution and the concern is, if you pick, for example, a republican for the board from Teton County and then have to get your democrat from Niobrara County, that's a challenge and if that's in statute, then it is going to be a problem. If you really want to take a look at this and solve the problem, it's more about that consideration where you try and find a new way to look at the regional and geographic representation aspect, then the partisanship. There were a number of boards and paramutual commission and aviation that certainly could be depoliticized. You just take the partisan label out of them and everything will be fine because the people that you select for those are specialists and they're going to be coming at the problems from their special knowledge, not based on the partisan side, but there certainly are some boards in the state that will change dramatically if you allow one party to dominate the other party in them and we have good performance on those boards and commissions because the tension among the parties is such that it doesn't allow one party to roll over the other. The best idea should prevail, rather than the dominant idea.

- [Voiceover] Last word, Representative Throne?

- I just hope the public really tries to dig in and understand these issues. you know, the budget, the boards and commissions. We really have lost balance in the Wyoming legislature. We need broader views to really keep this state afloat over these difficult times.

- It's always a pleasure to visit with you both. Thank you so much for joining us on Capital Outlook and I want to tell our viewers, even though this particular segment is online, you can see the first part of our discussion with the minority leadership of the Wyoming legislature in week three of Capital Outlook, which is set to broadcast tonight. Again, thank you for joining us.