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Reasoned Budget Discussions Based on Facts are Important for Wyoming

Written by Matt Mead

This is a tough time and as budget cuts are being implemented, people across Wyoming are being affected. There is much to discuss and to consider. I hope these thoughts will be helpful to people as they weigh in on the budget. 

Wyoming’s revenues are down and the hard facts are: the decrease in mineral activity is having a sustained and substantial impact on Wyoming’s economy; there is a revenue shortfall of about $130 million in fiscal year 2016; and under today’s market conditions general fund revenues will not meet projections for the 2017-18 biennium. The potential revenue shortfall is projected between $250 million and $510 million. These shortfalls require budget reductions. Reductions of this magnitude are hard – painful – and have far-reaching consequences. There are no easy answers and no easy processes. 

I have presented to the Joint Appropriations Committee (JAC) $248.5 million of reductions. It is important to understand that 72 percent of the state’s general fund standard budget resides in five agencies – the Department of Health, the University of Wyoming, the Department of Corrections, Community Colleges and the Department of Family Services. There is no way to cut $248.5 million from the budget without significant reductions to these agencies. The Department of Health reduced its budget by $90 million general fund and $43 million of federal funds. The Department of Family Services reduced their budget by $13.9 million. Community Colleges and the University of Wyoming, top-flight institutions, took $20 million and $35 million reductions, respectively, and the Department of Corrections took a $17 million reduction. The cuts to these and other agencies are difficult.

I asked the JAC to evaluate each proposed cut. Every dollar in the budget delivers a service to someone. It helps a child or a senior. It makes our state safer or more economically viable. It funds work in Worland, Rock Springs and all around the state. The benefits are real, and when we reduce the funding, the hurt is real. 

This difficult discussion is harder and the hurt is deeper when those who know, or should know, the facts use tactics to anger people or to sidetrack the discussion. It is critical that news reports and opinion pieces written – especially when written by individuals who understand the budget – be accurate. Disagreement is healthy. Deception is not. It is incumbent on those who know, or should know, to lead – not mislead – the discussion. There has been much discussion about pay raises.

The facts are that since 2011, when I first took office, the Legislature has authorized two pay increases – one directed to those employees who were earning less than 91 percent of market under the Hay Plan. This resulted in a number of employees across state government, including Legislative Service Office (LSO) staff, judiciary staff and the Governor’s Office receiving raises. Next, after an acceptable performance system was put into place, the Legislature in the 2014 budget bill, authorized and funded another raise based on performance and market to be distributed equally over two years beginning with July 2014. Employees across state government, again including the Governor’s Office, LSO and judicial branch, were given raises based on both performance and the market formula. These raises were awarded in a better revenue environment. 

The last raise for state employees, including those in the Governor’s Office, were authorized by the Legislature in 2014 at a time when some state employees had not received a raise in more than four years. They were directed to be implemented over two years, first in July 2014 and next in July 2015. They were calculated using an objective matrix and a capped amount provided in a legislative appropriation designated for that purpose. They were in place prior to the current fiscal crisis. They were allocated pursuant to a legislatively designed compensation system, and I believe the Legislature did good work. If we are asking fewer people to do more – and we are, and if we want talented and skilled employees – and we do, then we must pay appropriately. However, when we are in a fiscal crisis we cannot provide raises to those fortunate to have a job with competitive pay.

In 2012, I cut the Governor’s Office budget by 10 percent. In 2016, Legislative cuts combined with the actions I took to reduce the 2017-18 budget resulted in a net reduction to the statewide general fund standard budget of over 11 percent. The Governor’s Office budget was reduced by more than 16 percent. Today, the Governor’s Office has six fewer positions than when I took office. Compensation increases in the Governor’s Office are almost two-thirds less than the average increases in other agencies and branches of government. 

The citizens of Wyoming should weigh in on the budget. Their input, ideas, thoughts and information are critical to decision makers. There will be agreements and disagreements on the best way forward.

In Wyoming, what we expect and what we count on is an honest exchange of ideas even when we disagree. I do not like these cuts. The Legislature does not like these cuts. When I presented them to the JAC, I told them I had done the best job I could. I encouraged them to call a special session if they believed there was a better way or better plan. They are dedicated, bright, caring public servants. We will continue to evaluate all options. It is important to hear from people across the state and that we work openly together. These are hard times particularly for people who have lost their jobs.

We will do our very best working with the Legislature and the public to make sure Wyoming weathers the storm and is prepared for better days. We look forward to public input.