Wyoming lawmakers face save or spend decision

2011-09-22T17:53:00Z 2011-09-22T23:06:36Z Wyoming lawmakers face save or spend decisionThe Associated Press The Associated Press
September 22, 2011 5:53 pm  • 

CHEYENNE, Wyo. - Wyoming lawmakers are weighing how to handle hundreds of millions of dollars in extra revenue when they meet next year to craft a state budget, with ideas ranging from spending some of the windfall on road work to putting most of it in savings.

Final figures for the fiscal year that ended in June show Wyoming received $320 million more revenue than originally anticipated. Combined with readily available budget reserve funds, the surplus for the year totals $437 million.

Some lawmakers and Gov. Matt Mead have said they favor using much of any available extra funds for local governments as well as highways and infrastructure construction projects.

But other lawmakers are likely to push to put the bulk of the money into the state's existing rainy day fund in anticipation of declining federal subsidies and possible hard times ahead.

The Wyoming Legislature will convene in mid-February for a budget session to set state spending for the two-year period starting in July 2012.

The Legislature already has specified that any revenues in excess of the $96 million budget reserve fund for the fiscal year that ended this June should sweep directly into the state's so-called rainy day fund. That fund, called the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account, currently holds over $1 billion.

However, that sweep provision won't necessarily keep some lawmakers and others from trying to spend some of the surplus dollars.

Sen. Michael Von Flatern, R-Gillette, sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee. He's also a former chairman of the committee charged with funding state highways and is a longstanding proponent of increasing state spending on roads.

"We need to put as much into infrastructure as we can, and in particular roads," Von Flatern said Thursday. He said he would like to see the state dedicate $75 million a year to highway construction on top of the federal funding the agency receives.

"The feds are backing out," Von Flatern said of highway construction. "And everybody talks about a huge federal deficit. Well, we don't happen to have it as a state. So why don't we make our move and take care of our own roads in excess of what is being taken away from us by the federal government?"

Rep. Ken Esquibel, D-Cheyenne, sits on the House Appropriations Committee. He said Thursday he would like the see surplus money split evenly among funding for local governments, highways and reserve savings.

"Those are probably the basic needs across the state," Esquibel said. "Even though Wyoming's unemployment picture is a little more rosy than across the country, there's still an opportunity for us to do construction projects that we have out there to put people to work."

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported this month that Wyoming's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate stood at 5.8 percent in August, far below the national rate of 9.1 percent.

Mead spokesman Renny MacKay said Thursday the governor remains interested in increasing funding to local governments and highway construction.

However, MacKay said Mead will wait until seeing next month's detailed state revenue forecasts before crafting his specific budget recommendations to the Legislature.

Sen. Phil Nicholas, R-Laramie, is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. He warned last month when state budget analysts predicted Wyoming would end fiscal year 2011 with a substantial surplus that the state will need much of that money just to cover the loss of federal stimulus funds.

Over the past two years, federal stimulus money has helped reduce the state's share of payments to the federal Medicaid program. The federal government increased the portion of program costs it paid, but the split has since reverted back to 50-50.

Wyoming's Medicaid budget for the current two-year budget cycle, including both state and federal funds, exceeds $1 billion. Wyoming received $49 million in additional Medicaid funding from the federal stimulus program in the last fiscal year.


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