Education reform, fuel tax before Wyoming Legislature this week

2013-01-13T15:00:00Z 2013-02-06T09:29:08Z Education reform, fuel tax before Wyoming Legislature this weekThe Associated Press The Associated Press
January 13, 2013 3:00 pm  • 

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Wyoming lawmakers are set to discuss key issues this week, including a plan to strip power from the state's chief of schools, a measure to raise fuel taxes and a proposed supplemental state budget.

The proposal to take authority away from the superintendent of public instruction is the culmination of two years of increasing acrimony over how to make students' test scores rise. With leaders from both houses and both parties behind it, the bill appears likely to advance.

The fuel tax discussion comes as Wyoming is apparently getting serious about finding a new source of income to maintain its roads. Although lawmakers have rejected similar proposals in recent years, Gov. Matt Mead is pushing the tax hike more forcefully than before.

The Joint Appropriations Committee, meanwhile, expects to release its proposed supplemental budget bill. The final document will show whether lawmakers agree with Mead's suggested budget cuts and his plan to put less money into permanent savings.

CHIEF OF SCHOOLS

Senate President Tony Ross, R-Cheyenne, said Friday he expects that the full Senate will consider a bill to reduce the powers of the state's top public schools official.

"I would be hiding my head in the sand if I didn't say that probably Senate File 104 will probably come up next week," Ross said.

Both Ross and House Speaker Tom Lubnau, R-Gillette, are co-sponsors of the bill, along with other Senate and House leaders of both parties. Despite the bill's powerful sponsors, Ross said he expects the measure will receive full debate and won't get rushed through.

"I'm trying to encourage open and free and civil discourse," Ross said. "We'll continue along that vein. I hope that there's a good discussion on the floor."

The Senate Education Committee on Friday unanimously endorsed the plan that would remove the Wyoming superintendent of public instruction as head of the state Department of Education. It would allow the governor to appoint a new agency director.

Many lawmakers say Superintendent Cindy Hill has obstructed their efforts at getting increased accountability from the state's school system. Despite heavy state investment in teachers and infrastructure, student test scores haven't shown commensurate improvement.

Hill has defended her office, saying she's generally done what lawmakers have demanded.

FUEL TAX DEBATE

Lubnau said the House Revenue Committee is set to consider a bill Monday that would hike the state's fuel tax by 10 cents a gallon. He said he expects it will hit the House floor for debate by midweek.

The state tax on gasoline is 14 cents and the bill would raise it to 24 cents, generating more than $70 million a year for state and federal road projects.

Mead has called for raising the fuel tax, saying Wyoming can't neglect its critical road infrastructure. He has emphasized that out-of-state motorists will pay a large portion of the tax.

If lawmakers are unwilling to raise the fuel tax, Mead has called on them to take money from the stream of mineral tax revenues currently going into permanent savings.

A range of groups are supporting Mead's position, including the Wyoming Taxpayers Association and the Wyoming Contractors Association. They generally say the state needs a steady source of funding to pay for highway upkeep.

Not everyone favors the proposed hike, however. Tony Gagliardi, Wyoming state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, issued a statement last week saying that more than 80 percent of his membership opposed the increase.

BUDGET PROPOSALS

Lawmakers this week also will probably finish their review of Mead's proposed budget and release their own budget proposal.

Mead has proposed 6.5 percent budget cuts for state agencies, not counting one-time project funding. The cuts amount to more than $60 million over the coming year from the $3.2 billion state funds budget the Legislature approved early last year.

The Joint Appropriations Committee, those lawmakers charged with holding the state's purse strings, plan to finish marking up Mead's budget recommendations this week. They are crafting their own budget bill that will go to both houses.

The Appropriations Committee proposal will show whether panel members are inclined to follow Mead's suggestion that the state should put less money into permanent savings and more into ready cash to position itself to ride out expected tough economic times ahead.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, said Friday he wants to see the budget bill get out of committee early in the two-month session.

Bebout said he's seeing some differences of opinion among budget committee members regarding whether to go along with Mead's suggestion that the state should divert about $130 million a year that's currently going into permanent savings into the state's "rainy day fund," where it could be spent if needed.

Bebout also said he and others on the budget panel will be taking a close look at Mead's proposed cuts.

Ross said he regards crafting the supplemental budget issue "as probably the big dog in the room right now in terms of what we do. We're going to make sure we give it a full and fair debate."

Lubnau said he agreed. "Despite all the other issues swirling around this session, the budget is the biggest issue that affects the most people and how we, in a time of declining revenues, make the hard choices of what our spending priorities will be," he said.

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