CHEYENNE - Wyoming legislative leaders say they expect to get down to business this week, the second week of the eight-week 2009 general session.
More than 300 bills had been introduced in both chambers by the end of the first week. While committees already had begun churning a few of them out for consideration on the House and Senate floors, the pace of the process will only quicken this week.
Typically, the Legislature's Joint Appropriations Committee would already have gone over the governor's budget recommendations before the start of the session. This year, Gov. Dave Freudenthal didn't submit his revised budget until after state budget analysts came out with drastically lower estimates of the state's budget surplus on Jan. 9.
While the state had projected a $900 million surplus in October, that figure fell to just less than $260 million when the new projections came out this month. Analysts blame lower energy prices combined with the nationwide economic downturn for the decline.
Getting the budget figures so late has resulted in the JAC continuing to hold hearings on individual government agency budgets.
Sen. Phil Nicholas, R-Laramie, is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. He said he expects the joint committee will finish calling back individual state agencies by this Wednesday.
House Speaker Colin Simpson, R-Cody, said the state is fortunate to have any budget surplus.
"We still have over $200 million that we're dealing with as a surplus," Simpson said. 'And it seems to me that in a general session, we should be able to address those emergency needs that you do address in a supplemental budget, and then have other funds to address other needs too that may not be typical emergencies."
The state's surplus money is in addition to the $8 billion state budget the Legislature passed last year for the biennium that started last summer and runs through June 2010.
Simpson said he expects the House Revenue Committee may start hearings on bills to lower property taxes by the end of this week, or possibly the following week. He has said he supports making property tax relief a priority.
The House on Friday gave preliminary approval to three bills that would expand the state's legal structure for managing the underground storage of carbon gas from coal plants and other sources. Wyoming was the first state in the country to pass carbon capture legislation last year.
Simpson said he expects some of the carbon capture bills could pass the House by the end of this week.
"Those are important bills to help us be best prepared to address issues that affect the coal industry and carbon generation," Simpson said.
Sen. President John Hines, R-Gillette, agreed that the supplemental budget process is unusual this year.
Hines said he's pushing a bill that would allocate more than $11 million in state money for planning of the Gillette Water Project. The project, estimated ultimately to cost more than $200 million, will carry water from a series of wells east of Gillette to the city through a pipeline more than 40 miles long.
"We're doing it because Gillette has such a huge growth in the last couple of years," Hines said of the water project. "I don't think any community probably has had more growth over the last 10 years. We had a good water system, but just outgrew the capacity."
Freudenthal also recommended money to plan for the Gillette project. Hines said he believes the governor realizes that so much revenue comes out of the area from coal, oil and gas development that the state has to do something to supply water if the area is to continue to prosper.
Hines said he expects that by the end of this week, the Legislature will have a better sense of all the revenue requests it's facing this session.
"Next week we'll hopefully see a trend, whether individuals and committees are re-examining these and we'll see whether individuals and committees are trying to push them forward even though we have limited funds," he said.