Subscribe for 17¢ / day

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — A Wyoming legislative committee voted Friday to set aside $150 million to fund state government operations next year against the possibility that sagging natural gas prices leave the state short on revenue.

The Joint Appropriations Committee voted Friday to earmark the money aside from the state’s roughly $1 billion Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account, the state’s so-called “rainy-day fund.”

The committee approved its final budget recommendations Friday, capping three weeks of hearings on Gov. Matt Mead’s proposed budget for the two-year funding period that starts in July.

Mead had prepared his $3.4 billion state budget proposal late last year based on projected natural gas prices of $4 per thousand cubic feet. Analysts revised revenue estimates downward by $100 million earlier this month based on a projected average natural gas price of $3.25 this year. Recent spot gas prices have been even lower.

As a result, legislators will have only $20 million extra in the state’s general fund to spend on pet projects when they convene for the 20-day budget session Feb. 13.

Committee co-chairmen Rep. Rosie Berger, R-Big Horn, and Sen. Phil Nicholas, R-Laramie, said the budget was the most complicated they have had to deal with.

The budget won’t be final until the committee votes on it after the session opens. It will then go to the full Legislature.

Late last year, the committee chairmen and Mead asked state agency heads to prepare budgets with 2, 5 and 8 percent cuts.

After the January report of deteriorating revenues, Mead chopped $64 million out of his $3.4 billion in 2013-14 state budget recommendations.

The governor’s original budget had left nearly $90 million for the full Legislature to spend.

Although spending totals were not available late Friday, the budget doesn’t include any deep or across-the-board cuts, except for a 5 percent reduction in most agency contract accounts.

To keep the general fund in the black, the committee shifted funds and tapped other pots of money, like Abandoned Mine Reclamation funds.

The committee is asking agencies to prepare for 4 percent cuts in their supplemental budgets for next year.

“What we’re trying to do is not make major cuts but to slow budget growth, so if things do head south, we won’t be taking money back,” Berger said after the meeting.

The committee nixed the governor’s $37 million recommendation for the Medicaid program in the Wyoming Department of Health to make up for the loss of federal stimulus funds.

Instead, the committee set aside $25 million in the state auditor’s office for the department to tap into in case of a Medicaid shortfall.

The committee also:

Set aside $15 million for potential purchase of a 50,000-acre ranch east of Laramie for a state park that would protect the aquifer that supplies much of the water for the University of Wyoming and the city of Laramie.

The project is Nicholas’ top legislative priority.

The motion to set aside the money passed despite the objections of some committee members who said the project should go through the Wyoming Water Development Commission, like other municipal water projects have.

Rep. Sue Wallis, R-Recluse, objected because the $15 million would come from the University of Wyoming’s pot of money for projects.

Nicholas pointed out the Legislature spent millions to bring water into Cheyenne from west of the Continental Divide.

Rep. Steve Harshman, R-Casper, supported the spending but added an amendment to revert the $15 million to the state general fund by June 30, 2014 if it isn’t used.

Approved about $1 million to remodel a building at the Wyoming Women’s Center at Lusk for a nursery for women inmates to keep their infants for 18 months after birth.

Approved $100 million in Abandoned Land Reclamation funds and state general fund money for highways.

A number of budget amendments didn’t pass Friday, including one by Rep. Jeb Steward, R-Encampment, to require the Department of Audit to conduct an audit of Department of Education expenses.