The U.S. House on Thursday passed a six-month budget extension that could cost Wyoming up to $700 million over the next decade.
The spending measure will avert a government shutdown when the budget expires on Sept. 30 and gives lawmakers some breathing room to avoid passing a budget after the November election. The extension finances the federal operating budget until March 27 and refills the kitty for disaster aid, food stamps, wildfire suppression, nuclear arms programs, veterans disability claims, security and defense programs among other items.
The measure passed 329-91 and is likely to have the Senate’s approval and President Barack Obama’s signature by the end of the week.
A provision in the temporary budget attempted to fix legislation from this summer’s transportation bill that capped coal mine reclamation payments at $15 million for states and tribes that have officially cleaned up all their mines. The House’s resolution restores payments to their original levels for every state except Wyoming.
As the nation’s leading coal producer, Wyoming was the only coal-producing state expected to receive payments of more than $15 million per year. Since Wyoming “mines 40 percent of the nation’s coal, it receives 40 percent” of the reclamation funds, said Shannon Anderson, an organizer with the Powder River Basin Resource Council.
The money comes from the Abandoned Mine Lands program. The program taxes every ton of coal produced in the country to help clean up abandoned mines. Half of the money goes to the federal government to run the program, the other half returns to states. Because the House’s bill doesn’t lift Wyoming’s cap, Wyoming will be putting the most into the coffers and not receiving what the AML program outlined before the transportation bill changed the law.
For years the federal government diverted AML funds to fluff its budgets and fund nonreclamation programs. A backlog of payments owed to Wyoming accrued. In 2006 the federal government began to distribute money owed to the state. But that will end if the Senate and the president sign off on the budget.
The state received more than $150 million in 2012, and gave the University of Wyoming more than $50 million for its School of Energy resources, athletic facilities and other projects. Another $30 million went toward highway projects and $23 million was spent on the Gillette Madison water project. With Gov. Matt Mead calling for 8 percent budget cuts, the Wyoming Legislature will have a big gap to fill.
When the program began in the 1977, all of the money went to Wyoming’s abandoned mines.
“Lately it seems like a supplemental budget for the state,” Anderson said. If the fund were used for “mitigating the effects of energy development,” she said, “ it would be great.”
Wyoming is an AML-certified state because it has cleaned up many of its abandoned mines, which means legislators can spend the money however they want. To uncertified states that have to spend the way the federal government tells them, Wyoming’s freedom is anathema.
Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., calls the bill a “raid on Wyoming,” and in her weekly “Cattle Call” press release-style video said the “jealous eye of other states” is to blame.
“For the past two years Wyoming’s been paying into the fund more than all the other states combined,” she said.
Lummis and Mead called Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, to make sure Wyoming was not excluded in the bill.
“He never returned our calls,” Lummis said in her video.
After Congress passed the transportation bill in July, Lummis said in a statement that Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., the legislation’s co-author who pushed for capping Wyoming’s AML money, “single-handedly carved out Wyoming for financial punishment.”
In 2006, Baucus worked with Wyoming’s congressional delegation and those from other AML states to help keep the program alive. But since he drafted the provision that may take millions away from the state, Lummis said in a statement that he “robbed” Wyoming.
An email issued by Mead spokesman Renny MacKay said the governor’s office and the Wyoming congressional delegation “are exploring other options to restore AML funding.”
In a statement to the Star-Tribune, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said, “This is far from over, and we are not going to rest until the money that belongs to the people of Wyoming is fully restored.”