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Minerals can't 'save the day' for schools, state lawmaker says

Jun 16, 2017 - By Daniel Bendtsen, Staff Writer

The Wyoming Legislature is expects to have a contractor in place to recalibrate the state's K-12 school funding model by July 3.

Matthew Willmarth, the school finance administrator for the Legislative Service Office, said the state received three responses by the June 7 deadline for its request for proposals.

At Monday's joint session of the Joint Revenue Committee and the Select Committee for School Recalibration in Riverton, Willmarth said there should be a hiring recommendation to the Legislature's management council "within the next two weeks."

The two committees spent Monday at Central Wyoming College, reviewing the current shortfall for education funding and researching numerous ways to offset that shortfall with new revenue.

Attendees from across the state filled the committee's room in the Intertribal Center. The high interest led CWC staff to usher public into other rooms at the college, where the proceedings were streamed live via the internet.

Riverton superintendent Terry Snyder said he was impressed by both the presentation from the LSO and the turnout.

"I think every superintendent in the state was there," he said.

During the meeting, Willmarth announced that -- at current spending levels -- school finance in the state is expected to have a $275 million deficit in the next biennium. Starting in the 2021 fiscal year, the state is expected to have an annual deficit

of $318 million each year.

Wyoming Senate President Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, said that broadening the state's tax base, rather than merely raising taxes, will likely be the only way to save the state's deficit.

"I don't believe minerals are going to come back and save the day," he said.

State Rep. Ray Peterson, R-Cowley, said he expects the revenue committee will have some tax proposals that would raise between $100 million to $300 million "to present to the Legislature come January."

"It's not going to be popular. It's going to be ugly and not very pleasant," he said. "Hopefully our revenue committee will be educated enough to explain the effect of certain taxes to people."

House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper, said the state should look to expand "out-of-staters" like lodging and the gas tax.

"I think Wyoming people support that," he said.

Sen. Bill Landen, a Casper Republican who sits on both the revenue and recalibration committees, said maintaining Wyoming's quality of education will be key to attracting a "new generation" that places a high value on public services.

"It's all about livability and what kind of community are you going to offer them," he said

"This new generation -- they want downtowns that are vibrant. It's not about tax breaks. I hope it doesn't get to the point where we're busing people in from Wind River High School to (Riverton) -- and that's all part of that livability."

At Monday's meeting, legislators again entertained the idea of consolidating school districts, but backed away from consolidation in Fremont County, which leads the state with eight districts.

In January, the Legislature floated the idea of consolidation of districts, saying it would save $8 million each year.

However, Rep. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, said Monday that that proposal did not include Fremont County, acknowledging consolidation of the county's schools would lead to a major loss of federal funding by diluting the American Indian population certain local districts have.

"(Fremont County is) only case where that is a concern," he said.

"There are some cases in which districts aren't consolidate-able, but whether that's the case every one of them within that list of 21 schools is something that your consultant will give you an answer on."

Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, suggested that local districts could stay separate while sharing some major services.

"Short of consolidation, that they can increase cooperation and reduce costs," he said.

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