The 2013 General Session came to a rather abrupt close last Wednesday as the gavel fell and lawmakers cleared out their desks to head home. While the dust settles from the 36 day sojourn by legislators in the capitol city, many are searching this session’s artifacts like archeologists pouring over a new pictograph to uncover the message. Increasing taxes, talking about guns (or in the Senate’s case, not talking about guns), the lottery bill and an 80-page supplemental budget bill were all on the agenda.
In a time when across-the-board budget cuts continue to be the de rigueur of lawmakers, passing a supplemental budget filled with all kinds of non-emergency spending seems counterproductive and fraught with mixed messages. Is the overall goal to reduce state government to a more sustainable, less intrusive and more streamlined size or not?
Since 2002 Wyoming’s state budget has been on an upward trajectory, marked only by mild decreases due to intermittent revenue shortfall fears. The logic behind cutting the budget while increasing taxes and increasing overall spending – even if you do it under the ever popular “one-time” spending label– is rather difficult to understand and yet this is precisely what occurred in the hallowed halls of Wyoming’s state capitol this year.
Overall general fund spending increased by 3.38%, going from $3,218,475,371 to $3,327,203,233 in spite of budget cuts. Yep that’s right, included in the increases are the cuts. Confused yet?
These 6.51% cuts drew $61M from the executive branch and $662K from the judiciary branch. And yet, strangely enough, the revenue gained from these cuts was immediately rolled back into the supplemental budget and spent. Clearly policymakers need to get serious about how to cut spending.
While the governor and legislators may feel encouraged by the recent trend to minimally decrease the growth rate of state government, the discussion regarding how to proceed has hit a depressing note. The Governor, in his veto letter to the legislature, explained his removal of the ongoing 4, 6 and 8% budget cut numbers by saying,
“I also have concerns about the expanded scope of these reductions – taking the reductions from generals funds as opposed to standard budget general funds. This change effectively enlarges the scope of the reductions and has the potential to impact cities, towns and counties, highway funding and other infrastructure projects.”
Isn’t that exactly the point, to enlarge the scope of the reductions? The only way to truly tackle the growing burden of state government is to impose budget discipline on both dollars spent inside the standard budget and outside of it. The Governor also touched upon state spending outside the standard budget when he mentioned potential impacts these expanded cuts could make “to cities, towns and counties, highway funding and other infrastructure projects.”
Yet in these three categories, the state continues to spend at a staggering rate. In this Supplemental budget alone, the state has appropriated another $209M for building schools, adding to the $416M already appropriated last year for a total of almost three quarters of a billion dollars in state spending in this biennial cycle for educational infrastructure projects. The state also continued to pay for the Gillette-Madison pipeline project in Campbell County with a $30M appropriation, leaving around $27M left to pay off.
Cities, towns and counties also faired very well again this year with another generous appropriation of $20M on top of the $81M they received last year for a whopping total of $101M in total monies for the biennial cycle. And of course for highways, the state began the process of draining more money off the private sector by passing the 10 cent fuel tax bill, essentially giving the Transportation Department $41M more dollars to spend on our roads. And we haven’t heard the end to finding more funding for roads, mark my words.
Taken as a whole this session, government spending continues to increase, be it at a less aggressive rate, while budget cuts continue to shave off a tiny fraction of the overall general fund standard budget bottom line, only to be re-infused back into more spending. Couple this with the tax increases this year and the end result was a confusing General Session filled with mixed messages. Wyoming policymakers need to formulate and stick to a consistent plan to relieve Wyoming’s private sector of the consequences of governmental overkill. Until that happens, mixed messages will abound and Wyoming’s economy will continue to suffer its present low-growth/no growth status.