Wyoming Legislature report – Nov. 18, 2016
by Albert Sommers, House District #20 Representative
November 20, 2016
11/18/2016: Hello Sublette County, this is Albert Sommers reporting after having participated in the Joint Education Committee and Select Committee on Statewide Education Accountability meetings in Casper on November 14th and 15th.
We heard presentations and reviewed bills on the Hathaway Scholarship Program, the Wyoming State Board of Education, residential BOCES, student digital privacy, Wyoming graduation requirements, the Federal Every Student Succeeds Act, the new statewide assessment, and K12 leader accountability.
However, the 800 pound gorilla in the room during this two-day meeting was a presentation by our Legislative Service Office on K12 School funding projections, which showed a nearly $1.8 BILLION deficit by the year 2022. This does not include any new K12 capital construction costs, which could cost hundreds of millions more.
While the other issues are important to education, the size of our projected deficits in K12 funding was shocking. I knew we had severe revenue shortfalls, and I knew that school capital construction funding had nearly gone away, but I was not expecting a $1.8 billion accrued deficit on the operations side of K12 education by 2022.
In the past, some doom and gloom projections have been created using increasing enrollment projections, which we all knew wouldn’t occur in a bust. Increasing enrollment of students means more money spent on education, but these new projections were based upon flat enrollment, which is closer to today’s reality. We will get more accurate enrollment numbers by January, allowing for better projections of education costs. Further, the mineral commodity prices used to support these projections seemed realistic.
What does a $1.8 billion deficit even mean? To give you an example, our Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account (LSRA), or "Rainy Day Fund", only has $1.6 billion, and we were hoping to utilize that over several budget cycles to soften the crash in other state funded agencies and programs. The projected 2017/18 budget for K12 education, based on our current allocation formulas, is $1.88 billion. We are projected to take in only $1.24 billion next biennium, just 65% of our expected budget. We have enough education savings to remain in the black for the 2017/18 biennium, but then our education reserve account is empty.
Wow! I am a problem solver, but I can’t see the solution for this shortfall. One’s first reaction might be to simply cut our way out of this deficit, but we have a constitutional mandate in Wyoming, upheld by the Supreme Court, to provide an equitable and adequate education to every child in Wyoming. Last year the Legislature went through a recalibration process for our K12 funding formula. We hired a consulting firm to provide us a funding model to meet our constitutional mandate. The budget we developed last year for 2017/18 was based upon our legislative model, which was about $90 million richer than the constitutional model. So we have a $644 million shortfall, and can only cut $90 million before we violate the Wyoming Constitution. Fortunately, we have reserves to cover this next biennium, but what about after that?
We have built a great educational system in Wyoming, and I would hate to see it flushed down the toilet. Look at the cuts the Big Piney school system has had to make due to just declining enrollment: the impacts are hard and very real. I have asked my fellow legislators to consider convening a Special Legislative Session to address this shortfall before it becomes a disaster. A Special Session would force us to find a solution, and give us the time to craft thoughtful approaches. The possible solutions are not very palatable, including cutting K12 education back to inadequacy, increasing taxes on industry or citizens, and/or pass a constitutional amendment to raid our $5-6 billion permanent school land account. But raiding our permanent fund would not address Wyoming’s current economic reality.
If we cut too far, school districts will sue the state to force Wyoming to meet its constitutional mandate. We could ask the citizens to change the constitution, and remove the mandate to provide an adequate education to each child, but is that a good decision for Wyoming’s future? How do you expand an economy, when new businesses demand quality education for their employee’s children? We could pass a new tax, also a difficult decision in a declining economy when families are already stretched.
I suspect it will take a blend of all of these ideas to formulate a solution. No matter what solution the Legislature finds, it must be done with full transparency and through a well-defined public process. I will remain a strong advocate for K12 education, because without quality education for its youth, Wyoming will not prosper.