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Gordon’s budget proposes $515 million in cuts

By Tom Coulter

Wyoming Tribune Eagle

Via- Wyoming News Exchange

CHEYENNE — Gov. Mark Gordon released his supplemental budget proposal Monday afternoon, providing a road map for lawmakers in the months ahead and an indication to the public of just how serious Wyoming’s economic situation has become.

In total, the supplemental budget, which will be reviewed and voted on by lawmakers in coming months, includes roughly $515 million in cuts, along with the elimination of 62 filled positions and 44 vacant positions.

During a press conference Monday afternoon, Gordon said the cuts will impact the livelihoods of residents throughout Wyoming, noting about half of the state government’s workforce works outside of Cheyenne. He also worried over how the proposed cuts would impact private industry.

“For every 100 employees, there are about 160 private-sector jobs that depend on those 100 state employees, and so we’ll see a multiplier effects of these reductions,” Gordon said.

Though the cuts make up about 15% of the state’s budget, not every agency saw the same level of reductions. Law enforcement agencies, such as the two state-funded district attorney’s offices in Laramie and Natrona counties and the State Public Defender’s office, were not cut as deeply as most, Gordon said.

The brunt of the cuts, if implemented, would be felt in the state’s largest agencies. The Wyoming Department of Health, for example, was recommended for a $135 million cut from its budget.

Gordon, in a letter attached to his budget proposal, acknowledged the “harsh reality” that the state can’t cut spending “without inciting further hardship on seniors, people with disabilities, and those suffering from mental illness and substances addictions.”

“These are really tough decisions to cut services to the elderly that allow them to age in place longer, decrease health care coverage to children, cut Medicaid payments to providers and reduce community mental health services to those in need, especially those suffering with increased depression, hopelessness and isolation during the pandemic,” Gordon said in the letter.

“None of this is easy, and we will do our best to pick up the slack elsewhere, but people’s lives will be affected,” he continued.

Taken in sum, the cuts reflect a substantial downsizing of Wyoming’s government, as summarized by Gordon during his press briefing.

“I was handed a $3.3 billion budget when I came in,” Gordon said Monday. “This budget, if it’s implemented, will be at about $2.4 billion, so a pretty substantial reduction, and that’s on top of some reductions that happened before (my administration).”

The governor’s proposals came after the state saw its revenue streams, already in decline due to structural downturns in coal and other energy sectors, plummet during the COVID-19 pandemic.

By May, projections showed the state likely facing a $1.5 billion revenue shortfall through June 2022. In response to the downturn, Gordon authorized an initial round of cuts totaling roughly $250 million this summer, with those cuts included in his supplemental budget.

Gordon, who has yet to explicitly acknowledge the victory of President-elect Joe Biden, also said Monday he was “very concerned at a time when potentially there is a change in administration” at the federal level, stating his concern that it could lead to environmental permits being processed more slowly.

The supplemental budget released Monday will now go to state lawmakers, who will have the ultimate call on approving it. Gordon has repeatedly said the state Legislature will need to have discussions about revenue-raising measures, though he has not backed any particular options for lawmakers to consider.

Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, who chairs the House Revenue Committee, said the supplemental budget would force state lawmakers to have some tough conversations during their upcoming session.

“When we get to session, the question before us will be – can we really live on a budget that small and cut that many jobs and make it work? Or are we going to have to raise some revenues somewhere?” said Zwonitzer.

Though the budget proposal makes up most of the revenue shortfall projected through the 2021-22 biennium, a roughly $300 million shortfall in K-12 education funding – which is projected to double in the next two years – remains intact, as state lawmakers have the ultimate authority over the education side of the budget.

“That’s a whole ‘nother problem for the Legislature to deal with on top of all this,” Zwonitzer said.

While leaving out K-12 education, Gordon’s proposal does include millions in cuts, or 15% of their total budgets, to the University of Wyoming and the state’s seven community colleges. The cuts at UW mean the elimination of several degree programs, and community colleges are pursuing a wide range of cost-saving measures.

“Tuition will go up to offset this, but cannot come close to making up the difference between cuts of this magnitude and the potential revenue tuition will bring in,” Gordon said in his budget letter. “Neither the cuts nor the tuition increases leave Wyoming better situated.”

The supplemental budget will be reviewed by the Joint Appropriations Committee during agency hearings slated to begin Dec. 7. While some decisions will be left to the Legislature, Gordon emphasized in his letter that the proposed cuts are likely permanent “if our state’s revenue picture fails to improve.”

“Importantly, this proposed supplemental budget portends changes are coming for all communities in Wyoming,” Gordon said in his letter. “That is what people need to understand.”