By Daniel Bendtsen, WyoFile.com
Between the funding for K-12 schools in the general budget bill and Senate File 67 – State funded capital construction, this week the Legislature signed off on $362 million in spending on construction, renovation and maintenance of state-owned buildings.
All projects sailed easily through both the House and the Senate, with the two bills — originally sponsored by the Joint Appropriations Committee — emerging essentially intact. With $250 million in total appropriations, SF 67 includes $81.1 million for community college projects, $16.5 million for military and police training facilities and $71 million for the Veterans’ Home of Wyoming.
Senate File 67 also includes $50 million for the University of Wyoming to move forward with renovation and expansion of the War Memorial Stadium’s west stands, the College of Law and Corbett Pool.
In the 2020 budget session, a dispute over funding those UW projects led the Legislature to kill that session’s construction bill entirely.
At the time, the Senate Appropriations Committee wanted to provide $25 million for the UW projects while the House Appropriations Committee wanted to allocate $50 million.
Instead of a compromise, the Senate stripped out all UW funding, leading to a stalemate between the two chambers that wasn’t resolved by the end of the session.
This year, the only significant dispute between the two bodies came when the House voted to add another $5 million to SF 67 to fund enhancements at the Veterans Memorial Museum and Hangar 1 — a former facility of the Casper Army Air Base.
“I don’t remember another cap-con bill in my 12 years here that went out of one body and into the other and came back with only $5 million difference,” Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) said.
When members of the Joint Appropriations Committee met in a conference committee to negotiate a final deal on SF 67, legislators from the Senate made it clear they weren’t willing to fund the veterans museum project.
Hicks said he wants to see more refined plans, including details for allocation and maintenance, before he’s comfortable with moving forward.
Rep. Tom Walters (R-Casper) sought to appease those concerns Monday by proposing a footnote that would delay the release of state funding for the project until a lease and maintenance agreement are in place.
His proposal would’ve also cut the state contribution down to $2.5 million, requiring the veterans museum to match the rest of the funding.
Even that proposal, however, failed to sway senators on JAC, and the House conceded funding the veterans museum project entirely this year.
Following amendments from both the House and Senate, SF 67’s price tag increased by only $250,000 with an appropriation to construct a replica of the Wyoming Constitution for display at the Capitol Building.
The $113 million appropriated for K-12 schools will fund maintenance for 14 schools and construction of five schools in Lincoln, Washakie, Campbell and Laramie counties.
The largest school construction project is $32.4 million for Coyote Ridge Elementary. The Cheyenne school is set to serve more than 500 students amid a population boom that has led educators to increasingly rely on modular buildings in recent years. The budget bill also appropriates $8.2 million for the construction of Riverton High School’s auditorium, a project local stakeholders have been fighting for since the school was constructed four decades ago. Currently, RHS’s performances are hosted at Central Wyoming College’s auditorium.
When the budget bill faced amendments in the Senate, Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper) tried cutting all school construction projects. Scott said his amendment was aimed at providing some “negotiating room” to convince legislators in the House to reduce the overall number of construction projects.
The state should return to a practice where communities raise local funds and have “skin in the game” regarding their K-12 projects, Scott said.
Sen. Stephen Pappas (R-Cheyenne), who chairs the Select Committee on School Facilities, called Scott’s amendment “very irresponsible” and the Senate voted it down 23-7.
“We’ve been very conservative and worked hard on bringing these projects to you — projects that are truly a need,” Pappas said. “There’s certainly more to do. We could’ve had two or three times this amount.”