By Arno Rosenfeld
Casper Star Tribune
Via Wyoming News Exchange
(Sen. Dan Dockstader spoke with Duke Dance during the Weekday Wake-up morning show on SVI Radio Monday about the budget and the extended session of the legislature.)
CHEYENNE — The Wyoming Legislature has extended what was supposed to be a four-week budget session after the House and Senate failed to agree on state construction spending. The two chambers passed a budget Saturday morning, the last scheduled day of the session, but could not break an impasse on the construction legislation until after 10:00 p.m. that night, at which point was too late to write a new bill, vote on it, sign it and deliver it to Gov. Matt Mead for his approval.
Instead, lawmakers will reconvene later this week to receive any line-item vetoes to the budget from Mead as well as to vote on the construction bill and one on education spending, which could not be finalized before the building measure was complete.
The main budget bill, which funds most state agencies, was passed by roughly two-thirds of lawmakers in the House and Senate after reaching a deal to remove both construction and education cuts from the budget. The idea was that those two topics would then be addressed in separate pieces of legislation.
But the same tensions that prevented a budget deal from being reached before removing those items continued once they were broken out: the Senate wanted to reduce spending far more aggressively than the House, which wanted to rely on interest earnings to cover a large part of the state’s roughly $850 million deficit.
During the first attempt to reach compromise on construction projects Saturday afternoon, Senate President Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, said that after passing the main budget without significant cuts his chamber did not want to spend a lot of money on new buildings.
Bebout listed three projects he was willing to agree to, which quickly ended the meeting with members of the House.
After Bebout abruptly left the meeting, Rep. Bob Nicholas, R-Cheyenne, who was representing the House said “it’s just posturing.”
The two sides were then scheduled to reconvene at 8:30 p.m. But they did not come together until nearly two hours later after Gov. Matt Mead held closed door meetings with Bebout and House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper.
Mead left Harshman’s office around 10:00 p.m. Asked if a deal had been reached he said, “we’ll see.”
When the two sides finally did reconvene later that night it appeared that the Senate had significantly retreated on its hardline spending position, agreeing to at least partially fund several projects that Bebout had rejected out of hand during the afternoon meeting.
Those projects include a state office building in Casper and a science building at the University of Wyoming.
Sen. Drew Perkins, R-Casper, appeared to acknowledge that the Senate had largely folded when he jokingly pointed out the red ties that two of the House members at the meeting were wearing.
“That’s why they bested us today,” Perkins said. “They wore their red ties.”
But if the goal was to reach a compromise so that lawmakers could end the session and return home, Legislative Service Office director Matt Obrecht quickly put those hopes to bed. Obrecht had warned legislators during their afternoon session that a deal needed to be reached very quickly in order for the Legislature’s staff attorneys to have time to write a new bill that reflected the result of the negotiations and bring to the floor of both chambers for a vote.
By the time an agreement was reached, Obrecht said it was far too late to write the bill before the Legislature’s midnight deadline. The state constitution prohibits lawmakers from working on Sunday.
“You’ve got 90 minutes. We just can’t do it,” Obrecht told the committee working on the construction deal. After lawmakers prodded, he was more adamant. “It’s not doing our best or not — we’ll do our best, but there’s no way,” he said.
Lawmakers had three additional days that they were allowed to meet in addition to the scheduled 20-day session, and both Bebout and Harshman were considering calling back legislators to attempt to override any potential vetoes by Mead.
Mead has three days to review the budget, on which he can exercise line-item vetoes, and is also able to veto individual bills that were passed. Two controversial measures that have been sent to his desk include a “stand your ground” self-defense bill, which Mead has already expressed apprehension about, and a bill meant to protect critical infrastructure in Wyoming but that critics say would stifle free speech.
The governor must return his vetoes by Wednesday night, so lawmakers decided not to meet again until that day. If the Legislature met to complete the construction and education legislation Monday, lawmakers would be nearly out of the three additional days by the time Mead returned vetoed items. For that reason, the House will meet again Wednesday evening and the Senate will meet again Thursday.