Gov. suggests using rainy day dollars to fund education, generally opposes new taxes

Gov. Matt Mead voiced general opposition to increasing taxes and said his first option for covering the looming education funding crisis would be to dip into the state’s $1.6 billion rainy day fund, a move that some legislators have opposed in the past.

“Am I at a point now where I think we need to raise taxes? The answer is no,” he said in a meeting with Star-Tribune reporters Wednesday.

Still, he seemed to leave the door open: “It’s in the context of what are we going to do with regard to education. … When it comes to education, people still don’t want (tax increases), but they are open to that conversation.”

The state’s schools face a funding deficit that could reach $530 million over the two-year budget cycle set to begin next summer. Lawmakers in March agreed on a last-minute deal to cut more than $34 million from Wyoming public schools while triggering a complete review of the state’s education funding system.

Mead said lawmakers’ solution — short-term cuts and the review — was “OK,” though he would have preferred a broader plan to provide a blueprint for pulling Wyoming’s schools out of the funding hole.

“It is not the grand solution I think many of us were hoping for,” he said. “ … It just didn’t get done.”

Currently, lawmakers and state-hired consultants are beginning a process known as re-calibration. They’ll study the state’s current funding model, as well as look at alternative approaches that could cost the same amount, less or even more.

Some lawmakers have suggested re-calibration can be used as a tool to trim schools’ budgets, but educators and other legislators have pushed back on that. Mead said it was a mistake to pin reduction hopes on the recommendation of independent consultants whose mandate is not to solve a funding crisis but to recommend the best education system possible.

In any case, it’s unlikely that the process will deliver the kind of cost reductions that are needed to bridge the funding gap. Indeed, there’s a chance that the consultants could tell the state that it needs to do more to educate its students.

Mead said he met with the consultants recently and told them he felt that schools should be offering even more, such as coding. He said that if the deficit is as significant as it is now, or if it grows wider, heading into February’s legislative session, he would support using the state’s rainy day fund — with a current balance of $1.6 billion — to pay for schools.

But he cautioned, as legislators have before, that using the savings account can’t be a long-term solution.

“If you take $300 million out of the rainy day fund (every year), that $1.6 billion goes away pretty quickly,” he said. But “if the alternative is to cut education to the degree that I think sets us back, I would much rather get money out of the rainy day fund to fund education.”

Lawmakers — including senators Hank Coe and Bruce Burns — have argued against using the rainy day fund in the past. Mead said it was likely more palatable to Wyomingites than raising taxes.

He acknowledged the base philosophical differences that were likely at the root of the Legislature’s inability to find a comprehensive solution. Under the guidance of Speaker Steve Harshman, the House passed a bill that included cuts, conditional revenue increases and the use of savings. The chamber also killed a Senate bill that would have relied almost solely on cuts to handle the crisis.

On the other side of the Jonah Business Center, Sen. President Eli Bebout, an ardent opponent of tax increases who at one time backed a provision to cut $91 million from schools, largely stripped apart the House’s plan. As the session neared its end, the Legislature appeared deadlocked in negotiations over how to fund schools.

Eventually, at literally the 11th hour, legislators agreed to use some savings, roll out more cuts and begin the review of the school system. Revenue increases were ruled out.

“At the last minute, we’re meeting with leadership with the general message that we cannot have you leave town without some solution to this,” Mead said recently.

Asked if Harshman’s plan, supported generally by educators across the state — including Natrona County’s superintendent — was the “grand solution” to the problem, Mead said it was on the right track.

In the background of the conversations about how to fund schools is the potential for more lawsuits. In the past 30 years, litigation has fundamentally reshaped education in Wyoming. Now, as the state finds itself in a crisis that could again overhaul schools here, Mead said he didn’t want “the tail wagging the dog.”

“I don’t want to say we want to fund education so we don’t get sued,” he said. “I want to say we want a good education system without regard to the lawsuit.”

Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann

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