A bill allowing for the formation of the Gillette Community College District cleared the House Education Committee Wednesday and will move to the floor for further discussion.
The bill, Senate File 83 (SF0083), passed the committee unanimously March 24 after nearly an hour of testimony, both for and against, from local advocates, officials and state representatives.
The committee also unanimously approved an amendment proposed by bill sponsor Sen. Jeff Wasserburger (R-Gillette) to strike a double usage of the word “college” from the bill’s text and title, making the proposed district the Gillette Community College District.
With its first hurdle in the Wyoming House cleared, the bill will now advance onto the floor for three readings, where it is certain to face some opposition, especially from Rep. Bill Fortner (R-Gillette) who spoke against the bill during its consideration in committee Wednesday.
“In an economic downturn, I think this will be the biggest disaster for Campbell County,” Fortner said. “I think industry is going to take the biggest hit. It’s not going to stop there. I think it’s going to go right on down to the rest of the state and the state will wind up paying for (the new district).”
Fortner said that the information presented to the committee was based on estimations, not facts, and also voiced concerns that the local Campbell County government would intentionally set up the proposed election at an inopportune moment for voters, ensuring fewer people would be around to vote.
“That’s happened before,” Fortner claimed. “I don’t trust the people we have in office in Campbell County as far as the city and county being truthful, honest, and transparent.”
Campbell County Commissioner Rusty Bell offered a different perspective, however, stating that local industry has supported the college in the past and continues to do so now, based on the fact that no industry representative had shown during the committee meeting to protest the Gillette Community College District.
Local industry recognizes the value of having a local training option to turn out skilled workers and has, on several occasions, stepped up to help fund the construction of new Gillette College buildings, Bell said.
He added that one-quarter of high school graduates in Campbell County attend Gillette College, 84 percent of whom find local employment and stay.
“We cannot continue, as a community or as a state, to export that resource which is our educated youth,” Bell said. “We’re doing it. We’re educating them here and keeping them here.”
In response to a question by Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale), House majority floor leader Wasserburger confirmed again that Gillette College would not be a drain on the state coffers and that the Gillette Community College District would be of great financial benefit to the state.
Gillette College’s portion of the millions of dollars currently allocated to the Northern Wyoming Community College District (NWCCD) would be returned to the state, seeing as all signs point to the new college district being able to sustain itself through local tax dollars based on Campbell County’s assessed valuation, Wasserburger said.
Even if the assessed valuation drops 25 percent as projected, Gillette College would still be able to sustain itself. The only way that would change, Wasserburger continued, is if the county’s assessed valuation dipped by 80 percent from the $3.2 billion that is projected for the upcoming fiscal year.
“Quite frankly, that’s just not going to happen,” Wasserburger said. “A silo at a mine site is still going to be there, those oil wells are still going to be there, the town and houses and the properties are still going to be there.”
Gillette could see a correction in its revenues, he admitted, but Wasserburger maintained his belief that things are going to recover as they always have in the past. Industry will change, he said, and a standalone college able to make its own, quick decision in response would be paramount to Gillette’s attempts to diversify its economy in the wake of a declining coal industry.
Wasserburger said that things look favorable in terms of the measure passing should it appear for a vote in Campbell County; a recent survey by the Campbell County Chamber of Commerce indicated that 80 percent of those surveyed were in favor of a standalone college district in Campbell County.
“I think that it’s going to be a close vote,” Wasserburger said. “But I think it’s going to be a positive vote.”