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Gillette College bill clears legislature

Gillette College Main Building. H/t Gillette College.

H/t Gillette College.

A bill to establish an independent community college district in Gillette passed the State Legislature Wednesday and will advance to the desk of Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon to be signed into law.

The bill, Senate File 83, passed during a consent vote March 31 where a total of five bills were under consideration for their third and final readings in the House.

House members voted 46 to 14 in favor of passing all five pieces of legislation, moving the Gillette Community College District one step closer to becoming reality in Campbell County should the measure pass the governor’s desk.

Gordon can still choose to veto the measure, but the governor has yet to veto any bills that have come forth from the 2021 Legislative Session.

Passing the governor’s desk will be the final step before the bill can come before the people of Campbell County who will be asked to vote on levying up to four mills to fund the new district in August 2021, the wording required on the election ballot under state law, as well as choosing a Gillette Community College District Board of Trustees.

But just because the wording on the ballot will request up to four mills, that doesn’t mean the college will need the full four mills, or an optional fifth, according to bill sponsor Sen. Jeff Wasserburger (R-Gillette), based on Campbell County’s assessed valuation in the coming year.

Right now, that assessed valuation is predicted to come in at $3.2 billion in 2021, which means the college will need a maximum of two mills to fund its operations, equating to roughly $6.4 million, Wasserburger said during deliberations in the Senate.

For comparison, all seven existing community college districts in the state levy the full four mills and the optional fifth. In Sheridan County, that mill levy equates to $2.5 million, Wasserburger said Feb. 24.

If Campbell County were to follow suit, Wasserburger continued, it would raise millions of dollars above and beyond what the college’s budget would require.

“We’re simply not going to do that,” Wasserburger had said. “That’s too much money; we don’t need that much money.”

Not levying the full four mills means the new college district, by state statute, would not be eligible to receive state funding, which the college should not need, though the wording on the ballot will leave the option open for the board of trustees to raise the mill levy at some point down the road should the college need state aid.

In order for that to happen, however, the county’s assessed valuation would need to drop by 84 percent, which isn’t likely according to Wasserburger, even if the coal industry proceeds as projected in the coming years.

“Quite frankly, that’s just not going to happen,” he said March 24, speaking during a House Education Committee meeting (County 17, March 24). “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.”

Despite the measure passing the legislature with minimal resistance, legislators remain concerned about the district making it past Campbell County voters, who have a history of voting down additional taxation and have already denied the formation of an independent community college district in Gillette before.

The first attempt at a Gillette College District failed to pass the legislature and the second attempt passed the legislature but Campbell County voters ultimately failed to approve the district, according to previous comments by Dr. Sandy Caldwell, executive director of the Wyoming Community College Commission (County 17, Feb. 25).

Though not establishing a completely separate district, in 2017, Campbell County voters voted down a quarter-penny sales tax that would have been used to fund Gillette College and Energy Capital Economic Development (ECED). In the days leading up to that vote, however, support for the college was strong and residents were mainly wary of how much of the funding would go to ECED (County 17, Sept. 26, 2017).

Fast forward to 2020, and the support remains strong; Campbell County is willing to back Gillette College, based on a recent survey mentioned by Wasserburger during discussions in the legislature, where 80 percent of respondents indicating they would support the formation of an independent community college district.

That doesn’t mean this is going to be easy, according to Wasserburger, who stated his opinion that the special election, which will take place in August, could be close either way.

“The toughest sale of this bill is on the people of Campbell County,” Wasserburger said Feb. 24 on the Senate floor (County 17, Feb. 25). “It’s not going to be an easy issue. We’re going to have to campaign extremely hard to get this to pass.”