Members of the House and Senate voted Monday to overwhelmingly approve a general fund budget of about $2.8 billion for the 2023-34 biennium. The budget, still subject to line-item vetoes by Gov. Mark Gordon, is roughly $400 million smaller than the budget approved two years ago.
Some of the decreases in spending out of the general fund are offset by federal COVID-19 relief funding, legislators serving on the Joint Appropriations Committee have noted. After receiving recommendations from the governor, the JAC is the body primarily tasked with forging the budget.
Despite having the smallest general fund expenditures since 2010, this year’s budget is the product of one of the most amicable negotiation back-and-forths between the House and Senate in recent memory.
“This was probably the easiest and least controversial budget in the eight years that I’ve served on Appropriations, so I would commend our folks down the hall,” said JAC Co-chairman Rep. Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne). “Whenever we had an issue, typically our process was to come to compromise rather than fight, bully-up and cram one thing down the other’s side. It was a very friendly atmosphere and our conference committee went very smoothly.”
After each chamber amended the budget bill earlier in the session, the House and Senate were split on about $46 million in spending a week ago.
To strike a compromise, the House agreed to cut a $10-million amendment that would’ve funded sidewalks and other non-motorized pathways around the state. Senators “had their feet in concrete on this particular issue,” Nicholas said.
The House also conceded its $5-million amendment to provide a “13th check” to retirees in the state pension program for the upcoming year. That amendment was designed as a one-time cost-of-living adjustment.
Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) was concerned more payments in the state retirement program could create insolvency concerns like those the state has faced with its “Fire A” pension plan for firefighters, he said.
“After everything we went through with Fire A, we were concerned a little bit that we were going down the wrong path there,” Hicks said. “The fund looks solvent, but at one point, Fire A looked solvent too.”
The Senate’s biggest concession in the final budget bill came in the form of retaining the House’s position to provide a $9.3-million cost-of-living increase for teachers and $64.8-million in pay raises for state employees. The pay increase for teachers will come out of the school foundation account, while the latter will be paid out of the general fund.
Gordon has stressed the state’s stagnant wages are making it difficult to recruit and retain quality employees.
The budget bill originally approved by the Senate would’ve included $54 million — $10.8 million less — for employees paid by the general fund.
This year’s budget talks were imbued with less tension than in previous years, when the divide between the House and Senate led to dramatic standoffs. In 2019, the Senate suspended its rules to introduce backup bills after now-retired Sen. Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) — then JAC co-chairman — said he wouldn’t support the existing supplemental budget bill. In the 2020 budget session, the Legislature failed to fund any new construction projects after the House and Senate couldn’t agree on which projects to fund.
Gordon now has three days to make line-item vetoes to the budget. Because the Legislature’s budget session continues through Friday, legislators will have the opportunity to override any potential vetoes with a two-thirds vote.
The budget bill passed the Senate on a 20-9 vote and the House on a 41-14 vote.
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