With just more than two weeks left in the Legislature’s 2020 session, the budget positions of the House and Senate don’t have enormous differences.
Both chambers passed two separate versions of the 2021-2022 biennial budget last week. Aside from funding differences for K-12 schools, the differences in mirror bills’ general fund expenditures is less than $10 million.
Between now and next Friday, the House and Senate will need to sort out their budget differences through a “joint conference committee” — a group of heavy-hitting legislators tasked with forming a compromise that will earn the support of their colleagues.
This year, one of the bigger tasks for the joint conference committee will be forming some compromise on which — if any — of the construction projects they’ll fund for the University of Wyoming.
The difference between the two chambers’ positions on UW construction projects is almost $50 million, and has only widened over the last week.
Shortly before the session began, the Joint Appropriations Committee voted 7-5 to add $37.8 million for renovation of War Memorial Stadium’s west side stands and a replacement for Corbett Pool.
The House majority also outvoted senators to add $12 million into the budget bill for a renovation and expansion of UW’s College of Law.
Those projects were set to be part of S.F. 119, the state’s capital construction bill.
After it was approved by the Joint Appropriations Committee, the mark-up of that bill began last week in the Senate, whose membership — especially its JAC members — tend to be more conservative in their spending than their House counterparts.
Sensing the fact that $49.8 million of new UW construction had no chance of making it through the Senate, the House members on JAC agreed Feb. 11 to let the bill start the Senate mark-up with the Senate Appropriations Committee’s position: The capital construction bill would initially only offer UW $25 million for all required construction projects.
The expectation was that the bill’s mark-up would make it through the Senate with that $25 million in funding intact.
“When it comes back over, we’ll put back in what they took out,” predicted Rep. Bob Nicholas, R-Cheyenne. He co-chairs JAC.
The bill was expected to get amended in the House to increase UW’s funding back to $49.8 million before the joint conference committee settled on a dollar-figure somewhere between $25 million and $49.8 million.
Instead, some of the Senate’s more conservative members introduced an amendment to cut all of UW’s construction projects.
After a hearty debate last Thursday, that amendment passed the Senate 17-12.
“While these are all worthy projects, with the budget constraints that we have right now, we could hold off another couple years,” said Sen. Cheri Steinmetz, R-Lingle.
Of the proposed projects, the College of Law renovation drew the most support, while most of the skepticism of the request was pointed at the renovation of War Memorial Stadium.
Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, also didn’t like the bill’s structure: The bill would give $25 million as a lump sum rather than setting the amount that would go to each of three projects.
“The notion that we should just hand this over to the trustees and trust their judgment — I’m struggling with that in a really big way after everything I’ve been reading in the media over this past year,” Ellis said.
Like Ellis, other Senators expressed a distrust of UW leadership.
“There seems to be almost a culture of having too much focus on buildings,” said Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas.
Sen. Ogden Driskell, R-Devils Tower, sat on JAC during the previous biennium, in which the Legislature approved construction for the $100 million Science Initiative building.
“We cleaned all their projects up two years ago,” Driskell said. “I looked them in the eye and said, ‘Don’t come back until we get a handle on our budget.’ And you know what happened the next year: The dorms showed up and we got run over. … I can assure you that if you fund this this year, they’ll be back next year.”
Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, urged the Senate to keep $25 million for UW to “honor the agreement with the House.”
“By no means, is this going to be a decision that stands with the other body,” Hicks said of the amendment.
JAC’s other co-chairman, Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, was less vehement in his defense of the JAC’s position, wondering aloud whether UW could have found more private funding for the proposed projects.
“This is something we need to be thinking about: It’s a lot of money and is now the time? ... I think if we wait, we might get better costs and better savings by delaying. … But of course I’m going to support the JAC position,” he said.
Other senators tried unsuccessfully to keep the construction projects intact.
“Trying to run a Division I program in (Corbett Pool) … is a disgrace,” Sen. Jeff Wasserburger, R-Gillette.
Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie noted that delaying the projects would only ultimately increase their costs.
“(The law school project) is something that we could put off, but the College of Law has already raised $6 million on this project and is waiting for the matching funds from the Legislature to move forward,” Rothfuss said.
The main purpose of the law school renovation is to bring the college’s various clinics into the actual College of Law building.
While the college’s Defender Aid Clinic is housed in the college’s main building, most are housed in a separate building south of Grand Avenue.
To correspond with the College of Law’s 100th anniversary this year, UW has planned $22 million in renovations at the college that would add about 19,000 square feet and renovate about 23,000 square feet of existing space.
Ultimately, the Senate did add one appropriation for UW in S.F. 119 that wasn’t requested by the university: $500,000 for “providing facilities for the departments of military science and aerospace studies.”
That amendment came from Boner, who voiced concern about UW’s ROTC programs, especially as the imminent demolition of Wyoming Hall has moved the programs’ offices to Crane Hall.
“The Army and the Air Force have been consistently pushed aside by the university,” he said on the floor of the Senate last week. “I can tell you right now that the university is in violation of their contract with Department of Defense for (the facilities requirement). We were at risk recently of losing the Air Force ROTC program (for low graduate numbers).”
In a follow-up email to the Laramie Boomerang, Boner contended that UW’s storage of Army ROTC equipment at the local armory was not sufficient to meet UW’s 1992 agreement with the Department of Defense that requires UW to provide adequate storage facilities for the program.
Boner told the Boomerang that the $500,000 proposed appropriation is not intended to directly mitigate storage concerns or low graduate numbers but, instead, is designed to make Crane Hall “more functional for the ROTC programs.”
“I simply used a few concrete examples to demonstrate the university’s support of the program was slowly eroding in the past few years,” he said. “These concerns have been highlighted by the transition to Crane-Hill.”
UW spokesman Chad Baldwin said in an email that UW “is committed to providing adequate, functional space for its ROTC programs.”
“The current space in the Crane-Hill complex is adequate for the near term,” he said. “We are working with ROTC to consolidate the program’s storage in the basement of the Crane-Hill cafeteria, and we are studying the possibility of using the Crane-Hill cafeteria space for ROTC’s physical fitness programming.”
Baldwin did not comment on whether storing ROTC equipment at the armory is acceptable under the 1992 agreement with the Department of Defense.
The amended version of S.F. 119 passed the Senate on Monday and is currently awaiting introduction in the House.