After October’s sobering CREG report, November saw Gov. Mark Gordon make his recommendations for the state budget for the next two years. While the governor’s budget avoided major spending increases, it also did not include any real cuts to speak of. Unfortunately, this is not going to put our state in the financial condition it needs to be in.
I was hopeful that the governor’s proposed budget would do more now to address our looming budgetary issues. Instead, it will be up to the Legislature to make decisions about how our state will proceed in the short term to prevent drastic issues in the long term.
In the message accompanying his budget, the governor addressed some of the issues our state faces. The governor acknowledged that we may be seeing more fundamental changes than we have in the past, and that additional spending cuts are on the horizon.
These assessments are correct. Our state does face a fundamental change in our revenue streams that will require additional spending cuts. However, the governor’s budget merely slows growth, it does not yet roll back our state spending.
The governor’s message made many of the correct points, and the budget denied several requests from agencies that would have kept us moving in the wrong direction, budget-wise. However, I am worried that this budget does not move the needle enough.
My concern with this proposed budget is that it does not do enough on the front end to avoid drastic cuts in the future. As the October CREG report showed, current spending rates would leave Wyoming’s “rainy-day fund” depleted in only six to eight years, and the economic outlook for Wyoming’s main source of state revenues – coal and other mineral resources – is declining.
Wyoming’s constitution also requires a balanced budget. Our state cannot operate on the deficits we see from the federal government and some other states.
It is not hard to see why this set of circumstances presents a major problem. With our state spending more than it takes in, little expectations of tax revenue increases sufficient to take care of the gap, and a constitution that requires a balanced budget, simple math shows that our state will run out of money and require major cuts to our state budget in just a few short years.
In looking at those three factors, only one of them is entirely subject to state control – spending. We cannot force the coal market to do what we want it to do, and we cannot (and should not) operate at a deficit. The only solution for our impending budget issues is to spend less.
The budget proposed by the governor begins applying the brakes on spending increases, but does not put us in reverse yet. With the time frame we have to avoid potential disaster, just applying the brakes at this point may not be enough.
The budget is now in the hands of the Legislature, and they will decide what steps to take next. Even though the governor proposes the budget, it is up to the Legislature to debate and pass it. The governor’s budget is just a starting point. Hopefully, our legislators recognize the issues facing our state in the next few years and act accordingly.
My advice to the Legislature would be to take a hard look at what is likely to happen in the next decade, not just the next two years. Across-the-board cuts and eliminating major state programs is disruptive, and hopefully can be avoided. By taking incremental steps now, we put ourselves in the best position to avoid the major turmoil that would come when we run out of money in our reserve accounts. The only way to do that is to make the right kind of changes now to ensure future budgets match new fiscal realities.
While I do not doubt the governor’s intent, my hope is that the Legislature will take a bigger step toward fixing our fiscal issues now.
Khale Lenhart is an attorney in Cheyenne. He is a former chairman of the Laramie County Republican Party. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.