- Associated Press - Thursday, February 12, 2015

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - Some lawmakers are questioning the University of Wyoming allocation under a bill pending in the Legislature, even as supporters say the investment is critical to the state’s future.

Both houses of the Wyoming Legislature this week gave preliminary approval to a plan sending $56 million to the university out of a total $112.6 million the state expects to have available this summer from investment income.

Of $166 million lawmakers project to have available in mid-2016, the proposed supplemental budget bill calls for UW projects to claim nearly $40 million.

The abrupt decline in oil prices since last fall has prompted the Wyoming Legislature to take an unusual approach to the budget bill this year.

Members of the Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee are calling for intercepting nearly $200 million that had been on track for deposit into a standing reserve fund. That action will cover the revenue decline and fully fund the state’s ongoing $3.5 billion, two-year General Fund budget lawmakers approved last year.

To give themselves some spending money after covering the shortfall, lawmakers are taking the unusual step in this supplemental budget process of making more appropriations contingent on anticipated investment earnings coming through in the future.

Rep. Allen Jaggi, R-Lyman, is among the lawmakers expressing concern that the state is proposing to allocate so much of those anticipated investment earnings to UW.

“Of the over $300 million that’s in this budget, about a third of it’s going to UW,” Jaggi said Thursday on the House floor.

Rep. Mike Madden, R-Buffalo, also questioned the emphasis on UW funding. “I can’t help but wonder, is this because we’ve been neglecting the university in our budgets and are in catch-up mode?”

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Steve Harshman, R-Casper, responded that the UW projects are no surprise.

“All these UW things have been teed up for years, and now they’re finally coming to fruition,” Harshman said. He said many of the projects offer matching funds for state dollars from outside sources.

Chris Boswell, UW vice president, said Thursday that the state’s proposed $20 million investment in construction of the High Altitude Training Center at UW this year would be matched with $24 million in private funds.

He said another $20 million for unconventional oil and gas research would free up a $20 million private match. Other smaller UW projects also would carry matching funds, he said.

Boswell, a registered lobbyist for UW during legislative sessions, filed a report in February 2014 with the Wyoming Secretary of State’s Office reporting the expenditure of over $18,000, nearly all of it to provide legislators with meals and tickets for sporting events. He has yet to file a report this year.

Senate President Phil Nicholas, R-Laramie, said Friday that he’s listening to the criticism about the emphasis on UW funding. However, he said people have to recognize that lawmakers are working on a supplemental budget that focuses on things that aren’t already funded.

“The university is the center where much of the talent for all of our future workforce goes through and is developed,” Nicholas said. “It’s where much of the job and intellectual development occurs for our future.”

Nicholas said the state’s development in recent years of the School of Energy Resources has attracted support from the energy industry and is producing graduates ready to land top jobs. He said the state now needs to turn its attention to supporting science and engineering at UW, areas that will likewise attract industry support and support the state’s economy.

UW President Richard McGinity was at the state Capitol on Thursday monitoring progress of the budget bill through both houses.

“The university has a particularly important place in the state in terms of its needing to be a driver of the economy, and also preparing the young folks to compete in an increasingly competitive world,” McGinity said.

“The plain fact of the matter is that the facilities for most of the foundational sciences at the university are old and obsolete,” McGinity said. “For the benefit of the state and the students, we have to improve those.”

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