- Associated Press - Sunday, February 28, 2016

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - Top Wyoming lawmakers say they expect the Legislature to wrap up its budget session this week. Yet, they say the session will still leave major unanswered questions facing the state, including how to pay for future school construction in the face of evaporating coal revenues and how to address structural problems at the crumbling state penitentiary in Rawlins.

Legislative leaders say they expect both houses to approve a budget bill and send it to Gov. Matt Mead early this week. Doing so will afford him the required few days to review it and still allow the Legislature time to consider whether to override any possible veto and adjourn by Friday.

The $3.3-billion general appropriations bill calls for 1.5-percent reductions for most state agencies over the two-year budget cycle starting next July. The Wyoming Department of Health would not be subject to the cuts.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Steve Harshman, R-Casper, said a conference committee agreed on Friday to call for cutting funding to the state’s K-12 school program by 1.2 percent. He said the committee also agreed not to pursue cuts in school transportation funding, as the House had voted earlier.

Harshman said the budget bill would result in spending roughly $220 million out of the state’s $1.8-billion “rainy day” fund over the coming two years. That figure includes $80 million for school capital construction, $105 million for local government spending and $36 million to account for other spending.

Wyoming’s budget process this year is more complicated than usual. In addition to the general appropriations bill, the Legislature is moving separate bills for other aspects of state spending including capital construction, local government funding and appropriation of federal Abandoned Mine Lands funds.

The decision by legislative leaders to run the several separate spending bills followed complaints last year that the 2015 supplemental budget bill included funding for several projects that weren’t ordinary expenses for the state as the state Constitution required.

Wednesday is the last day for final votes on bills in the House and the Senate and Thursday is the last day for concurrence on conference committee reports.

“We’ve got to get the reconciliation done on the budget, that’s my primary focus,” said House Speaker Kermit Brown, R-Laramie. “Whatever else we get done is just gravy. But we’re here for the budget session.”

Wyoming in recent years has spent billions from federal bonus payments from coal leases to fund school construction. However, state revenue analysts say that money is drying up in the face of lower demand for coal.

Brown said he doesn’t know what where the state will find long-term funding for school construction. “I guess we need to continue building schools, but doggone it, everybody’s feeling the pinch, and I don’t think the schools get a bye on that,” he said.

In addition to uncertainty about school funding, both Brown and Senate President Phil Nicholas, R-Laramie, said they’re concerned about the future of the state penitentiary.

Robert Lampert, director of the Wyoming Department of Corrections, told lawmakers this month that fixing structural problems at the penitentiary will cost $85 million. Consultants say improper construction techniques resulted in heaving floors and cracking walls at the 15-year-old prison. The state had to abandon an earlier prison nearby because of similar problems.

The pending general appropriations bill includes over $7 million for emergency work to shore up an electrical utility room and a gymnasium roof.

“The one that probably worries me more than anything is that prison, that’s a real wild card out there,” Brown said.

Nicholas is pushing a bill to create a legislative task force to monitor the situation at the penitentiary. “We’ve now had two chances at building the prison at Rawlins,” he said. “They’ve both failed, and it certainly is nonsensical to take a third try at it without knowing that we’re going to have 100 percent success.”

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