- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 10, 2017

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - Wyoming legislative leaders outlined how they intend to approach an education funding crisis as lawmakers convened for their annual session Tuesday, calling for more scrutiny of state spending and not ruling out tax increases to make up for lost revenue from coal, oil and natural gas.

The state faces a more than $360 million annual K-12 budget shortfall amid a sharp downturn in fossil-fuels production. Meanwhile, billions in school construction and maintenance funding is drying up amid a halt in federal coal leasing.

“We face the biggest funding crisis the state has ever seen,” Rep. Steve Harshman, of Casper, told the Wyoming House soon after being sworn in as House speaker.

Lawmakers will need to be creative and all ideas should be on the table, he added.

They have a rough template already: A legislative subcommittee’s suggestions released in late December include system-wide cuts and consolidating Wyoming’s 60 school districts to one for each of the state’s 23 counties.

The Subcommittee on Education Deficit Reduction Options also suggested cutting student activities and reducing professional development days from 10 to five.

Suggestions for new revenue included raising the state sales tax, taxing health and professional services at the current 4 percent statewide rate, and raising property taxes for education. But Senate President Eli Bebout suggested more could be done on top of Gov. Matt Mead’s 8.2 percent cuts to the state budget last year, which he praised.

“We clearly have our work in front of us. The best thing we can do before - before - we start raising taxes, is to have a serious discussion about spending in government in K-12 education,” Bebout said after being sworn in as Wyoming’s first senate president to have served previously as house speaker.

Education spending has increased amid the overall state cuts, he said.

“We have no choice but to live within our revenue stream. We need to grow and create jobs and jobs and jobs,” said Bebout.

He suggested boosting the economy by diversifying the state’s energy industry with nuclear power and an industrial park similar to a vast hydrocarbon and petrochemical site in Alberta.

Harshman, meanwhile, called for Wyoming to have a bigger say in management of its federal lands. Federal mining and grazing permits are taking far too long to get approved, he said.

“Multiple use is the law. It’s just the regulations that we can’t get past,” Harshman said. “It’s folks from out of state who are really shutting down this state.”

Not all was gloomy. The legislative leaders declared Wyoming’s education system in good shape for now thanks to the boom years of the early 2000s, which paid for $3.2 billion in school construction and boosted teacher salaries to among the nation’s highest.

“We knew the good times couldn’t last forever. It was never a question if our boom would bust, but when. And bust it did,” Bebout told the Senate.

“I hope you’ll all wear your belts that are a little big but they’re comfortable. We will need to cinch those up a notch or two.”

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Follow Mead Gruver at https://twitter.com/meadgruver

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