Agriculture, budget issues dominate dialogue

Heather Goddard/Lusk Herald Representative Hans Hunt reviews legislative items with Mayor Doug Lytle during a town hall meeting Tuesday at the Lusk City Council Chambers.

LUSK - When the Wyoming legislature meets for the short session this winter they will be focused on budget and the review of the supplemental budget. The joint appropriations committee is holding budget hearings January 6-10 and 13-17. The formal session resumes February 10. State agencies have been instructed that the supplemental budget is an emergency budget only and will not be available as a “wish list” funding source.

Senator Cheri Steinmetz and Representative Hans Hunt stopped in to the town hall in Lusk to provide constituents updates on bills that will be considered in the upcoming session.

Steinmetz reminded those attending that the general sessions are streamed live for listening at www.wyoleg.gov. Previous sessions can also be heard via the website archives. 

Steinmetz reviewed bills from the transportation committee that will be up for consideration this session. This includes a bill on the Wyoming Public Safety Communication System or  WyoLink. The bill would add fifty cents to every phone line per month to increase funding for the WyoLink system. There are also bills that will address wild life crossings, DUI limited driving license privileges, digital driver’s licenses and the I-80 toll bill.

The digital drivers license is not anticipated to go far according to Steinmetz since the system is costly to acquire and it did not appear that residents of Wyoming want them. The I-80 toll bill is also not likely to pass both houses since there is nothing in the bill to address bypass traffic wear and tear. In the event that it did pass it myst also be approved at the federal level which typically takes between eight and twenty years. This prevents it from being a valid revenue stream for current DOT costs.

The declining revenues in the state are likely to receive a lot of floor time as will the variety of tax increases being considered, If voters have concerns or questions they are encouraged to contact Steinmetz or Hunt.

In Hunt’s update he spoke primarily to agriculture since he is the chairman of the house committee on ag. Several weed and pest amendment bills are being considered. One particularly complex bill is an amendment that would increase the power of weed and pest when it comes to battling invasive species and infestations on private property. Hunt stated that he is not in favor of giving weed and pest districts law enforcement rights as they had in the 1930’s and 1940’s he is in support of giving local weed and pest districts more power to address infestations on property that has absentee or uncooperative owners. The protection of our native grasses is paramount to the health of our rangeland and without the ability to address infestations weed and pest will always be fighting a losing battle.

Another bill that will affect weed and pest is an amendment to raise the registration fee for an applicator license from $95 to $125. The last raise was to fill in the mandatory federal requirement but did not generate any additional revenues. This raise would be to fill the gap created by inflation.

On the senate side a bill to bolster the college of agriculture at the University of Wyoming will likely receive a great deal of debate. The University has pulled away from its land grant institution purpose to support agriculture education and this bill seeks to provide legislative support and funding to improve the college of agriculture to bring it back on par with other areas of the University. 

Mayor Doug Lytle expressed frustration that the University of Wyoming continues to receive funding and increased budget from legislators while K-12 education and towns and municipalities continually receive cut backs and shortfalls in funding. Hunt agreed with Lyle state that “The University needs to seriously self-evaluate for lack of a better term and come to some understanding about how they are going to support themselves better and do more with less.”  

Hunt also conceded that in the past one-time projects and new construction have been overfunded without enough thought to long-term sustainability this is something he would like to see change. Steinmetz agreed and pointed out that the investment in the college of agriculture would merely make up the difference since the University has a significant discrepancy in investment of programs and buildings between the college of agriculture and other educational areas and athletics. 

Dialogue regarding the shortfall in the funding set aside for towns and municipalities concerned Lytle too. Hunt is vehemently opposed to further cuts in funding for towns and municipalities particularly since it could be the beginning of the end for smaller towns around the state. Neither representative was able to pinpoint where the push in funding was coming from and both were surprised by this budget area. They are hopeful that the funding shortfall will become a non issue as further talking points are explored especially given that there is a push to raise all five elected official’s salaries and the capital project has come in very much over budget. While a hard figure is difficult to find the total cost of the project including renovations, relocations and additional security is coming in between $700 million and a billion dollars. Steinmetz emphasized that she was not in favor of the renovation project. 

Education spending continues to be a hot topic. While the funding shortfall hasn’t hit critical mass yet, it is certainly something to keep an eye on. Additional discussion regarding educator and administration salaries was held. 

Legislature is also considering a bill regarding the legacy registration of brands. This would create a life time option for renewal that could cost up to $1500 for a lifetime. The purpose behind this proposal is two fold. The first is that it would allow families that may not be actively using their brand to more easily maintain ownership and second, the interest earned on a one-time $1500 fee is significantly more than collecting the $300 every ten years that is currently assessed. 

Steinmetz emphasized that this is a lifetime registration and that upon the death of the individual the fee would need to be paid by the next individual. Corporations would function the same way and upon dissolution of the corporation the registration would need to occur again.The livestock board is also pushing to repeal the certified mail requirement for notification of brand expiration.

A question regarding the moratorium on the sale of state lands arose. Steinmetz addressed this issue saying that the decisions on the sale of state lands came down to the fiduciary duty question to decide what is best for the trustees of those lands (i.e. schools). This is decided by the state board of land commissioners which is the top five elected state officials. Legislation regarding this issue has been in the works for over six years. Another land issue that is being discussed is that of the land that is locked up by federal regulations. Some of the wilderness study areas have been locked up for mineral exploration but are not being actively managed by the federal government.Forty-eight percent of the land in Wyoming is controlled by the federal government and the impact of this that Wyoming is missing out on a great deal of revenue either from mineral and oil and gas resource access or because the federal government is significantly behind in the payments in lieu of taxes that are owed on those lands.

During the question and answer period a member of the public who serves on the Wyoming Relay Board asked that legislators consider changing the income scale that Wyoming Relay must use to qualify residents for equipment. The program is adequately funded but because of the income limits for free access to equipment they cannot serve part of the population that needs to be accessing the resources of Wyoming Relay.

A request was also made to consider increasing the fiduciary review process of senior citizen boards. There are continue problems with centers that do not have strong fiscal accountability because if the senior citizen district doesn’t hit certain fiscal thresholds they are not required to do a financial review on an annual basis. Consideration of a change in this requirement would hopefully prevent some of the financial fraud that has occurred around the state over the last five years.

Heated discussion regarding the federal changes to the CDL licensing process was held. While Wyoming has delayed the change from going into effect until November of 2021 Steinmetz and Hunt both agreed that this law will have a significant negative impact on the state of Wyoming and that this problem needs to be looked at from a state level and more importantly a federal level.

As the meeting concluded Steinmetz and Hunt reiterated the need to contact representatives before they vote on an issue. Email is the preferred way but voters are welcome to call or write letters as well. A document is available that lists those state legislators that need to be contacted for certain committees and areas of concern.

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