The workload at this year’s Wyoming legislature seems bearable – the budget bill is lighter with the drop in energy severance tax revenue, there have been no bloated debates on issues like gun control or abortion, and the pile of bills is less of a load than in previous years.
Still, it’s a lot of work figuring out in 20 days how to spend $3.4 billion in 730 days (the length of the biennium budget, which will kick in July 1, 2012). That meant working late Thursday night, trying to get through the second reading of the massive budget bill. (Both House and Senate have to vote for a bill three times before it can become law with the Governor’s signature.)
Years of watching this sprint marathon has taught me that if you nod through the hours of posturing and blather and silliness, you will be startled at unexpected moments by eloquence and statesmanship. And so it was Thursday night.
A long day was winding to a close, with a string of amendments covering everything from grasshoppers to schizophrenia, when Rep. Mary Throne (D-Cheyenne) offered the last amendment of the day, or night: Amendment 33 to HB 1 would take a small piece (1/2 of one percent) of the state’s annual energy severance tax revenues (which amounts to a not-so-small $135 million) and put it in the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account (LSRA) rather than the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund (PMTF).
You are forgiven if this sounds obscure and mathematical. But it was important: with mineral revenues to the state dropping, and millions of energy taxes constitutionally required to be funneled into the inviolate permanent state savings, Throne thought it would be smart to keep some additional money standing by in case revenues didn’t meet the state’s obligations over the next two years.
Rep. Mike Madden (R-Buffalo), an economist, supported her: “It’s certainly not a spending amendment. I think it emulates what you and I do when we have a tentative picture of a questionable income stream in our own households.”
“I get the math, I see the returns, I get all of this,” said Rep. Bryan Pedersen (R-Cheyenne), a member of the Appropriations Committee, “but it’s just the wrong policy at the wrong time.” Pedersen noted that the budget wasn’t shrinking, but growing by $450 million over the last one, and the LSRA had $1 billion in it that solons could tap if necessary.
Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper) rose to give a cogent history of the PMTF, which was started in the 1970s and now supplies the state with $214 million in revenue from an untouchable principle of $5 billion. Harshman challenged his colleagues to raise that total to $40 billion by 2030.
In the end, Throne’s amendment would fail. But the tired legislators were invigorated by the tenor of the debate, and the conviction that in this, at least, they were striving for the good of the entire state for generations to come.
“What a delight,” said Rep. John Patton (R-Sheridan), a legislative elder who has served off and on since the 1970s. “I spent most of my life trying to help people dig out of holes…Now here we are all 60 of us taking a look at trying to handle success. What an absolutely wonderful experience.”