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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Good, The Bad, The Ugly: Update 1

Some of our elected representatives remind me of my ex-wife. "How can I be broke, I still have checks!" - A blog reader

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With 304 bills on the House side and 181 on the Senate side, this Good-Bad-Ugly update will be divided into two parts. Today we take a look at the Senate bills; tomorrow we examine the House bills, including HB236, the unfortunate school-finance omnibus bill. 

The Good

Some clear-minded legislators are beginning to think about how to reduce state spending. So far, their steps are microscopic compared to what is needed, but at least their minds are opening up to the idea that - yes - we can reduce government spending. From a budget viewpoint, none of what is proposed below is close to adequate, but at least let us receive these bills as a first try.


SF2 - Legislative appropriations. Sponsored by the Management Council.
Here are reductions in state spending under the legislative branch amounting to $1.67 million. Not exactly Earth shattering compared to the state's runaway budget deficit, but at least a small step in the right direction. Go for it!
 
SF140 - I80 project master plan. Sponsored by Senators Von Flatern and Meier; and Representative Eklund.
This is a good bill that opens a productive conversation about the future management of I80. Best of all: it includes review and update of the 2008 and 2009 studies of putting a toll on our busiest interstate. I am all for that; having just come back from a trip out east I can, again, only express my strong support for tolls on limited-access, divided-lane highways. The Pennsylvania Turnpike, for instance, is in very good shape compared to the non-tolled I-80 stretch through the northern part of the state. Steady updates and improvements have turned the Shocknessy Turnpike through Ohio and the Indiana Toll Road into comfortable, fast-travel expressways. In fact, compared to the sluggish, patchwork-style improvements of the I80 through Nebraska, the Ohio Turnpike Commission has done an excellent job upgrading its heavily used stretch of the I80.
There is just one thing I'd like to add to any tolling proposal for the I80 here in Wyoming:  add two fast lanes in each directions, where only passenger cars are allowed, then remove the speed limit on those lanes (weather permitting, of course...). Thank you. 

SF165 - School finance-education funding reductions. Sponsored by Senators Landen, Burns, Coe, Dockstader, Driskill, Pappas and Perkins. 
This is a welcome proposal to reduce the base salary for school district administrators by five percent in 2017-18 and another five percent in 2018-19. There are also other cost-reduction measures included, such as restrictions on school-bus acquisitions. 
The bill is overall too detailed and too bureaucratic to make sense from a general perspective, and it is a downright bad idea to restrict school-bus acquisitions on the same footing as salary cuts for administrators. After all, school buses are more important than school-district business managers (a service that, unlike school bus services, can be reduced without jeopardizing the safety of our kids).
Despite these shortcomings, the bill is good because it starts a conversation about downsizing government in general - and our costly school system in particular - to something that eventually could become affordable to taxpayers.

SJ8 - School construction and renovation; constitutional amendment. Sponsored by Senators Meier, Bebout and Peterson; and Representatives Hunt, Kirkbride, Miller and Paxton.
This bill has both good and bad elements in it. It wants to allow the state to "impose a special tax on property within the school district for the purpose of construction of public school facilities" and require voter approval for those facilities. The good part of this is that the bill would place authority over school construction in the hands of voters, both legally in the form of "voter approval" and financially in the form of a new tax. This kind of decentralization is welcome and in itself could be a first step toward a real, actually sustainable solution for school funding.
The bad part is that the bill proposes a new tax as the funding solution. The last thing the Wyoming economy needs right now is a new tax.
I am still placing this bill in the "good" category. First of all, it specifically gives voters the last word on the proposed tax, giving them a chance to say no to it. Secondly, the funding model that the bill proposes - which requires a constitutional amendment - is clearly slanted in favor of decentralization, which in itself is a small step in the right direction compared to the model we have today. With decentralized control in place, it will be a bit easier to fight for the real solution, namely complete privatization of all school facilities in the state.
In the context of this bill, let me also mention SF114 on Education reform (Senator Scott et al). It proposes minor adjustments of reading standards and class sizes (upward in both categories). In the bigger scheme of things, SF114 is irrelevant and a waste of time. However, given the need for a thorough discussion about the fiscal future of our state and local governments, perhaps this bill could make a small contribution.

SJ9 - Public School Funding. Sponsored by Senators Kinskey, Coe and Meier. 
This bill wants to bring school funding in under the jurisdiction of the legislative branch. Automatically, this means reducing the influence of the judicial branch. Specifically, the bill wants to prohibit courts "from requiring funding beyond that prescribed by law". This is a good idea for two reasons: 
  • First, the judicial branch does not have the skills or the competence to make economic assessments of their rulings. Therefore, any issue with economic consequences - especially for taxation - should remain under a branch of government that can summon such competence on a regular basis.
  • Secondly, when the judicial branch rules on funding for schools, hospitals, even welfare, it effectively legislates economic redistribution from the bench. Its authority to do so ultimately originates in legislation, i.e., laws passed by the legislative branch, so the original error lies with them. But this only means that it is the right thing to do by the legislature to reclaim full jurisdiction over this issue.


The Bad
And then there were those who still have not even begun realizing what the real problem is in our state's budget...


SF24 - Film industry financial incentive program. Sponsored by Joint Travel, Recreation, Wildlife & Cultural Resourves Interim Committee.
Can we please stop using government to pick winners and losers? Furthermore, could the sponsors of this bill please give us a realistic estimate of how much more tax revenue these film production would generate in Wyoming - and how that extra tax revenue would compare to the taxes they need to raise in order to pay for the incentive in the first place?

SF159 - Tax reform 2020. Sponsored by Senators Rothfuss, Case, Coe and Peterson; and Representatives Connolly, Harshman, Madden, Miller, Obermueller, Sommers and Wilson.
I discussed this bill at length yesterday, explaining:
There is no doubt that our state needs a thorough tax reform. However, the need for such a reform is not independent of the question: what do we do with our tax money? Quite the contrary – and this is where the sponsors of SF159 end up making a one-way elevator – the need for taxation is nothing more than a function of government spending. ... Ladies and Gentlemen of the Legislature: it is time to stop ignoring the elephant in the room. Your compulsive focus on improving revenue (what we commoners call “tax hikes”) is not only unsustainable, but frankly damaging to our state’s future. While the boat is taking in water on the port side, you are hanging over the starboard railing trying to paddle forward faster. How about appointing a committee with the same comprehensive ambition as SF159 has for the tax system, but concentrate its work on spending?
In other words, SF159 is a waste of time and resources. Appoint a spending reform committee instead.

SF166 - State funded capital construction. Sponsored by Senators Landen, Bebout and von Flatern.
At first glance, this bill seems to propose some prudent priority methods for state-funded construction projects. Upon closer look, however, money is simply reallocated from the University of Wyoming to the Capitol Building "rehabilitation and restoration account". 
In and by itself, there is nothing wrong with requiring the University of Wyoming to stand on its own. I have proposed a model for privatizing the school, a model that would make the school academically stronger and more fiscally sustainable. However, if:
  • the state is going to make priorities without any such structural reforms;
  • it prioritizes the badly misrepresented Capitol Building construction project; and
  • the burden of the excessive Capitol Building cost is going to be placed on the shoulders of academic research;
then our legislators damn well better think again. The Capitol Building project already stands up to its eyeballs in sleaze; it would only do good to inject a modicum of fiscal responsibility into that project. 
I am all for private money funding government construction projects. I am all for increasing private funding of the University. But in the choice between funding new facilities for academic research (which actually has some kind of positive value down the road) and the fiscal farce going on downtown Cheyenne right now, I would suggest that our beloved lawmakers think again. 
Here is a fresh idea: try raise some private funds for the Capitol Building project.


The Ugly
Uh, oh...


SF88 - Palliative care. Sponsored by Senators Scott and Baldwin; and Representatives Henderson, Kinner, Kirkbride, Pelkey and Schwartz.
I have explained the detrimental consequences of this bill before (see here and here). Let me just one more time point out that this bill creates a government-run death panel in Wyoming, and that it has great potential to evolve into exactly the kind of death panel that exists in Obamacare and in government-run health care systems internationally. If you do not want the state to have a say in what treatment you get - or do not get - when your life is in danger, then you do not want this bill to become law.

SF172 - Outdoor lighting. Sponsored by Senator Case.
The esteemed senator from Lander wants the legislature to authorize counties to:
Adopt resolutions regulating the types, construction, installation and uses of outdoor electrically powered illuminating devices, lighting practices and systems to reduce light pollution and light trespass.
Senator Case, a good man I have known for many years now, is an accomplished economist and business man. He has a great taste in cars. Normally, he is a clear-minded man. In this case, however, I think he had some bad luck while thinking about what matters and what does not matter in a legislative session when a deficit is eating hundreds of millions of dollars out of the state budget.

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