Sunday, January 28, 2018

Mead's Latest: Appropriations by Decree

I have good news on the Wyoming economy that I want to get out, but Governor Mead just won't let me catch a break. Barely had the greenback rain over Weatherby stopped before our beloved chief executive started appropriating state funds by decree.

Reports the Wyoming Tribune Eagle (January 27, print edition):
Wyoming's governor put the weight of his office behind a plan to diversify the state's economy with two executive orders and directions to a top state agency Friday. ... The first executive order established an educational attainment goal for 67 percent of the state's population to hold a post-secondary certificate of degree by 2025 and 82 percent by 2040. It calls on the Wyoming Community College Commission, the state's seven community college and the University of Wyoming to collaborate on a plan to achieve that goal and submit progress reports.
There are two ways to read this executive order. Either, it is a whimsical gesture by a general trying to command an army he does not have; or it is a deliberate way to force the legislature to comply with his will and appropriate more money to our community colleges and the university.

I do not believe that Governor Mead is whimsical. In fact, I do not believe that Governor Mead has lost his mind at all. On the contrary, I think he is at least as smart, sharp and skillful at politics today as he was in 2010. 

Which leads us to the second interpretation of his executive order: 

1. Governor Mead wants his ENDOW project to define his legacy;
2. He has sensed that ENDOW is in danger of being shut down by the legislature, primarily because of his pie-in-the-sky WyoFlot idea. 
3. Therefore, he ratchets up his fight to salvage ENDOW for the (his) future.

This is a fair assessment of the facts. WyoFlot is probably going to be the iceberg that sinks M/S ENDOW and all its other cargo - including the governor's workforce training program. You know, the one for which the governor wants "tens of millions" of dollars.

Since Governor Mead has other plans in life, and since he has made ENDOW his gubernatorial legacy, he simply cannot afford to let it sink. By decreeing an increase in the share of workers with certificates, or associate's or bachelor's degrees, Mead knows full well that he is increasing the burden on our colleges. He also knows that the colleges will not wait long before they come to the legislature and tells them "we need more money to comply with Governor Mead's executive order".

At that point, Governor Mead pulls out the cattle prod and tries to force fiscally conservative legislators to push the "yes" button on funds for ENDOW. 

Laramie County Community College president Joe Shaffer has already seen the writing on the wall. Back to the Wyoming Tribune Eagle story: 
Schaffer presented six recommendations to the ENDOW council Thursday to help educators meet what was, at the time, only a proposed attainment goal. Pushing Wyoming graduates to college or certifications alone won't get the state to 67 percent, he said. It would include providing incentives for adults to return to school, as well as attracting high school graduates and transfers from outside of Wyoming. ... "No doubt it's an uphill battle," he said. "Without the programs, systems and support, we're not going to get there. We're all going to have to work together on it."
If we weed through the political rhetoric here, we find a community college president who is very quick to seize upon Governor Mead's "attainment goal"/executive edict. There is nothing wrong with that - in fact, Schaffer would be failing to do his job if he did not try to expand his college under such strong support from the governor. That said, his words confirm that Mead's "attainment goal", which turned into an executive order, is precisely what it looks like:

a) Raising the rate of college graduates will require "providing incentives for adults to return to school"; who is the provider here?
b) Another requirement would be "attracting high school graduates and transfers from outside Wyoming"; who is going to provide the means to attract those people?
c) To get to where Governor Mead wants the state of Wyoming to go, "we're all going to have to work together"; how does that not require more money from the legislature to the community colleges?

Again, college president Schaffer is only doing his job. The problem is Governor Mead's executive order. 

What happens if the legislature refuses to increase appropriations according to the governor's will in this executive order? This question is not hypothetical, but very real, and it is put on its edge by the governor's statements last fall that the workforce training program he included in the ENDOW report would require "tens of millions" of dollars in new appropriations. 

Can the legislature simply turn a blind eye to the executive order? I will leave the legal aspects of that question to constitutional scholars; from a fiscal viewpoint, there is a risk that the governor starts rearranging funds within existing appropriations, in order to attain the goal in his own executive order. It would probably not happen immediately, but in lieu of new appropriations from the legislature, Governor Mead would have to do something before his time as governor is up. 

If the legislature ignores the governor's executive order, and he himself does nothing to further those goals, then he effectively nullifies the order. Where does that place his legacy, the legacy on which he is of course not going to run for U.S. Senator some time in the future? 

In other words: by turning his attainment goal into an executive order, Mead has firmly demonstrated, to the legislature and to us the voters, that he wants ENDOW to be the crown jewel of his gubernatorial tenure. But in doing so, he has also painted himself into a political corner: he must either get a legislative response this session, or find a way to start funding the pursuit of his own goal. 

Any third option would make the entire executive order fall flat to the ground as a political ploy. But Matt Mead is not a man of political ploys. He is a man of determination, who wants to go out as governor looking like a real leader. If that means decreeing an increase in spending on our community colleges and the University of Wyoming, then so be it. 

If he succeeds, Governor Mead has established "appropriations by decree" as a new way to increase government spending.

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