Wyoming Legislative Update
by Albert Sommers, House District #20
July 6, 2015
July 6, 2015
Hello Sublette County, on June 29 and 30, I participated in the second meeting of the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration. Wyoming has a constitutional mandate to provide equal and adequate funding for each student in the state, and the Wyoming Supreme Court mandated that the Legislature recalibrate school funding every five years. During this two day meeting, we focused on challenges to future education funding, the Regional Cost Adjustment, salaries of K12 employees, and next steps in the process.
To demonstrate the complexity of K12 school funding, the list of education accounts at the state level includes Common School Account, Common School Income Account, School Foundation Program Account, School Foundation Program Reserve Account, Common School Permanent Land Fund Spending Policy Reserve Account, School Capital Construction Account, and Permanent Land Fund Holding Account. A complex web connects all of these accounts that fund student education and school construction. During the recent natural gas boom in Sublette County the state education coffers have been well funded, and even allowed for the creation of the Hathaway Student Scholarship Endowment Fund. Remember, K12 school funding is generated from both state and local tax mills, and then districts, like those in Sublette County with more tax revenue than the funding model allows, must pass those extra dollars to the state. Money continues to flow into the Permanent School Land Fund Corpus, and this fund has risen from $1.622 billion in fiscal year 2010 to $3.047 billion in fiscal year 2015. But the boom is gone in Wyoming, with natural gas, oil, and coal prices dropping. Coal lease bonus money has paid for most of the school construction in Wyoming for the last several years, but we have not seen a new coal lease in Wyoming for a couple of years.
With declining revenues, Wyoming will have to make some hard decisions with respect to funding K12 education. Will we replace the coal lease bonus money with some new revenue stream, utilize General Fund dollars, or dip into the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account? Wyoming in the past has dedicated other mills to K12 education, but will these be reinstated? We have over three billion dollars in an inviolate coffee can (Permanent School Land Fund Corpus) created from education taxes. Current policy allows the state to spend the investment income derived from the corpus, but only in an amount that does not exceed 5% of the five year rolling average of this account. Will we spend more of our investment income from this coffee can, or will we reinstate extra tax mills for school capital construction? A policy direction will need to be developed by the end of the year, and then brought to the legislative body for discussion.
We heard from our consultant Dr. Lori Taylor on options for improving the Regional Cost Adjustment, which attempts to equalize education funding around the state. She favors the Hedonic Wage Index, but admits its current form is not well conceived. Current state policy is that districts receive whichever is higher, the Hedonic Wage Index, the Wyoming Cost of Living Index (WCLI), or an index of 1.0. The WCLI tracks consumer goods, including housing, across the state. The Hedonic Wage Index is a statistically created model designed to equalize why teachers choose to live in an area, and the latest version made the distance from Yellowstone National Park one of the factors considered in the model. This meant that a teacher in Baggs would get more money than a teacher in Big Piney for that particular factor, because Big Piney is closer to Yellowstone. The Hedonic Wage Index makes quality of life decisions to equalize funding, and I think that is a very sketchy concept. Everyone agrees our current system is not optimal, but the highest index of the three indices is the only compromise that the legislators could reach. I do believe that multiple indices better represent the differing costs across the state, and the Wyoming Cost of Living Index is important to Sublette County because it better reflects our housing market. The WCLI will also react more quickly to boom/bust economic conditions. The Recalibration Committee asked Dr. Taylor to update both the Hedonic Wage Index and the WCLI for our review.
We were updated on salaries by another consultant, Dr. Christina Stoddard, and her analysis examines whether there are cost pressures in Wyoming which require districts to pay higher teacher salaries. Wyoming pays teachers more than any surrounding state. Dr. Stoddard does not believe there are cost pressures in Wyoming to account for this difference. However, in recent years our neighbors have begun to catch up to our pay schedule. We heard strong testimony from small districts that it is often hard to find applicants for some positions, and far fewer applicants for more popular positions, like elementary teachers. Wyoming getsonly one third of its new hire teachers from the University of Wyoming, while Utah gets nearly 90% of it teachers from in state universities. It is easier to hire your own, but Wyoming has far less chance of doing that than Utah. I still maintain it is very difficult to hire teachers to live in communities that are 100 miles fromhigh quality health care or a Wal-Mart, and Wyoming has many such communities. Around the nation, rural states like Wyoming have the highest costs of education. I hope the consultant examines the teacher recruitment issue a little more carefully, but in the end the Legislature will decide teacher salaries. If you want quality teachers in Wyoming, then you have to pay a higher salary than your neighbor. The committee will continue to examine education finance in the coming months.
July 5, 2015:
Hello Sublette County, on June 22, I attended the first meeting of the Joint Subcommittee to Review Title 25 Issues. Title 25 is the term used by law enforcement and medical professionals for the process by which individuals can be emergency-detained for mental illness, often exacerbated by substance abuse, under circumstances where they are a danger to themselves or others. A preliminary examination of the detainee must be completed by a professional within 24 hours. Under this professionalís recommendation the detainee can be held no more than 72 hours for a court hearing, which determines whether further detention is necessary prior to a hearing that determines if involuntary hospitalization is required. The person must be detained in an appropriate facility, and must not be held with others who are incarcerated for breaking the law, except in extreme emergency. If this seems complicated, then you would be correct. However, the law is very careful about detaining people unnecessarily, and about detaining them in an appropriate manner. So why did I attend this meeting?
Wyoming is struggling with rising costs, increasing demand, and a disjointed process in the Title 25 arena. Sublette County has even created a task force comprised of law enforcement, mental health professionals, medical professionals, and prevention specialists to deal with this issue. Sublette County does not have a facility to hold emergency detainees, and must pay for transport and detention of these individuals in another community, usually Teton County. Usually, these detainees are placed into specially designated rooms within a hospital, until their hearing process is completed. Emergency transportation and hospitalization is not cheap. What further complicates the entire Title 25 process is that no single entity has been designated the official overseer in state law. The county is financially responsible for detaining these individuals for the first 72 hours, and then the state becomes financially responsible. County law enforcement is not the agency designated by state law to examine and determine whether these individuals shall be detained for the first 72 hours. This decision is left to medical or mental health professionals who can be employed in a variety of institutions. Ultimately, if involuntary hospitalization occurs it becomes the responsibility of the State Hospital in Evanston, but this facility does not currently have the capacity to deal with all of the Title 25 hospitalizations in the state. A separate legislative task force is in the process of evaluating all state health facilities to determine where needs exist, and how to move these facilities into the 21st century.
Some needs that Sublette County has raised to this Title 25 Joint Subcommittee are identifying a "Gatekeeper" for the process, a standardized assessment tool, more beds at the State Hospital, the County Attorney to have better means to track Title 25 cases, a discussion on whether the state should have additional authority to compel individuals into treatment in times of crisis, more affordable detention and transportation of Title 25 detainees, and a better safety net to get these individuals the help they need.
The Subcommittee comprised of legislators, county officials, state agencies, and mental health providers quickly realized that it had too little information, and passed motions to obtain more information before proceeding. Ultimately, Wyoming and Sublette County are looking for more effective and efficient methods of dealing with this very vulnerable population. Many of those detained are repeat customers of the Title 25 process, which means we as a society have not found the proper balance to effectively care for these individuals. Wyoming has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation, and the Title 25 population is a part of this statistic. We have good mental health professionals in this county and in the state, but their resources have been stretched very thin. I hope to stay involved in this process, because it is important to Sublette County. I am not convinced that a "one size fits all" solution is best, because services vary in each community of the state.