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After budget session, Miller concerned that state spent too much

Apr 14, 2016 By Christina George, Staff Writer

Determining how to distribute state funding to cities, towns and counties was by far the biggest controversy of the Wyoming Legislature's 20-day budget session this year, said State Rep. David Miller, R-Riverton.

Miller also said he believes the final bill was a fair compromise that benefited Fremont County and its municipalities.

"The formula had been wrong for years. It was jerry-rigged, maybe 10 years ago. Some legislators from some of the poorest counties did the formula to get a higher percentage based on their population," Miller said. "We got it somewhat fixed this time around where it's fairer and based on population and sales tax, and Fremont County did better with the new distribution formula."

There was minimal debate when it came to the appropriation amount of $105 million for the 2017-18 biennium. The figure is down from more than $180 million allocated in 2014. The trim was among many made to help offset dwindling revenues resulting from the state's economic downturn.

When it came to how to distribute those funds for the 2017 fiscal year, lawmakers worked into the final hours of session before they passed a plan, which included redistributing 5 percent meant for cities and towns to "hardship counties," which rely on limited tax revenues. The distribution of that 5 percent for the 2018 fiscal year will be reassessed when the Legislature reconvenes next year.

"It was pretty clear to me when they started doing that we would have to compromise between the House and the Senate," Miller said. "It was a fair compromise. It would have gone back to the old formula, which would have been devastating for larger towns in Fremont County. Riverton would have lost about a third of what they will receive, and I think Lander was similar."

Lengthy session

This is Miller's eighth budget sessions since he was elected in 2000.

"Of all the budget session I have been in over the course of my (service), this one was the longest and most contentious. We spent 16 or 17 days on the budget," Miller said. "With cities, towns and counties ... there were a lot of amendments and it kind of got into a stalemate."

This year, the Legislature deviated from having one budget and instead separated expenditures into several. Miller said he wasn't happy with the final budgets.

"I think the perception is we didn't spend as much as the previous biennium, and as it turns out, we spent more," Miller said. "It's essentially the same as the last biennium but it is $10 million more than the previous biennium years."

Miller said the general fund, which accounts for about half of the state's spending, is down by more than $300 million. Other funds, however, went up by almost $300 million. Federal funding was also up by a couple of hundred million, he said.

"Overall, I think it's something like the next two year's spending is roughly $8.1 billion, and that is about $10 million more than the previous year," Miller said. "In light of where our economy is, I just don't think that is real smart."

Spending worry

He said the state dipped into savings to make up for a deficit due to the depressed energy industry the state depends on for revenue.

Miller said he's also concerned by spending on capital construction projects -- like new schools -- amid an economic climate that could decrease the state's population.

"I don't want to build another Jeffrey City school when the population may not be there anymore," he said. "I think, in light of where the energy economy is going in Wyoming, it would have been wise to wait a few years and see how things settle out."

He said some believe Wyoming's tourism will help with revenues. However, he predicts a dramatic decrease in visitors because many of those counted are the energy workforce traveling to oil, gas and mining sites. He suspects hotel reservations to be down by 20 to 40 percent in the next year.

Public lands bills

Miller co-sponsored two bills related to public lands this session. One called for a study of restricted access to public lands in Wyoming. The other would have required the United States transfer most of the federally-owned land in Wyoming to the state. Both bills failed.

"I am a little bit concerned in the movement in Wyoming, especially by the well-funded, so-called sportsmen groups, to push against Wyoming from taking control of public lands," Miller said. "There's a misunderstanding there of losing access. We just think the public lands would be better managed with Wyoming people managing them. They would have more access than if the federal government managed the lands."

Miller said he's tired of seeing forest fires and beetle investigation harm public lands now managed by the federal government. He also says the heavy restrictions and amount of time it takes to obtain a drilling permit on such lands are unnecessary.

"It's a real hard argument because we all love the big open spaces in Wyoming and being able to access them without permission," Miller said. "But if Wyoming takes control of it, it would be the same or better."

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