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Counties might be reimbursed for lost funds

Jan 24, 2014 - By Ben Neary, The Associated Press

CHEYENNE -- Wyoming should pay county governments to keep them whole if Congress cuts a longstanding program that compensates them for lost tax revenue on federal lands, a legislative committee voted Thursday.

Wyoming's Joint Appropriations Committee also voted to trim Gov. Matt Mead's proposal for increasing state employee salaries.

The federal budget Congress passed recently calls for ending the payment in lieu of taxes payments this year.

The committee voted Thursday to endorse Mead's suggestion of giving local governments $175 million in the coming two-year-budget cycle. But the committee recommended dedicating the first $25 million to continue to fund the county payment program if Congress lets it lapse.

The committee, which intends to finish its work Friday, has been meeting the last two weeks to review Mead's $3.3 billion general funds budget proposal for the two-year funding cycle that begins July 1.

The full Legislature will consider the committee's recommendations when it meets for a four-week session starting Feb. 10.

Mead had recommended annual 2.5-percent annual raises for most state employees but the committee cut that to 2-percent.

Mead's proposed $3.3 billion general fund budget called for roughly $88 million for employee pay raises. Of that amount, he called for roughly $49 million for state employees and $38.5 million from school funds for raises in the education system.

Kari Gray, Mead's chief of staff, told the committee that employee pay raises are one of Mead's highest priorities. She said many state employees haven't seen a raise in four years while they've experienced increases in state retirement deductions and seen their buying power eroded by inflation.

Gray said the administration has devised a formula for employee pay raises that would give the biggest raises to those who are the farthest behind what they could make on the open market while also giving the biggest raises to those who have scored well on performance evaluations. She said those state employees who are making over market rates would also see a lesser increase.

The committee endorsed an amendment proposed by Rep. Tim Stubson, R-Casper, to cut the pay raises for most state workers from 2.5 percent annually to 2 percent while cutting the amount available for merit raises from $2.9 million to $2 million. The committee endorsed compounding the raises each year and paying all the associated employee retirement costs.

Sen. John Hastert, D-Green River, spoke against cutting the raises. He noted the state is saving heavily and now has about $1.7 billion in its so-called rainy day fund while many employees haven't seen a raise in years.

"The people's basic take home has been the same," Hastert said. "They've had the same money for the last five years, but really about 1.6 to 2 percent less spending power at least over that time period."

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, countered that many people in the private sector haven't seen raises either and can't rely on the taxpayers to pick up the cost of their retirement and insurance.

"I come from a district where most of it's private sector, and a lot of us haven't had raises for four years," Bebout said.

Bebout said the committee's raise package amounted to about $42 million, some $8 million less than Mead recommended.

For employees at the University of Wyoming, the committee endorsed the same proposal of 2-percent annual raises for each year of the biennium with the state paying the retirement costs.

The committee voted to give community college employees a 2-percent raise for one year. Many of those employees haven't been subjected to the same salary freeze as other state workers.

For employees of the state's K-12 school system, the committee called for $31 million in increases for salary and retirement.

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Legislature, Wyoming