Sep 27, 2012 - By Katie Roenigk, Staff WriterThe funding decision by Congress could cost Wyoming more than $100 million annually.
Wyoming representatives say they will work to restore $700 million in federal Abandoned Mine Land payments to the state over the next 10 years, but State Sen. Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) thinks the money is not coming back.
"We have to prepare for the fact that it's gone," Bebout said Thursday during a meeting of the Riverton Economic and Community Development Association.
The U.S. Senate on Saturday approved a continuing resolution that would cap Wyoming's AML funding at $15 million a year -- a fraction of the $150 million annual payment the state currently receives through AML. The resolution now will be considered by President Barack Obama, who has pushed for years to cut AML payments to states like Wyoming that receive more from the program than necessary to clean up abandoned coal mines.
The AML program is funded by the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 which imposed a 35-cent tax on each ton of coal produced in states like Wyoming. Bebout said money from the tax is supposed to come back to the state under federal law, but according to The Associated Press, both houses of Congress this summer voted to limit all states' AML funding to $15 million a year. Congress later amended the action to raise some states' AML funding while keeping the cap in place for Wyoming.
"It's just ridiculous," Bebout said. "They took care of 20 states, and Wyoming was the net loser."
Gov. Matt Mead said Wyoming, as the nation's largest coal-producing state, deserves more than a token amount of the reclamation funds. He said the congressional resolution to block AML funding to Wyoming could devastate the state's energy research programs, leaving legislators hard-pressed to continue to pay for coal research and other efforts it has covered with the AML dollars.
"Part of the AML funds were used to mitigate impacts to society and create jobs," Bebout said. "That's where we did a lot of things in our state. We built buildings, helped the University (of Wyoming). We put $30 million in the highway fund this last year."
Riverton Mayor Ron Warpness asked whether the AML money is supposed to be used for anything other than mine clean-up.
"To me it was an abuse of those funds," he said, referring to work at UW that was paid for with AML money.
Though some federal representatives agree with Warpness, Bebout said Wyoming legislators were certified to use AML funds at their discretion. He maintained that most of the money has been spent to enhance energy production in the state.
"There have been performing arts and some other things -- that's the argument (Congress) used," Bebout said. "But I'd debate them all day long about the way we spend our money. And let's not forget, under law it is our money."
During a recent meeting, Central Wyoming College president Jo Anne McFarland said the AML cut will have an effect on the college.
"It can't help but impact," she said this month. "(AML funds) have gone, for example, to highway funding. AML funds have been used for capital construction. ... So yes it will pinch, because that's a lot of money to make up."
The lack of AML funding gives legislators one more reason to be conservative when forming the state budget, McFarland said. In April, Mead sent a memo to most state agency directors asking them to prepare for 8 percent cuts, in part because of low natural gas prices that have cut state revenues while also depressing the price of coal.
"Even though state revenues appear to be coming back a little bit, we're hearing ... that many legislators and the governor may still want to go up to 8 percent budget cuts just to take care of all of those uncertainties," she said. "The talk on the street is that we'll have cuts, but maybe not as great as 8 percent. But I wouldn't count on that. We're prepared for the worst-case scenario."
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