Legislature wraps up session a day early

Mar 9, 2012 By Ben Neary, The Associated Press

CHEYENNE -- The Wyoming Legislature wrapped up its work Thursday, closing the books one day early on a four-week session that saw lawmakers approve a $3.2 billion budget to fund operations for the next two years.

The budget bill that Gov. Matt Mead signed earlier in the day keeps state spending essentially flat. It gives Mead authority to spend up to $150 million in reserve funds if necessary to keep state government functioning in the face of sagging natural gas prices, until lawmakers return to Cheyenne next year.

Lawmakers had warned state agencies last year to brace for budget cuts. While those cuts didn't materialize, the Legislature put agencies on notice to brace for 4-percent cuts starting next year.

"The budget cuts that are coming, I think are the right thing to do," Mead told members of the House in his closing remarks.

He said Wyoming is proud of its ranking as being among the best-managed in the country and said good management requires making tough choices when necessary.

Sen. Phil Nicholas, the Laramie Republican who is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, warned that Wyoming faces a harder financial reality in years to come, even though it kept the current budget stable.

Taxes on natural gas production are a cornerstone of the state's economy, but gas prices have fallen hard recently and experts say they're likely to rebound slowly in the years to come.

"We know that this is likely the end of the large, skyrocketing budgets," Nicholas said. "We know that we're likely to see smaller budgets, plateaus."

Wyoming has seen its general fund budget more than double over the last decade. It stood at $1.6 billion for the 2001-02 biennium, before the most recent energy boom. It rose to $4.1 billion in 2007-08 cycle before dropping to its current $3.2 billion level.

The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Rosie Berger, noted the state has reduced its cost of doing business by $1 billion over the last three funding cycles.

"I think that's critical, that we be cautious as we move forward,"the Big Horn Republican said.

Rep. Tom Lubnau, R-Gillette, said Wyoming stands to benefit from increasing demand for energy around the globe.

"We're participating in a worldwide economy right now," he said, adding that efforts were ongoing to increase coal exports and other materials from Wyoming and to meet demand in Asia and elsewhere.

"In the near term, we'll see a little bit of a dip," Lubnau said. "But I'm not willing to give up in the long term on good solid markets for Wyoming commodities."

Nicholas said he's been concerned about the solvency of the state's employee retirement system. A bill passed this session to reduce retirement benefits for newly hired state employees.

While the budget bill includes no overall pay raise for state employees, he said that meeting responsibilities to those workers will be a major future challenge.

The legislative redistricting bill drew only limited debate this session. The Legislature largely endorsed a plan that a joint House-Senate committee had approved before the session.

Mead has signed the new legislative districting plan into law. Lack of controversy over redistricting was a factor in the Legislature's ability to adjourn early.

The Legislature also endorsed a new state wolf management plan, which Mead signed into law this week. The new plan was critical to getting the federal government to end protections for wolves under the Endangered Species Act.

Some environmental groups have pledged to fight it if Wyoming can't convince Congress to give the state the same immunity to legal challenges it has extended to wolf delisting plans approved in Idaho and Montana.

The federal government reintroduced wolves into Yellowstone in the mid-1990s. Wyoming's new plan calls for managing wolves as trophy game animals in a flexible zone around Yellowstone National Park while treating them as unprotected predators that could be shot on sight in the rest of the state.

Mead drew applause from the House when he told legislators that it's high time that Wyoming end federal wolf protections.

"After almost 18 years, it's high time that Wyoming took over management of its wolves," he said.

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