Wyoming Gov. Urges Higher Taxes To Help Keep Schools Afloat
Faced with a budget deficit that is clouding the future of Wyoming schools, Gov. Jim Geringer used his State of the State Address last week to call for imposing one new tax, raising another, and extending the life of a third.
Yet despite the state's serious fiscal problems, the second-term Republican urged legislators to avoid dwelling solely on the mounting costs of education in the state. Instead, he said, they should "focus on what the costs should yield, and then focus on accountability for the dollars spent."
"Education at all levels is my number-one priority," Mr. Geringer said in his Feb. 14 speech. "It is the key to Wyoming's mastery of the social, personal, and economic goals of the new millennium."
While many states are enjoying budget surpluses, Wyoming is among a small group struggling with a deficit. And education is driving that deficit, the governor said.
Mr. Geringer predicted that by 2002, the state would face a $200 million shortfall in its budget—which the governor has proposed increasing to $1.29 billion in fiscal 2001—if current spending and revenue trends continue.
To achieve economic growth, the state needs a higher percentage of families with school-age children, the governor said. Yet with schools spending an average of more than $7,500 per pupil, adding 10,000 students over the next decade would add $75 million a year to the state budget, he said.
"Looking at the forecast of education expenditures, the cost of education will continue to go up, particularly if we have the economic recovery that we want," he said.
To deal with the deficit, the governor prescribed a four-point plan that would, among other steps, "broaden the education tax base." To do that, Mr. Geringer proposed a sales tax on services as well as raising the gasoline and fuel tax by 8 cents a gallon. He also asked lawmakers to extend a 4 percent sales tax that is scheduled to expire in 2002.
Eric Curry, the governor's press secretary, said that Mr. Geringer had no plans for a tax earmarked solely for schools, but that education would be the primary beneficiary of any tax plan put in place. The governor called for continued funding of early-childhood programs, teacher-recruitment efforts, technology, and literacy, as well as increases in funding for higher education. He also urged lawmakers to increase the statewide property tax-which would raise $15 million over two years—to help finance capital construction and major maintenance of schools
Legal Battle Continues
During his speech, Mr. Geringer expressed frustration with the state's ongoing court battle over school funding, saying the issue had been "litigated ad nauseum."
Following a 1995 decision by the Wyoming Supreme Court declaring the state's K-12 funding method unconstitutional, lawmakers revised the formula in 1997.
Last month, a state court judge ruled that the system was largely constitutional, except for parts of it that provide extra money for small schools and districts. In his Jan. 19 decision, Judge Nicholas Kalokathis found that "equal access to an adequate education is substantially assured by the revised funding system."
Ray Hunkins, a lawyer who represents the state in the funding case, said the court has now upheld 17 of 21 legal issues regarding the formula.
The judge's decision will now be appealed to the state supreme court, which will also consider his earlier ruling that the state's funding formula for major school construction and maintenance projects is unconstitutional. ("Wyo. Finance Case Nearing Final Decision," Jan. 12, 2000.)
Referring to the recent rulings in his State of the State Address, Gov. Geringer said he hoped the high court would rule favorably on the issues the state is appealing. And he congratulated lawmakers for crafting a school funding formula that has generally held up well in the courts.
Vol. 19, Issue 24, Page 20