SWEETWATER COUNTY — Wyoming State Senator Eli Bebout (SD-26) out of Fremont County made an appearance via Zoom during the Sweetwater County Commissioner meeting on Tuesday to discuss Sweetwater County’s needs for CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act funding, and the Wyoming state deficit.
Senator Bebout said the Wyoming Legislature is looking at having a special session to figure out where to allocate CARES Act funding, and he wanted to check if Sweetwater County had a need for the COVID-19 Coronavirus relief monies.
Bebout said the state has $1.25 billion in CARES Act funding available, but they are having trouble “getting the money out the door.”
With the federal restrictions on where and how the money can be spent, which is for specific COVID-19-related costs, the money is not able to be spent in the ways most counties and towns need. Bebout was asking if the commissioners had any input they could give to the Wyoming Legislature and Governor Mark Gordon.
Senator Bebout asked the commissioners to look at hospitals and other places that may be able to use the funding. Though the state is having trouble spending the money, Bebout said Wyoming is better positioned to spend the money than some states.
“The good thing about Wyoming is we’re in the position to be able to do some additional things relative to what other states can do,” he said.
Chairman Randy Wendling said the counties and towns in Wyoming are relying on legislative groups to work with Congress to get restrictions on the money lessened.
“Our federal congressional delegates are working very hard to get controls on the money relaxed so states can get the money out to towns and counties,” Wendling said.
During public comment, Craig Rood, Director Of Public Relations and Government Affairs at Ciner Resources, said the Legislature should consider helping get the COVID-19 Large Business Relief bill passed.
“It helps spend the CARES money and helps us with our 44 percent decline in demand and COVID expenses,” Rood said.
Wyoming’s $1.5 Billion Deficit
Senator Bebout also touched on the state’s $1.5 billion deficit, in which he said everything has to be on the table. He added that K-12 education funding is a big issue at the moment.
“This deficit is real and serious and it’s going to have a long term effect on all of us, and we’ve just got to deal with a lot of tough issues,” Bebout said.
Commissioner Jeff Smith suggested an expansion of Medicaid, which he acknowledged is a touchy subject. However, he said expanding Medicaid could bring a lot of money into the state.
“There’s the fear of it going away, but so far, the state’s lost out on a billion dollars or something like that,” Smith said. “It should be seriously considered in this session coming up.”
Senator Bebout said that if there are good arguments in favor of expanding Medicaid, that he agreed it should be considered, but only if it works.
Bebout added that with big budgets like the Wyoming Department of Health, the biggest budget in the state besides the $1.8 billion education budget, it will be difficult to expand Medicaid right now. However, he said they will have to look at all of their options, as they cannot cut their way out of the deficit.
“We just can’t cut $1.5 billion. It’s going to be almost impossible,” Bebout said.
Funding to Small Communities
Wendling noted that the state’s legislative stabilization reserve account (LSRA), a rainy day account created in 2005, has been diminished by nearly 50 percent. In 2016, the Legislature allocated $105 million from the LSRA to local governments over four payments, the Casper Start Tribune reported in 2017.
The $105 million is on the table, and during last year’s session, the statue was changed in percentage of allocations to the towns and cities, according to Wendling. At the rate the LSRA account is being reduced, Wendling said the account could be empty in two years. The LSRA also helps fund education.
Wendling said as that account goes away, he would like to look into other accounts that can help fund the small towns and cities.
“We found out that for a huge percent of our small towns, that maybe 15 to almost, I would say, plus or minus 30 percent of those small town budgets depended on the $105 million,” Wendling said.
Wendling also said that as Sweetwater County loses production taxes in minerals, which provide a lot of revenue to the state, the Legislature needs look at replacing those production taxes. He said specifically, they should look at those paying late taxes or are paying hardly anything in taxes.