ROCK SPRINGS – A couple Rock Springs legislators not only updated residents on the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act federal funding, but what Wyoming’s projected budget could look like in two years.
During a recent Rock Springs Rotary Club meeting, Senator Liisa Anselmi-Dalton and Representative Clark Stith visited with members about Wyoming’s recent special session and what the actions taken at the session means for Wyomingites.
Anselmi-Dalton said the Legislature passed a bill during its special session granting small businesses immunity from getting sued should someone contract the COVID-19 Coronavirus while at their business. Anselmi-Dalton, who is a business owner herself, said she knows how important this bill was to pass.
“We didn’t want businesses to reopen without some sort of provision,” Anselmi-Dalton said. “We didn’t want businesses to be sued.”
Under this provision, if the business owner is doing everything they can to protect their customers from COVID-19, such as following all state and local public-health recommendations, business owners will have immunity should someone test positive after being at their business.
“If a business owner, for example, is being reckless and knows their employees are exposed, but sends them out to serve customers and cough on them for example, there would not be immunity for that,” Stith said.
As for workers compensation, Anselmi-Dalton said the Legislature also passed a workers compensation exception which would allow for those who contract COVID-19 while at work to file for workers compensation. However, if the business does not pay into workers compensation they would not be eligible for the program.
“It’s nice for employees to get some sort of coverage,” Anselmi-Dalton said.
Funding for Businesses
According to Stith, Wyoming still has quite a bit of money for businesses being impacted by COVID-19. He said the state needs to find a way to spend $1.25 billion in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act Act federal funding before the end of December 2020. If the state can’t spend all of the money, whatever remains will go back to the federal government.
Earlier this week, Governor Mark Gordon announced he has allocated $50 million in additional funding from the federal CARES Act to the Business Interruption Stipend Program to ensure the program keeps pace with demand from small businesses across the state.
The funding rules haven’t been set yet, but Stith said this program will look at what the actual bottom line loss is for the business.
“For small businesses, there is still time and there is still a lot of money out there if you can show that you had business interruption losses by comparing your revenue and expenses in 2020 to revenue and expenses in 2019,” Stith said.
Wyoming’s Future Budget
After discussing what options are available for CARES Act funding, Stith presented the club with the states projected budget according the latest projection, which was prepared May 26. By the 2021-2022 biennium Wyoming will be looking at an $877 million shortfall. Under this same projection, the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account, also known as the Rainy Day Fund, will only have $977 million left in it. Stith said the Rainy Day Fund currently has $1.6 billion in it.
Stith said whenever there is a budget shortfall for kindergarten through 12th grade funding, money to cover that shortfall is automatically taken out the Rainy Day Fund to cover it. It’s estimated that school funding will be down by $500 million.
“So schools are down $500 million, but they’re going to get covered without even having to break a sweat,” Stith said. “Right now, schools are just going to get completely covered, but at the expense of drawing down the savings account by a third of its balance.
If the state uses the rest of the Rainy Day Fund to cover its projected loss of revenue by June of 2022, there will only be $100,000 million left in the Rainy Day Fund.
“This Rainy Day Fund, that’s been building for a decade, just gets blown in two years,” Stith said.
Stith said there are ways they can cut funding, which would include consolidating schools districts and setting a designated salary for school superintendents, such as county clerks, sheriff’s, are set. He also suggested lowering the amount schools are allowed to have in their reserve accounts. Currently, schools are allowed to reserve 15 percent, Clark said they could decrease that to 10 percent or less. He questioned why school districts need reserves if they are going to receive funding anyway.
Stith also believes the state should look at using Medicaid to pay for special services such as speech therapy. He said he was told about $18 million in federal funding could come to the state for Medicaid, but the districts are against it and Governor Mark Gordon vetoed a bill for it. Wyoming is the only state not in the Medicaid program.
He said no one wants to raise taxes, but at some point something has to give.
Anselmi-Dalton said she’s in favor of a 1 percent sales tax, a food tax, or a lodging tax. However, she said not a lot of residents are in favor of increasing taxes.
Both Stith and Anselmi-Dalton agreed cuts need to be made, but the Legislature will need to decide where those cuts will be.