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Wyoming can’t ignore school fund shortfall

Wyoming can’t ignore school fund shortfall

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Wyoming legislators must take the state’s school funding crisis seriously.

By next July, the state is expected to be facing a shortfall of about $530 million for education. That’s in addition to a $200 million hole for the school construction fund.

Members of the legislative committees that are supposed to be addressing these critical shortfalls have only talked about the problem. These lawmakers show little appetite for creating new revenue streams to fund our schools or increasing existing ones to fill the gaping holes.

But this is important. It’s not an overstatement to say that the future of our state hinges on these legislators’ ability to solve this problem. Our schools are educating the next generation of Wyoming leaders, ranchers, entrepreneurs, energy industry workers and more. Those future leaders are relying on our current leaders to fix the school funding gap.

Plus, a quality education system does more than educate the students who are here today. It also serves as a draw to the area, a reason to move here and call Wyoming home. Without a school system that serves its children well, Wyoming’s goals of attracting and retaining skilled workers and their families as part of its plan to support long-term economic diversity in the state won’t get off the ground.

Raising taxes isn’t easy, and nowhere is that more true than in Wyoming. People here are wary of paying more to government. Some of the options on the table are increasing the sales and use tax, increasing the lodging tax and increasing the mineral severance tax. Lawmakers are eager to talk about the downsides of those, but they do so at the expense of children and their constituents.

That’s because Wyomingites also want strong schools and well-educated children. So legislators must do the hard work of explaining to their constituents why the current system won’t work. These are drastic times, characterized by huge shortfalls, and they call for drastic measures. Kicking the can down the road often looks tempting, but Wyoming has very nearly reached the end of that road. And with every month that goes by, the cliff looms nearer, and the options for how to address the problem become narrower.

Between tackling the education crisis and explaining their decisions to their constituents, it would seem, state legislators have plenty of important work to do. So it’s troubling that instead of substantive issues, one of their most common refrains is about re-election.

Just listen to Sen. Ray Peterson, R-Cowley, who characterized the situation like this: “I’m Senator Peterson, I’m raising your taxes, and I’m cutting your wages. Vote for me.”

Peterson went on to say that he was considering all options for funding schools. But lawmakers must remember that this problem is not about them or their re-election prospects. They need to muster the political courage necessary to make Wyoming a place people want to live in the long term.

What if lawmakers pitched it like this? “I’m your senator and I’m defending Wyoming’s public schools, because it’s incredibly important that the state’s young minds are prepared to lead our beloved state far into the future. Vote for me.”

Wyomingites appreciate the value of education, and they appreciate statesmanship – the willingness to solve long-term problems at the expense of short-term popularity. Lawmakers must rise to the challenge and remember that the important thing is not whether they win re-election. The important thing is whether they can look back on their legislative service and be proud of what they accomplished for our state’s children and its future.

– Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune

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