CHEYENNE – A $30 million funding request from Wyoming’s community college presidents didn’t gain much traction among members of the Joint Appropriations Committee during their meeting Tuesday afternoon.
The request, which was first made in a letter sent to Gov. Mark Gordon last month, is for $30 million in additional funding to allow the colleges to meet some of their needs. In his budget proposal for the 2021-22 biennium, Gordon wrote that he was unable to fulfill the request, though he urged others to read the letter.
During the meeting Tuesday, committee members had a simple message for the presidents, many of whom attended the meeting.
“We feel your pain,” Rep. Bob Nicholas, R-Cheyenne, told the presidents. “We really do, and the reason we’re here today doing it is because we’re in the process of having less money, and we don’t see a horizon where that’s going to change in the near future.”
Kevin Hibbard, administrator for the state’s Budget Division, told the committee there isn’t $30 million left in the state’s economic profile for the request.
Several factors – inflationary pressures, workforce competition, student recruitment efforts and others – prompted the presidents to draft the letter.
Laramie County Community College President Joe Schaffer, who presented the request to the committee, said the colleges’ economic burdens have recently fallen on students.
“In the past 10 years, two-year community college tuition in Wyoming has increased 96.4%,” Schaffer said. “The Community College Commission has increased tuition eight times in that 10-year window.”
While Wyoming still has the most affordable four-year college tuition among western states, its tuition for community colleges has risen well above the regional average, Schaffer said.
That increase in tuition has come as funding from the state for community colleges has dropped. According to the presidents’ letter, the state has reduced overall general funding for community colleges by more than 8% since 2010. When factoring for inflation, the letter states, that drop equates to a $53.8 million cut in state-aid block grant funding for the colleges.
Yet those numbers received some pushback from legislators when they were brought up during the meeting. Nicholas, who co-chairs the committee, noted other state agencies have seen steeper drops in funding over recent years.
“In reality, we’ve been funding you more than most other agencies,” said Nicholas. “But if you don’t use apples-to-apples, and you take out health insurance and retirement and libraries and other components that we fund, I just don’t think it’s a fair comparison.”
Lawmakers also questioned why the letter was submitted by the presidents instead of through the Community College Commission, which represents the interests of all seven community colleges. Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, said the letter leaves him without much of an idea of where the commission stands.
“If you’re not there on the front end and just come on the back end, it makes it more difficult,” Bebout said. “I guess the next go-around it’ll be different.”
Though it didn’t fulfill the presidents’ request, Gordon’s budget proposal includes a nominal increase in funding for the Community College Commission – a jump from about $249.5 million in the last biennium to $260 million for the upcoming one. However, that boost was largely to account for a proportionate 2% salary increase approved by the Legislature last session, as well as increases in the health insurance plans for community college employees.
The governor’s budget proposal does include $18 million to renovate the LCCC Recreation and Athletic Complex. Funding for community colleges will ultimately be determined during the Legislature’s budget session, which begins Feb. 10.