LCCC sees wins during 2023 legislative session

photo of the Wyoming State Capitol buildingCommunity colleges fared well during the Wyoming Legislature’s 2023 general session, with lawmakers providing funding for several important initiatives.

Wyoming lawmakers had a surplus of around $2 billion, with Gov. Mark Gordon’s budget recommendations focusing on restraint and setting aside funds for leaner times. The supplemental budget passed by lawmakers and signed by Gordon in late February placed more than $1 billion in savings and made investments in addressing inflationary pressures.

Community colleges saw encouraging news in addressing the need for employee compensation, a top goal for college leaders. Lawmakers allocated $6.5 million for community college employee compensation. To put that in perspective, LCCC President Joe Schaffer pointed out that community colleges received around $8.5 million for compensation in the 2022 two-year budget. The $6.5 million allocation comes in addition to that, spreading the funds over the two years.

State House Appropriations Chairman Bob Nicholas, R-Cheyenne, said Wyoming was fortunate to have the surplus that allowed for making salaries more competitive.

“Salaries for state employees across the board have been steadily falling behind market comparators over the last 10 years because of diminishing revenues,” Nicholas said. “The two raises were meant to ‘catch-up’ for overdue raises and bring folks back to competitive wages.”

Though pressure from inflation is expected to moderate over time, individuals and organizations, including community colleges, are continuing to struggle in the face of increased prices. Wyoming community colleges do not currently have a mechanism for advancing funding requests when inflation is impacting the fixed costs of upgrading the colleges, similar to what K-12 schools have built into their funding model or what the University of Wyoming Board of Trustees can advance. As such, when costs of materials and insurance are increasing for community colleges, their leaders have to call for an amendment to the budget. Fortunately, an amendment was made that allocated $4.2 million in one-time inflation impact funding, of which LCCC will receive a portion.

“It is critically important we keep pace with financial pressures to ensure Wyoming can compete in the market place and to protect citizens and community infrastructure from the harsh realities of these inflationary times,” Nicholas said. “We want to preserve and protect our way of life and the ability to earn a sustainable wage in a livable work environment.”

Schaffer said the money is appreciated, and that he’ll continue focusing effort on trying to establish a mechanism for addressing ongoing inflationary pressure. 

One of Wyoming’s greatest historical legislative achievements was the establishment of the Hathaway Scholarship. Hathaway is merit- and needs-based, allowing many in Wyoming to attend college with a lessened financial burden. Community college leaders for years have been trying to establish an endowment that would support adult learners in the way Hathaway supports high school graduates, referred to as Wyoming’s Tomorrow.

“We started recognizing that finances are oftentimes the biggest barrier that adults face if they want to return to college or come to college for the first time,” Schaffer said. 

Between 2022 and 2023, lawmakers allocated $30 million to the Wyoming’s Tomorrow endowment, meaning an additional $20 million would need to be added before reaching the $50 million necessary for any money to be dispersed for scholarships. In the meantime, lawmakers included $1.5 million in this year’s supplemental budget for “higher education scholarships” that will utilize the Wyoming’s Tomorrow scholarship criteria for the academic year, meaning some adult learners will be able to receive money for going to college in the near-term.

The capital construction bill — Senate File 146 — also included funding that will have a positive impact on LCCC, including potentially closing the funding gap on LCCC’s Recreation and Athletics Complex, or RAC, project. Under SF 146, $24 million will be held in what are called community college inflation reserves for previously approved projects that have experienced challenges related to inflation. Amid a budgetary rollercoaster, the RAC project is still approximately $4.5 million-$4.9 million short of its target. It appears, Schaffer said, that this funding can be used to fully fund the RAC project.

“My hope is we can navigate that process and complete the RAC as we really wanted it to be completed, and do it all the time,” he said.

Finally, SF 146 included $5.8 million for Phase I of the LCCC Exterior Renewal Project. The college has a four-phase plan looking at taking older, concrete exteriors and upgrading them. Phase I of the project includes the Centers for Conferences & Institutes, the Training Center, the Fine Arts Building and the Administration Building.

“It’s going to take us a while to get even through Phase I from a construction management and funding perspective, and then of course there’s Phase II and Phase III and Phase IV, but these will be the types of projects we’ll be focused on here for the foreseeable future,” Schaffer said. “The good news is there seems to be support.”

For more information about the Wyoming Legislature, go to wyoleg.gov.