The Wyoming State Capitol is seen on Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019, in downtown Cheyenne. Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – A Wyoming Legislature task force recommended legislation Friday that would provide grants of up to $6,500 to most students at the University of Wyoming and other post-secondary institutions in the state.

The Wyoming’s Tomorrow Task Force unanimously voted in favor of the proposal by House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper.

Because the task force includes members who are not legislators, it does not have the power to sponsor bills, but only to recommend them. As the sitting Speaker of the House, Harshman said he would look into ways to get the bill on the legislative agenda.

The grants would come from the federal CARES Act funding the state has received. Each full-time UW student who enrolls for the full year and is an American citizen would receive $6,500.

Community college students would have their full tuition and fees covered by the grants. Lawmakers amended the bill to include other workforce training programs, such as WyoTech, although final language has not been released saying exactly how much of the cost would be covered.

The governor’s office is looking at a similar plan to provide student aid from the CARES Act funding, Harshman said. The governor has broad control over that funding, and it is possible that grants to students could be secured without any action by the Legislature.

“I would love to see a press conference Monday that this is happening,” Harshman said.

It is also possible that the Legislature could hold a special session in the next few months, especially if Congress passes another stimulus bill, Harshman said. His proposed legislation could be considered at a special session.

Some discrepancies remain between the proposals by the Legislature and the governor’s office, according to a presentation at the Friday hearing by UW President Ed Seidel and Neil Theobald, who was the acting president at the university through June.

The governor’s office is considering a grant of about $3,250 to UW students who can certify that they have faced financial difficulty due to the pandemic and the recession, Theobald said. He and Seidel met recently with Wyoming Attorney General Bridget Hill to discuss the possible student aid.

The attorney general believed that the CARES Act funding could not be used to cover tuition, but it could pay for room and board, Theobald said. The CARES Act restricted what this money could be used for so that it generally has to pay for direct costs of dealing with the pandemic or necessities. The attorney general felt that college tuition was not a necessity for students, but room and board are.

The legislators on the task force indicated they might still seek to use the CARES Act funding for grants to cover tuition, even if the attorney general has expressed doubts.

“In the end, the governor and the Legislature decide what the law is,” Harshman said. “We’re going to go forward with the best policy we can.”

The current legislative proposal would give a far greater amount of aid by distributing money to more students and doubling the size of the aid. Seidel said the university would welcome any tuition assistance.

Whereas the governor’s office would give UW students about $20 million under current proposals, the draft bill in the Legislature would appropriate $66 million for UW students.

“We want to find any way we can to help our students,” Seidel said. “We are facing an uphill battle.”

Projected undergraduate enrollment at UW is down nearly 19% for this fall compared to last year, according to a presentation Theobald and Seidel gave Friday. University officials have repeatedly warned this summer of significant enrollment drops due to the recession.

Graduate enrollment could tumble even more. Current projections show it could fall by up to 40%, with larger losses at some of the professional schools, Theobald said.

Seidel warned that Colorado State University has already started giving students aid from CARES Act distributions it received from the state. Colorado State has distributed $8.8 million to students this year, with payments up to $1,500, according to the Fort Collins Coloradoan.

The task force discussed how widely the grants should be distributed.

Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, asked whether the grants should be restricted to in-state students. In addition, he expressed concerns that giving grants to all American students might be unnecessary, as opposed to focusing the grants on students with significant financial need.

An earlier draft of the proposal had restricted the grants to Wyoming residents, but students from other states affect Wyoming, as well, Harshman said.

Senate Minority Leader Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, said that as long as the money is available, extending grants to out-of-state students could produce good returns for the state.

“Any investment we make in education is a strong investment,” Rothfuss said. “It’ll be our best return on investment, I think, from the CARES Act funding.”

House Minority Leader Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, proposed an amendment that would remove the bill’s restriction that grants only be made available to United States citizens. UW has more than 780 international students in a typical year, according to the university’s website, and they would not be eligible for the aid offered in the bill.

Rothfuss supported the amendment. Everyone else on the committee voted against it, however, including Jubal Yennie, superintendent of Albany County School District 1.

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