Our Leaders Bluster, Wasting Money and Leaving the Needy Without Health Coverage

ACA Upheld

This op-ed piece by FCDP Chair, Bruce Palmer appeared in the June 23 Casper Star-Tribune:

Just a year ago on June 28 of 2012, the United States Supreme Court, a court stuffed with very, very conservative jurists sent Wyoming and 25 other states packing. The Court ruled that the Affordable Care Act was, in fact, the law of the land. It was a decision that delighted Democrats in Wyoming and across the nation who saw an opportunity to provide health insurance for all of our citizens while it caused outrage on the right where any victory seized by the President is demonized.

After the blush wore off, though, we discovered that the decision left open a door for Wyoming’s Republican obstructionists to continue their grandstanding while wasting money and denying a needed hand-up to those less fortunate. Sadly, the Court left it to the state’s discretion to fully participate in the Medicaid expansion providing the opportunity for Governor Matt Mead and our legislators to continue dithering and blustering against the Federal government.

It would be easy for Republicans to make the right decision for Wyoming concerning the ACA. All we need to do is take responsibility for developing insurance exchanges, virtual marketplaces that would allow our citizens to find the best policy for them and agree to the expansion of Medicaid coverage saving the state 47.4 million dollars. Instead our Republican legislators and Governor at every step of the way have said, “Hell no.”

Not expanding Medicaid as allowed for in the Affordable Care Act is the ultimate act of foolishness. The Wyoming Department of Health thoroughly investigated the costs and benefits of the expansion and came back and said that it would save the state 47.4 million dollars over six years. Organizations across the state supported the expansion including AARP, the Wyoming Medical Society and the Wyoming Hospital Association. These are not fly by night organizations and you can bet they have done the math. In a bad economy our Republican legislators opted to waste taxpayers money to make a statement. And of course it isn’t just our tax dollars that they decided to flush down the toilet.

When people don’t have health insurance they still require health care, but they tend not to take preventative measures. When they become ill or injured, they go to hospital emergency rooms, where ultimately many of their charges must be written off. The Wyoming Hospital Association indicates that these uncompensated expenses add up to 200 million dollars a year. Who do you think pays this bad debt? You, me and every other person who buys health care or health insurance.

And of course good policy isn’t just about governmental spending policy. Our Republican legislature has decided to leave 17,600 of our Wyoming neighbors without health insurance. The optional expansion would cover people with incomes up to 138% of the poverty level. For a family of four this amounts to an income of $31,809. These are our state’s working poor—folks that our Republican majority try to shaft at every opportunity, whether it is changing the rules to take their earned vacation or pooling their tips to limit their income.

It doesn’t have to be this way, but it seems that our Republican politicians are dead set against doing the right thing for our citizens and our state. If the Federal government is involved it is bad, say our legislators. They don’t respond to my letters, says Governor Mead. The politics of divisiveness and childishness are alive and well in Wyoming.

So far our Republican dominated state government has been wrong about everything concerning the ACA. First, Governor Mead and our Republican legislators wasted money, involving Wyoming with the lawsuit that was going to bring down the Affordable Care Act. Wrong.

Then, after that stinging loss our Republican leaders still did nothing to move forward with our responsibilities to enact the law. Instead they bet on President Obama losing the November election and the ACA being repealed on Day One of the Romney presidency, even though Romney was responsible for a nearly identical program that has effectively and efficiently expanded health care for all in Massachusetts. Wrong again. The President won with one of the widest second term margins in history.

Our Republican leaders are consistently wrong on health care and it is the people of Wyoming who are losing out. At every step of the way our Governor and our Republican-led Legislature has fought the Affordable Care Act to the detriment of our citizens and with no regard to the brokenness of the health care system in our nation and state. It is time that we get serious and ask that our Republican legislators and Governor stop genuflecting at the altar of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. Let’s work to create a health care system that is right for Wyoming and our people.

Joe McCarthy and two other U.S. Senators will face charges in a mock trial in Lander on June 26, 2013

Senator Joe McCarthy. Guilty as charged?

Senator Joe McCarthy. Guilty as charged?

Three former members of the United States senate will go “on trial” in Lander, Wyoming for their alleged roles in the 1954 suicide of Lander citizen, U.S. Senator Lester Hunt. Senators Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin), Styles Bridges (R-New Hampshire) and Herman Welker (R-Idaho), all deceased, are “charged” with blackmailing the Wyoming senator. Hunt died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on June 19, 1954.

The trial opens at 7 PM on Wednesday, June 26, 2013 at the Lander Middle School Commons.

The trial coincides with the release of the first book-length biography of Senator Hunt. Dying for the Sins of Joe McCarthy-The Suicide of Wyoming Senator Lester Hunt, was written by Rodger McDaniel and published by WordsWorth Publishing Co. of Cody.

Retired Wyoming Supreme Court Justice Michael Golden will preside. Riverton attorney, John Vincent will prosecute. Among the other players will be Landerites Bill Sniffin and Bruce Palmer, as well as County10.com’s Ernie Over. A jury of local citizens will hear the case and render a historic verdict.

Lester Hunt, a Democrat, was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1948. He was twice elected governor and twice elected Secretary of State and served in the Wyoming legislature. Hunt came to Wyoming in 1911 to pitch for Lander’s professional baseball team. Following service in World War I, he married Emily Nathelle Higby of Lander, completed dental school and practiced dentistry in Lander.

As Secretary of State, Hunt designed the bucking horse license plate. As Governor he oversaw the Heart Mountain Interment Camp and dozens of programs assisting World War II efforts including the Selective Service. Hunt served in the United States Senate from 1948 until his death in 1954.

Former Senator Alan Simpson wrote the foreword for McDaniel’s book, saying, “When Lester Hunt arrived in Washington in 1949, he witnessed the rising tide of McCarthyism. His was one of the few early voices to call it for what it was.” Speaking of the events leading to Senator Hunt’s suicide Simpson wrote, “What was done to Lester Hunt passed all boundaries of decency and exposed an evil side of politics most would always seek to avoid.”

Simpson added, “Rodger brings to this book the fine skills he learned in all of the paths of his own journey. Beyond the rare ability to research, investigate and write a gripping story, Rodger also brings a level of empathy to Lester Hunt’s life story that he richly deserves. The result is this book that finally offers Lester Hunt’s remaining family some form of justice – though belated.”

The trial is sponsored by the Fremont County Democratic Party and the event is free and open to the public. A reception and book signing by Rodger McDaniel will follow the trial.

See author, Rodger McDaniel being interviewed about Lester Hunt on MSNBC’s “The Daily Rundown” here.

A Quick Update from the May Meeting

Seventeen Democrats from across Fremont County came together on Sunday, May 19 at the Hudson Town Hall for food, education and planning. The two-hour meeting included updates from the various committees–executive, promotion, programs, tribal liaison and college relations. Since the launch of the committees last month some have met and have some efforts in the works and few are still struggling to get off the ground. All in attendance were impressed with the amount that we have gotten done in a relatively short amount of time.

Much of our conversation focused on our upcoming event, The Trial of Joe McCarthy. This will be done on Wednesday, June 26.

In 1954, U.S. Senator Lester Hunt of Lander took his own life after being threatened with blackmail by Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy. The Trial is a readers theater presentation based on Rodger McDaniel’s book, Dying for Joe McCarthy’s Sins, The Suicide of Wyoming Senator Lester Hunt. Rodger will be signing books after the trial. Mark your calendars.

Wyoming Outdoor Council staffer, Richard Garrett, updated the Democrats on Wyoming public lands issues.

Wyoming Outdoor Council staffer, Richard Garrett, updated the Democrats on Wyoming public lands issues.

The summer will see Fremont County Democrats out and about. Parades in Lander and Riverton are on the docket as well as events ins some of our smaller Fremont County communities.

Richard Garrett of the Wyoming Outdoor Council spoke to the group about Wyoming public land issues. In a far-ranging conversation the Democrats learned about concerns regarding upcoming development on the Moneta Divide, wind power issues, required baseline testing for drilling operations and House Bill 228 which mandates a study about state takeover of current Federal lands.

Full minutes of the meeting will be posted as soon as they are available.

The next meeting of the Fremont County Democratic Party will be on Sunday, June 23. Riverton attorney, John Vincent will speak with us about workplace safety issues. Read more about John and workplace safety here.

Worker’s Issues are Wyoming Issues

FCDP Chair, Bruce Palmer’s op-ed response to Sunday’s Casper Star Tribune editorial.

All I can think is that the Casper Star-Tribune editorial board must not have read Joan Barron’s article in their paper about the Wyoming Democratic Party’s state central committee meeting last weekend before writing their Sunday editorial. If they had (or if they were there, as I was) they would know that while the minimum wage was discussed, the initiative that the party agreed to tackle was the repeal of House Bill 79. H.B. 79 says that as long as there is a signed agreement on the day that you start your job, your employer is not responsible for paying you for vacation that you earned, but haven’t used, when you leave that job. Strangely entitled the “Collection of Unpaid Wages” Act, it does exactly the opposite as it takes a benefit that employees have earned and puts it in the pocket of their employer. Not a single Democrat in the Wyoming House and Senate voted for H.B. 79, while nearly every Republican did so.

And therein lies one of the many differences between the two parties that the editors of the Casper Star-Tribune choose not to see. Democrats can be counted on to look out for the rights of those who work. The Republicans, not so much.

The editorial board is absolutely right when they talk about the staggering dominance of the Republican Party here in Wyoming—79 out of 90 legislators, all five of the statewide elected officials and all three of our representatives in Washington are Republicans. And we can see what voting for Republicans is getting our working families here in our communities of Wyoming. Year after year Wyoming ranks dead last in gender wage equality, while consistently coming in near the top in workplace fatalities. Republicans are very effective at getting elected. Doing the work of the people is proving to be more of a challenge for them.

Wyoming, last in the nation in gender wage equality.

Wyoming, last in the nation in gender wage equality.

We did discuss the minimum wage during our committee meeting as well as other issues of importance to the workingwomen and men of Wyoming. The minimum wage was discussed in the context of gender wage inequality and the fact that the minimum wage for those in tipped positions has not been increased in decades.

We discussed the minimum wage in the context that Republicans in the last legislative session were pushing “tip pooling” legislation that would have allowed employers to force employees to pool their tips reducing some employees income potential while reducing the burden on employers responsibility to pay an appropriate wage.

We discussed minimum wage in the context of the Federal minimum wage being just $7.25 per hour. Data indicates that if the federal minimum simply kept pace with inflation it would now be $10.56 per hour. Some have argued that if it were tied to productivity gains it would be significantly higher still. Importantly, and unknown by most, many of Wyoming’s workers are in positions not covered by the Federal minimum wage and so these worker’s Wyoming-legislated minimum wage is $5.15 per hour, the lowest in the nation. The Casper Star- Tribune editorial board indicates that they don’t believe that the minimum wage is a Wyoming issue. Really?

Wyoming’s Democratic Party thinks that workers issues are Wyoming issues—workplace safety, minimum wage, gender wage equality, preventing coercive work environments where employers can take what a person has earned, whether it is tips or accrued vacation—Democrats stand up for and vote for those who do the work.

Bruce Palmer is the Chair of the Fremont County Democratic Party. News and views of the FCDP can be found online at: TurnFremontBlue.com

Representative Patrick Goggles’ Legislative Report

At the Sunday, April 21, 2013 meeting of the Fremont County Democratic Party, Representative Patrick Goggles joined the group and presented some of his views on the recently concluded legislative session. The following is his written report that he shared with the members.


62nd General Session Summary Report, by Representative Patrick Goggles

Representative Patrick Goggles

Representative Patrick Goggles

The 62ND General Session is now in the books after a 36 day session, leaving 4 days for the 2014 Budget Session. Like previous sessions, each session has its own signature; the signature of this general session can be summed up as the “Hill Bill”.

Having stated that, the 62nd Session was contentious to say the least, new and current conservative legislators spouting re-election & election commitments, no growth pledges and ultra-conservative ideologies brought stand-your-ground politics to the floor of the Wyoming House. In addition aggressive lobbying by certain special interests and anti-federal sentiment among conservative house members contributed to contentious floor debate and questionable maneuvering tactics by special interests to expose certain members of the Wyoming House as unpatriotic.

During contentious debate House Democrats proved to be effective statesmen, led by experienced & strong leadership, the result was our votes counted and made a difference! Being out numbered on the floor and in committee, democrats performed admirably at all legislative levels including Leadership. As you may or may not know the legislative membership of Republican to Democrat is 52 Republican – 8 Democrats in the WY House of Representatives.

Given the unbalanced legislative representation, democrats have worked with due diligence, non-partisan resolve for the good of Wyoming and under these conditions been effective in terms of the minority voice being articulated loud & clear.

Not all is said and done. There were many issues left on the table. Medicaid expansion for one, domestic partnerships, developmentally Disabled waiting lists & waivers, to name a few.  In terms of Wyoming’s fiscal condition, Legislature leadership & the majority party continues to stockpile savings in deference to the needs of the disadvantaged poor, the uninsured children & elderly, in Wyoming.

The Democratic Caucus as an institutional organization met on Wednesdays, in open meeting, to discuss House Bills & Senate Files to organize an inform ourselves of intent, amendments and voting strategies in standing committee and General Session readings.

On Thursdays, the Democratic Caucus met with Governor Mead at 7am to discuss legislation of mutual interest. Our meetings with the Governor were very productive and healthy for the Democratic Caucus.

On Wednesdays at 6:30am the Fremont County delegation (Reps. Goggles, Larsen, Miller, Campbell & Senators Bebout, and Case & Geis) met to inform each other of individual pending legislation, committee testimony, amendments, possible vote outcomes, positions of legislation and to meet with Fremont County constituents.

I individually did not sponsor a house bill.  I took the lead role in Standing Committee & floor management of HB 21 Peace Officer Immunity and SF 162 Authority to take an Eagle legislation. Both pieces of legislation have been signed into law by Governor Mead.  I did co-sponsored 15 house bills and 3 senate files.

As a member of the Wyoming House of Representatives, I am the longest serving Democrat in the House, serving my 5th term. I serve as a member of the Revenue Committee and Management Council.

I have been appointed House Chairman, Select Committee on Tribal Relations by Speaker Tom Labnau, for the 62nd Wyoming Legislature.

Notable legislative topics – 2013 General Session.

Representative

Representative Goggles making his point.

EDUCATION

SF 104 “Hill Bill” – Education – State Administration

SF 230 School Resource Officers

SF 38 University of Wyoming Board of Trustees

HB 91 – Accountability I

HB 72 – Accountability II

HB 63 Adjunct Professor Initiative Co-sponsor

HB 163 Alternative School

HB 177 Hathaway Success Curriculums

TAX

HB 69 Highway Funding

As a member of House Revenue, HB 69 Highway Funding increased the tax on fuel from 14 cents to 24 cents per gallon. I was an “Aye” vote on the legislation.

HB 98 County Fees – co-sponsor with Rep. Glen Moniz (R) Laramie

As a co-sponsor, county fee schedules increased to represent current cost of doing business. I was an “Aye” on the legislation.

FIREARMS

HB 104 Federal Nullification (opposed)

HB 103 local preemption (opposed)

HB 105 Guns in School (opposed)

HB 216 Deadly weapons in a courtroom (“Aye” vote)

SF 132 Silencers, suppressors and automatic weapons (“No” vote)

HEALTH

HB 68 Wyoming Life Resources Center

The Wyoming Life Resource Center, home of 90 of Wyoming's most vulnerable citizens.

The Wyoming Life Resource Center, home of 90 of Wyoming’s most vulnerable citizens.

I and Rep. Larsen amended this bill on 2nd Reading. “Aye” on the bill on third reading.

SF 60 Medicaid Reform

Democrats attempted to amend the legislation to include “Medicaid Expansion”. Our efforts failed but brought debate to the forefront in terms of those opposed to expansion and those in favor. I was an “Aye” vote to amend in the language of Medicaid Expansion.

LAW ENFORCEMENT

HB 21 Peace Officer Immunity (signed into law)

HB 27 Wind River Law Enforcement (died in Judiciary Committee)

LOTTERY

HB 77 Wyoming Lottery

I was an “Aye” vote on the lottery. The legislation very specifically crafted to power ball and state lottery. No video terminals or scratch tickets. Proceeds to Cities, towns & counties for the first six years then to education.

GAME & FISH

SF 162 – Authorized Taking of an Eagle

As a co-sponsor, legislation amends current statute to authorize the taking of eagles by falconers and by permit issued by USFWS. I was an “Aye” vote of the legislation.

SF 118 Eminent Domain 2 (“No” vote)

HB 228 Transfer of federal lands – study (“No” vote)

HB 81 Large Project Funding (NATURAL RESOURCE FUND)

BUDGET

Supplemental / Reductions

SF 105 School capital construction (K-12)

Appropriations

School Finance – amendments

Submitted by Representative Patrick Goggles

 

 

Lies about health care reform are coming home to roost

This story is republished from Wyofile.

By Kerry Drake

April 9, 2013

Remember when, only three short years ago, Americans used the debate over the Affordable Care Act to launch the first serious look at our health care system in decades? People finally put aside their differences long enough to ensure we made the right changes, instead of just what helped their own political parties push their agendas.

No? That’s not the way you remember it? That’s because instead of using this unique opportunity to our nation’s advantage, we squandered it and instead allowed extremists to dictate the terms of the debate, snuffing out all hope that the end product would be something that would guarantee every single American would receive health care, regardless of his or her ability to pay.

In other words, what every other industrialized nation in the world, except ours, already does.

No, instead we were treated to absurd debates about death panels and claims that “Obamacare” would bankrupt us. The tactic succeeded in polarizing different interest groups, as the extreme right-wing was helped by Fox News to ooze outright lies that were picked up and bizarrely given credibility by other news organizations. It led to staged protests at congressional town hall meetings that gave the country an extremely warped view of what the proposed federal health care reform would actually do.

From my viewpoint, as a member of the press who isn’t ashamed to be identified as liberal, the success of leaders of the Tea Party, and much of the Republican Party, distorted the country’s view of the legislation so badly that it forced President Barack Obama’s administration to drop key elements of its plan.

Obama and the Democrats quickly abandoned all hope of ever passing universal health care, then caved in to demands to drop the public option for health insurance. By making concession after concession, Obama disappointed and angered his progressive base while the right unfairly portrayed him as some kind of communist. It was a crazy time in American politics, and the law the president squeaked through Congress and ultimately signed was justifiably criticized by people on the right and the left as a hodgepodge of federal regulations that failed to advance the goal of keeping people from having their life savings wiped out due to health care emergencies.

But now, as several of the law’s reforms have gone into effect and others approach their starting dates, it’s a good time to reassess how the Affordable Care Act has changed health care in the country, and specifically what it’s accomplished in Wyoming.

Judging by a March 20 op-ed piece by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius published in the Casper Star-Tribune, the law has resulted in some positive changes in the health care system that should be applauded — especially since they were so denigrated at the time of passage.

Sebelius makes a valid argument that Wyoming residents who have health insurance have more security now, thanks to new insurance market reforms and consumer protections.

She noted that:

More than 5,420 Wyoming Medicare beneficiaries with the highest prescription drug costs have saved an average of $685 on their medications. That’s a big savings for seniors on a fixed income.
Preventive services such as mammograms and flu shots are now available for free to 136,000 people in Wyoming with private insurance plans.
The Affordable Care Act is curbing increasing health costs by cracking down on waste and fraud, and establishing incentives for hospitals to use their monetary resources more wisely.
Wyoming residents are now protected from some of the worst insurance industry abuses, like lifetime coverage caps that could cut off benefits when people need them most.
“These reforms have already led to significant improvements in health outcomes,” stressed Sebelius. “That includes the first drop in hospital readmissions for Medicare beneficiaries on record, which means when people with Medicare go home from the hospital, they are more likely to stay healthy and less likely to have to return for additional care.”

The act has resulted in $1.1 million in rebates for Wyoming residents by limiting the amount that insurance companies can spend on marketing and overhead.

And the best is yet to come: Beginning in 2014, it will be illegal for insurance companies to discriminate against people with a pre-existing medical condition or disability. On Oct. 1, a new health insurance marketplace will give individuals, families and small business owners a better way to find private insurance plans that fit their respective budgets.

By covering more people in Wyoming, fewer residents will have to go to the emergency room to receive basic health care. This should keep the cost of premiums from increasing as rapidly and also reduce hospitals’ high cost of uncompensated care.

I’m still upset that we don’t have universal health care, but the improvements that have resulted from some of the various components of Obamacare should help make future discussions about such care more civil, as people realize they were duped by the misguided, sometimes shameful anger directed at health care reform. I hope that in the next phase of this long national and state debate, it will lead to the day when universal care finally becomes a reality.

— Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake is the editor-in-chief of The Casper Citizen, a nonprofit, online community newspaper. It can be viewed at www.caspercitizen.com.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to see more quality Wyoming journalism, please consider supporting WyoFile: a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting on Wyoming’s people, places and policy.

Fremont County Democratic Party Elects New Officers

LANDER – The Fremont County Democratic Party gathered on Sunday March 24th in Lander to conduct their election of officers. Lander resident Bruce Palmer was selected as chair and Sherry Shelley of Riverton will be the group’s vice-chair. Gena Robinson was elected secretary and Michael Crosby will be the group’s treasurer. Robinson and Crosby both reside in Lander.

Lander’s Roland Robinson and Riverton’s Sally Rowe-Kaufman will represent the county party as state committeeman and state committeewoman. All of those elected will serve for a term of two years

“I am excited to serve in this role,” Palmer said. “Fremont County is home to a diverse group of people. While clearly outnumbered in registered voters it is important to note that House District 33 has sent a Democrat to Cheyenne for the past ten years. This year in District 54 44% of those voting voted against the Republican and we saw similar results in Riverton. With good organization and hard work the Democratic message of putting people first can be a winning one.”

The Executive Director of the Wyoming Democratic Party, Robin Van Ausdall, was in attendance as was the Laramie County Chair, Vince Rousseau. Van Ausdall offered congratulations to the new leadership team and updated those gathered on Democratic Party happenings at the statewide level. She reported that while on the state level the 2012 elections were disappointing there are reasons for optimism going forward. The party has just hired a new media coordinator to improve communications around the state and a number of young, new county chairs have been elected this year.

The group took the opportunity of having Van Ausdall present to discuss party building and election strategies. Ideas for greater community involvement were discussed, as well as ways to help local communities best understand the values that the Democratic Party represents.

About the Fremont County Democratic Party

The Fremont County Democratic Party believes in and loves Wyoming and the people who live here. From Jeffery City to the Wind River Indian Reservation to Dubois and everything in between, the Fremont County Democrats put people first with forward-thinking, common sense solutions. The number of Democrats active in the party locally is small, but there are literally thousands of Democrats living in our communities. To learn more: 307.349.4718 or visit www.TurnFremontBlue.com

March 24 Fremont County Democratic Party Meeting

 

The Fremont County Democratic Party will meet Sunday, March 24th at 4pm at 291 Cascade Street in Lander, Wyoming. At the meeting we shall elect the Chair, the Vice Chair, the Treasurer, the Secretary, the State Committeeman and State Committeewoman of the County Central Committee. These officers need not be current members of the County Central Committee, but each must be a qualified Democratic voter of and reside in the county. They shall serve for a term of two years or until successors are elected and qualified. All Fremont County Democrats are urged to attend. For more information, contact Chairperson, Ruth Urbigkeit 307-856-3268.


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Wyofile: Legislative Wrap-up

This story is re-published from Wyofile.

Wyo’s distrust of feds permeated ‘weird’ legislative session

Gov. Mead greets members of the House at the opening of the session on January 8th. Over the next eight weeks lawmakers debated major issues like education, budget cuts, a gas tax, and healthcare. (Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile — click to view)

Gov. Mead greets members of the House at the opening of the session on January 8th. Over the next eight weeks lawmakers debated major issues like education, budget cuts, a gas tax, and healthcare. (Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile — click to view)

By Gregory Nickerson

March 5, 2013

The 2013 legislature adjourned on February 27th, ending 36 days of lively debate. In general, Wyoming lawmakers showed a preference for fiscal conservatism, while maintaining moderate social views and a strong antagonism toward the federal government.

Lawmakers began their time in Cheyenne with a bitter fight over leadership changes at the Department of Education, then moved to the business of cutting 6.5 percent in spending.

This year also brought a new low to civil discourse between constituents and lawmakers. Hearings on gun rights and civil unions brought a surge in off-color and sometimes threatening social media messages aimed at lawmakers.

“It was a weird session,” Sen. Phil Nicholas (R-Laramie) concluded.

A recap of the year’s important legislation is offered below, but first a word on mistrust toward the federal government, a theme that runs so deep in Wyoming politics that it’s often taken for granted.

Throughout the session, lawmakers made several moves designed to subvert and chasten the fed on policies ranging from gun rights to land management and healthcare. Most of Wyoming’s salvos won’t make a major difference in Washington D.C., but these actions come with a price tag.

One of the most significant financial decisions made this session involved forgoing — for now — an estimated $737 million in federal funding for optional Medicaid expansion between 2014 and 2020. That expansion comes as part of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

Department of Health reports projected the federal Medicaid money would contribute to Wyoming’s economy by paying hospitals and doctors, and generally supporting the health of Wyoming residents, all while saving $47 million in state funds.

Many lawmakers, and in particular  Sen. Charlie Scott (R-Casper), objected to the expansion because they doubted the federal government’s ability to keep its promises on Medicaid funding. They worried that funding shortfalls for the Medicaid program could leave Wyoming with the full fiscal burden of an expanded Medicaid population and a duty to spend more on the already large Department of Health budget.

But not all lawmakers agreed. “We don’t have a federal government failing to pay its bills on Medicaid,” said Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie). Last week’s sequester does not touch the Medicaid budget.

In House Bill 228 the legislature appropriated $33,000 to the Attorney General’s office to seek out strategies for compelling the Washington D.C. to transfer federal lands to state control. The bill also requires Wyoming to study how much money the state might lose due to federal land management policies.

While critics of the idea said transferring federal land to Wyoming would never fly in Washington, some leaders said scrutiny of the fed’s actions in Wyoming is warranted.

“I’m not interested in another sagebrush rebellion but I am interested in making good decisions,” said Rep. Kermit Brown, (R-Laramie). “We have so much federal presence in Wyoming that we have to understand what their actions are.”

Just before the close of the session, lawmakers tacked a $250,000 gun-rights appropriation onto House Bill 41, which deals with licenses for bison hunting.

The funds would go to the state Attorney General’s office to litigate against any future presidential orders restricting firearms useful for bison hunting. Rep. Brown said the $250,000 is not likely to get used, and will probably revert to the General Fund.

These actions won’t cost the state much compared to forgoing $737 million in Medicaid funding, but they indicate the level of frustration with the federal government.

“We chose to give up ($737 million) in funds on additional Medicaid expansion because of distrust,” said Sen. Rothfuss. “In my view we are overreacting, and we have this feeling of responsibility that somehow our actions in the state can solve the problems in Congress.”

Congress isn’t likely to take direction from Wyoming any time soon. In fact, Washington lawmakers seem more than happy to change the federal funding streams that the Equality State has come to enjoy. For example, last year federal legislators removed $700 million in Abandoned Mine Lands funds for Wyoming, money that got spent on many projects outside of mine reclamation.

Wyoming lawmakers had no choice in the loss of AML funding, and would have preferred to keep that stream of federal money. That legislators chose to forgo $737 million in Medicaid funds shows they assign a very high dollar value to opposing the Affordable Care Act.

Legislative recap

GUN BILLS

Before the session:

The Travel, Recreation, and Wildlife Interim Committee gave initial approval to a bill allowing the use of silencers for hunting. The December 14th mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut brought renewed talk of federal gun control laws.

How it turned out:

Wyoming lawmakers passed gun bills relating to hunting, but stayed with the status quo when it came to expanding concealed carry rights and pushing back against federal gun-control measures.

Shortly after the opening of the 2013 session, the House Travel Committee voted down House Bill 105 to legalize silencers following testimony against the bill from the Wyoming Game Warden’s Association.

Most of the members on the House committee were newly assigned and hadn’t helped draft the bill during the interim. Later on interim committee co-chair Sen. Bruce Burns (R-Big Horn) introduced another silencer bill as Senate File 132, which eventually passed.

In response to the Sandy Hook shooting, Rep. Allen Jaggi (R-Lyman) and other lawmakers introduced the House Bill 105 – Citizens’ and Students’ Self-Defense Act, which would have allowed carrying concealed weapons in schools.

That bill passed the House with a number of amendments, but died on February 8th after the Senate Education committee failed to take a vote on the measure.

Rep. Jaggi also introduced House Bill 103 – Regulation of firearms-state preemption. The bill would have precluded local governments from making any firearms laws stricter than state law. The bill came in response to local laws banning the carry of weapons in public meetings.

Meanwhile, national debate over banning high capacity clips and assault-style weapons led Rep. Kendall Kroeker (R-Evansville) to introduce House Bill 104 – Firearm Protection Act. The bill called for the arrest of any federal official attempting to enforce federal gun control laws or executive orders created after January 1, 2013. The National Rifle Association did not support the measure, but it had backing from the Wyoming Gun Owners Association.

The bill passed the House with a vote of 46 to 13, then got heavily amended in the Senate Judiciary committee by Sen. Leland Christiansen (R-Alta). Supporters responded by disparaging Christiansen on Facebook using foul language.

Ultimately, Senate majority floor leader Phil Nicholas (R-Laramie) decided to hold back both HB 103 and HB 104 from introduction on the Senate floor, saying the bills were poorly drafted and likely unconstitutional.

“If we want to challenge the federal government for violating the gun statutes, that’s what the courts are for. All the governor has to do is walk to the Attorney General’s office and ask to join those actions,” Nicholas said.

Nicholas also objected to personal attacks on legislators whom he felt took centrist positions on the gun bills. “Fair debate was being stifled and the effort was to influence people to make decisions that were not the best interest of our constituents,” he said.

What’s next:

Pro-gun lobbyists must gather broad support and build relationships with lawmakers if they wish to succeed in 2014, when budget session rules require a two-thirds vote for bills to gain introduction.

Pro-gun bills relating to hunting will be more likely to succeed than those aimed at expanding the right to bear arms in schools and courtrooms. Second-amendment legislation like HB 104 may have a better chance at passage if the pro-gun lobby makes gains in the next election.

HEALTHCARE

Before the session:

Gov. Matt Mead asked the legislature to have an open, public debate on the optional expansion of Medicaid. The Department of Health study said optional expansion could result in a $47 million savings to the state, plus $737 million in federal funds flowing to the state between 2014 and 2020 (see chart).

How it turned out:

The legislature declined to take up the optional Medicaid expansion, citing concerns that the federal government wouldn’t be able to meet its fiscal commitments.

A Department of Health study estimated Wyoming would gain $864 million in federal funds if it enacted the optional Medicaid Expansion. That’s $737 million more in federal funds that Wyoming will recieve for the mandatory Medicaid expansion of $126.7 million. (Wyoming Department of Health — click to view)

A Department of Health study estimated Wyoming would gain $864 million in federal funds if it enacted the optional Medicaid Expansion. That’s $737 million more in federal funds that Wyoming will recieve for the mandatory Medicaid expansion of $126.7 million. (Wyoming Department of Health — click to view)

Department of Health leadership suggested expanding Medicaid while funds are available, and withdrawing the support if the money disappears. Lawmakers rejected that approach on the premise that it is immoral to end a public program for a needy population after help has been provided.

In other actions, the legislature passed a Medicaid reform bill, and a law providing for study of health insurance exchanges.

What’s next:

The legislature may take another look at the optional expansion of Medicaid in the 2014 session, while continuing to study health insurance exchanges. The Joint Labor Health and Social Services Interim Committee will monitor the effect of the Affordable Care Act on the state.

EDUCATION

Before the session:

Just before the session tension between the legislature and Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill reached a breaking point because of conflict over how to implement so-called “accountability measures” in schools.

In the 2012 session, Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper) introduced a constitutional amendment to change the duties of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, but the measure did not pass.

How it turned out:

On the second day of the session, Joint Education Committee co-chairs Sen. Hank Coe (R-Cody) and Rep. Matt Teeters (R-Lingle) introduced Senate File 104 – Education State Administration. The measure reassigned management of the Department of Education from the Superintendent of Public Instruction to a director appointed by the governor.

The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 20 to 10 in the second week of the session, and earned a House vote of 39 to 20 the following week.

The law went into effect immediately on receiving Gov. Mead’s signature on January 29th. The governor appointed Jim Rose as an interim director, and Superintendent Hill moved out of the Department of Education offices.

Following the transfer of duties from Superintendent Hill, legislators took action on House Bill 91 and House Bill 72, two measures aimed at improving K-12 student performance. For more on that effort, read this WyoFile feature.

Lawmakers also made adjustments to the Hathaway scholarship program by passing House Bill 77-Hathaway Success Curriculum. The measure requires students to take two years of foreign language, arts, music, or vocational science to receive the top level of Hathaway scholarship funding.

What’s next:

The Select Committee on Education Accountability will pursue interim work on designing the statewide education improvement program. The Wyoming Department of Education will work on assigning performance rankings and improvement plans to schools.

BUDGET, FIRES, and HIGHWAYS

Before the session:

Gov. Mead called for 6.5 percent budget cuts in his budget message, while asking lawmakers to quickly build up the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account (LSRA). He suggested growing the LSRA by using coal lease bonuses and diverting severance taxes from the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund.

The governor also asked lawmakers to set aside $60 million for fighting fires and find a permanent funding source to fix shortfalls in the Wyoming Department of Transportation budget.

Separately, the Game and Fish asked for license fee increases to cover projected budget shortfalls.

How it turned out:

The Joint Appropriations Committee didn’t comply with all the governor’s recommendations, but the budget policy disagreements weren’t large.

While the governor vetoed some parts of the budget bill, he also let slide some measures that he disliked. Legislators working on the budget felt free to go their own way on budget ideas they disagreed with, and the governor didn’t push too hard for his own policies.

The budget bill delivered the 6.5 percent cuts to ongoing spending the governor asked for. That didn’t mean the overall budget dropped, since the legislature also chose to boost so-called one-time spending.

In the end, the budget bill cut $61 million from the executive branch and appropriated $139 million, for a net of $78 million in additional spending.

The legislature declined to build up the LSRA according to Mead’s proposals, opting instead to keep severance taxes flowing into the permanent fund. They also diverted coal lease bonuses from the School Capital Construction Account to the Permanent Land Fund. That move will eventually build up a $475 million reserve account that could be used to cover school funding shortfalls should mineral revenues decline. For more information, read this WyoFile feature.

The legislature declined to set aside the full $60 million from the LSRA for fighting fires, choosing instead to provide $30 million from the General Fund plus $5 million from the Landfill Remediation Account. Gov. Mead vetoed that $5 million number from the bill, instead allowing access to the full $30 million in the landfill account.

This returned the amount available for fires to the $60 million, though not from the LSRA as Mead requested.

“There was a little fluctuation on fires and landfills, but the magic pen took care of it, and I’m sure we’re all in agreement now,” Mead joked in his closing remarks to the Senate.

The legislature complied with Gov. Mead’s request to find a better funding source for highways, though their solution of raising the gas tax provided only a portion of the money needed to cover shortfalls.

The 10 cents per gallon increase in the fuel tax will provide about $70 million in new revenue. Only $40 million of that will go to state highways. That’s far short of the $134 million the department says it needs to maintain roads in their current condition.

Finally, the legislature rejected the Game and Fish Department’s request to raise license fees to help cover projected funding shortfalls. The move leaves the G&F with enough funding to pay for operations in the next year, with the potential for cuts looming afterward.

What’s next:

The 6.5 percent cuts seem nominal in the face of $3.3 billion appropriated for the 2013-2014 budget. Yet the cuts put the legislature on a trajectory to arrest and even slightly reverse spending growth on ongoing operations. Even as one-time spending continues to increase, Wyoming will be in good fiscal shape if mineral prices hold.

By choosing not to grow the LSRA as Mead requested, the legislature opted for less flexibility in a crisis, but a stronger growth in permanent savings.

Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper) recommends growing the permanent fund from $5 billion at present to $8 billion by 2018. He said the interest on an $8 billion fund would cover 20 percent of Wyoming’s budget, and help cushion against a future income tax.

If this summer brings as many fires as last year, the $60 million set aside should cover firefighting costs. However, spending the full $60 million would mean depleting the $30 million landfill account. Because Gov. Mead and lawmakers agree that fixing leaking landfills to protect the state’s groundwater is a priority, they would then have to look to replenishing the landfill account next year.

In the interim, lawmakers will take a close look at spending for the G&F and highways, and perhaps propose new funding measures in 2014.

Finally, if Wyoming’s investments generate significant capital gains this spring, those revenues will be placed in the new Strategic Investments and Projects Account, which will be used for one-time projects. This seems to have relieved tensions between Gov. Mead and the legislature over the appropriation of capital gains outside of the normal budgeting process.

SOCIAL ISSUES

Before the session:

Lobbying groups on the left and the right worked with legislators to draft the first major round of social issues bills since the 2011 General Session. Democrats announced plans for bills on civil unions, and employment non-discrimination.

How it turned out:

Despite a significant influx of conservative legislators after the 2012 election, Wyoming’s libertarian approach to social issues maintained its status quo.

Conservative social issues bills relating to abortion and bible classes in schools did not win passage. Neither did bills relating to marriage and work equality.

However, marriage equality proponents felt they set a new high-water mark for advancing their legislation by having two bills make it out of committee.

House Bill 168 to create domestic partnerships passed out of the House Corporations committee by 7 to 2 then got a full debate on the House floor before dying by a vote of 25 in favor and 34 opposed.

Senate File 131 would have made it illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) introduced the bill, which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee 4 to 1, before dying on a Senate floor vote by 13 in favor and 17 opposed.

House Bill 169 aimed at changing the definition of marriage to two natural persons, rather than a man and a woman. That bill failed to make it out of the House Corporations Committee by a vote of 4 to 5.

Interestingly, traditional marriage proponents did not introduce a defense of marriage proposal this year.

The only pro-life bill this year was House Bill 97, which would have outlawed abortions after detection of a fetal heartbeat. That bill died in the House Labor committee on a vote of 4 in favor and 5 opposed.

The only major change on the social issues front came with the surprise passage of a House Bill 77 to create a state lottery.

For decades Wyoming has rejected every lottery proposal. However, the balance tipped when lawmakers heard from constituents after the surge in Powerball ticket sales from the $587 million jackpot last November. Many residents drove out of state to purchase lottery tickets.

What’s next:

In the upcoming sessions, legislation for civil unions may continue to make slow progress as national public opinion shifts in favor of marriage equality. Full-scale recognition of same-sex marriage is not likely to pass any time soon.

Conservative social bills probably won’t make a large showing in the 2014 budget session, but may reappear in 2015 as freshman members of the House gain more experience and clout.

In general, debate over social issues will continue, particularly within the conservative and libertarian branches of Wyoming’s Republican Party.

— Gregory Nickerson is the government and policy reporter for WyoFile. Originally from Big Horn, he holds an MA in history from the University of Wyoming and currently lives in Laramie.

WyoFile is a nonprofit news service focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.