Index Minimum Wage to Depression Era?

Recently Fremont County Democratic Party Chair, Bruce Palmer, had an op-ed in the Lander Journal and the Riverton Ranger promoting a “Workers Agenda”– minimum wage increase; wage increases for our public employees and educators; expansion of Medicaid for working poor and repeal of the vacation theft act. Read the op-ed here.

The op-ed prompted this letter to the editor from a Lander doctor (click on the image to make it larger). In the alternative universe that is known as Republicanism a good economy in Wyoming means putting money in the bank, not investing in people and a minimum wage well below poverty level. Democrats believe people are our best investment!

Really? Index the minimum wage to 1938?

Really? Index the minimum wage to 1938?

Medicaid Expansion Op-ed Article

This op-ed article by FCDP Chair Bruce Palmer will be appearing in the October 30, 2013 Lander Journal:

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. The Wyoming Department of Health thoroughly investigated the costs and benefits of the expansion and said that it would save the state 47.4 million dollars over six years. Organizations across the state support the expansion including AARP, the Wyoming Medical Society, the Wyoming Association of Churches and the Wyoming Hospital Association. These are not fly by night organizations and you can bet they have done the math. Yet in this past legislative session, in a bad economy, our Republican legislators opted to waste taxpayer’s money in order to make a statement by choosing to not endorse the Medicaid expansion. 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.

More importantly, 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.

Recently, Newt Gingrich said that Republicans have “zero ideas” on health care. Wyoming’s Republicans have less than no idea. Our Republican leaders have been wrong every step of the way, wasting money on a failed lawsuit, and time when we could have controlled our own destiny with a Wyoming Health Exchange run by Wyoming for Wyoming’s people.

Sadly, it is the people of Wyoming who are losing out due to this belligerence.

Next week provides a great opportunity to press our legislators to expand Medicaid. On Monday and Tuesday, November 4 and 5, the Legislatures’ Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Interim Committee will be meeting at the Best Western Inn at Lander and Medicaid expansion is on the agenda. Before the meeting, write or call Lander’s Representative Lloyd Larsen, a member of interim committee and tell him that expanding Medicaid coverage is good for our economy and good for our citizens. Then attend the Tuesday, November 5 meeting and make a public comment. Fremont County Democrats will be there along with others from around the state. For more information and a complete agenda visit: TurnFremontBlue.com.

Make your voice heard!

Info on the November 5 meeting. Come and participate!

Care for the developmentally disabled shows our humanity

The following opinion piece by Bruce Palmer, Chair of the Fremont County Democratic Party, ran in today’s Casper Star-Tribune:

In Wyoming we pride ourselves on our sound judgment, abundant resources and concern for our neighbor. It is time to live these values by investing our state’s wealth and making improvements to the services offered the severely developmentally disabled. Admirably, last session the Legislature asked the Department of Health to eliminate waitlists for services, but unfortunately they are doing this on the backs of those already in the system by scaling back services and embarking on a “study” of the Wyoming Life Resource Center.

As a resident of Lander I am aware of the importance of this facility to Lander, the state of Wyoming, and most particularly to the clients who reside there and their families who have the piece of mind that comes with knowing that their loved one is well-cared for.

The Wyoming Life Resource Center offers excellent service to many of our state’s most vulnerable citizens—the severely developmentally disabled and those with acquired brain injuries. The service provided these Wyoming citizens cannot be replicated in community-based programs—from the work programs that give the clients a sense of belonging and self-worth to the aquatic and therapeutic riding programs that brings joy to a person for whom every day is a challenge.

In the 1990s the vast majority of the residents of the Wyoming Life Resource Center (known then as the Wyoming State Training School) were removed from the facility and placed in community-based programs. These citizens have added greatly to our communities. Just this past winter the town of Lander had a funeral celebrating the life of John Cooper, a former client of the WLRC and a much-loved part of our community. John walked Lander’s Main Street and waved to every car that came through town. He was our goodwill ambassador. Not only was he our welcoming committee, he was also a master of farewells attending nearly every funeral performed in town. It was great being able to count him as a part of the life of our community. We are all richer for it.

John belonged in an adequately funded community-based program. He was able to get around town on his own and with help from his guardian and the available community services was able to navigate life. He was happy and loved and a testament to the benefits of being appropriately placed in the right situation.

Not every developmentally disabled person is the same. Like all of us they have different abilities and different needs. While John was able to lead a good life in the community, the clients of the Wyoming Life Resource Center have needs that are greater than what can be addressed in community-based programming. The people who are like John are already in community programs—some thriving as John did and some struggling. Our state needs both appropriately funded community-based options and the Wyoming Life Resource Center.

Over the past year I have been able to meet many of the 400 plus staff that make the WLRC a true gem in the community of Lander. I met people who were directly involved with client care and rehabilitation, maintenance staff and, to me, a surprise, staff who focus completely on maintaining and customizing wheelchairs and other durable medical products for the clients and others around the state. To a person I found these staff to be passionate about the work that they do for the Wyoming Life Resource Center and dedicated to the client experience.

Both the Wyoming Life Resource Center and our community-based programming show our compassion and caring for all of our citizens.

And our state has the resources to pay for them. Yes, we must be prudent, but we needn’t be stingy.

Bruce Palmer lives in Lander and is the Chair of the Fremont County Democratic Party.

Wyomingites do care about neighbors

Fremont County Democrat Marjane Ambler published this letter to the editor in yesterday’s Casper Star-Tribune.

Thanks, Marjane for telling it like it is!

October 05, 2013 12:00 am
Editor:

As we all know, Wyoming people pride ourselves on taking care of one another. If someone’s car breaks down on a remote road, we can count on someone stopping. I have been the beneficiary of that Wyoming generosity, and I have stopped to help stranded drivers and bicyclists.

If someone suffers from a medical emergency, we all turn out to support them at benefit events.

Benefit dances can never raise enough money to save us from bankruptcy, however — unless either insurance or government steps in to help.

I fear that people across the country see us as selfish because of the votes of our congressional representatives to limit health care for the poor and to limit food stamps. Will Liz Cheney drive our more moderate senator, Mike Enzi, even further to the right?

I hope that we will all remember their actions when it comes time to vote in 2014 and demonstrate that Wyomingmites do care about our neighbors and want them to have enough food to eat and access to health care.

MARJANE AMBLER, Atlantic City

Enrolled Act 37– Wyoming Republicans Gift to Working People

The following op-ed piece, written by FCDP Chair, Bruce Palmer, appeared in the July 31 issue of the Riverton Ranger.

It is summer time. The kids are out of school and many family’s thoughts turn to a summer vacation. A trip to Yellowstone, a family reunion or perhaps a jaunt up the Loop Road to camp, fish and hike. Here is a suggestion. Be sure that you use all of your earned vacation while you still have it!

On July 1, Enrolled Act 37, passed by the Republican dominated legislature and Governor Matt Mead, took effect taking another shot at the rights of workers in Wyoming. This time they are after your earned vacation. While most of us were hard at work back in February, the Republican-dominated legislature was in Cheyenne quietly working to take away that most revered of American institutions—earned vacation. Nearly every Republican (including Fremont County legislators Lloyd Larsen, HD 54; David Miller, HD 55; Nathan Winters, HD 28; Eli Bebout, SD 26 and Gerald Geis, SD 20) voted to pass House Bill 79 changing the definition of compensation in the state of Wyoming to no longer include accrued, earned vacation. What this means is that when you retire or are laid off employers no longer need to pay you for the vacation time that you earned.

Not a single Democrat voted for this onerous vacation theft law because we feel that it is fundamentally unfair. If you need to take a few days off from work, but haven’t earned enough vacation time to do so you have to take the time as unpaid, right? This means that your vacation is compensation, you earn it and employers should not be allowed to take it from you. Particularly if you are being laid off. The pay-out on earned vacation can mean the difference between being able to take care of your family while you find a new job and not.

That Republicans are unsympathetic to the needs of working people is no surprise, you really only need to look at the data and the efforts that they make in the legislature. Wyoming consistently ranks dead last in gender wage equality with Wyoming women earning a mere 67 cents for every dollar paid to a man. While the national numbers are horrible with women earning just 77 cents on the dollar, Wyoming’s wage gap is criminal. At the same time Wyoming consistently ranks first in workplace fatalities. This is fundamental. No one expects a family member not to return after a day at work. The incremental, self-policing efforts implemented by the Republicans are not the answer to a problem this grave.

With 87% of our legislators being Republicans and all of our statewide offices and national offices held by Republicans it would be easy for them to improve the lot of our workers if they wanted to do so. The Republicans do not. Rather they do exactly the opposite, further eroding the protections that employees still have. In this past session in addition to their vacation-grabbing legislation the Republicans pushed “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 to pay an appropriate wage.

The Fremont County Democratic Party believes that we can do better. Working people in Wyoming aren’t asking for a handout, but they do deserve a fair and safe workplace. And they need to be rewarded with what they have earned, whether it is their earned vacation or their tips. This is the Wyoming way—honest and fair.

Wyoming Democrats will be working in the upcoming session to repeal Enrolled Act 37. You can help with this effort. This summer we will be visiting folks door-to-door and at events around the state as we gather petitions to deliver to our legislators asking that they repeal the Vacation Theft Act. We hope that you will visit with these neighbors and learn more about the people and beliefs of the Democratic Party in Fremont County. Sign the petition. More than that we hope that you will join us as we work to return balanced, two-party politics that work to the benefit all of the people of Wyoming.

Read Enrolled Act 37

Hear Enrolled Act 37 sponsor Rep. Tim Stubson debate the merits of the Bill with Bruce Palmer on KVOW.

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.

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.