The “Cheyennigans” blog features quick updates on the Wyoming Legislature. For feature-length stories, check out our Legislative Features or Capitol Beat.


Cindy Hill vows to resume her former duties Monday morning

By Ron Feemster
— March 6, 2014
Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill speaks at a press conference today announcing she will return to the Wyoming Department of Education without waiting for a court order to do so. (WyoFile/Ron Feemster — click to enlarge)

Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill speaks at a press conference today announcing she will return to the Wyoming Department of Education without waiting for a court order to do so. (WyoFile/Ron Feemster — click to enlarge)

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill announced today that she is going back to work at the Department of Education headquarters in the Hathaway Building on Monday, whether or not a district court judge writes the order that would restore her duties.

Hill was relieved of her duties at the end of the 2013 legislative session, when the governor signed Senate File 104. Hill sued the state and won a 3-2 decision in January, when the state Supreme Court declared the new law unconstitutional. The court ordered Laramie County District Court Judge Thomas Campbell to issue an order to enforce the higher court’s ruling. But the judge has yet to write the order. Hill maintains an office in the State Museum on Central Ave.

“Monday, March 10 at 8 a.m. I will resume my duties as state Superintendent of Public Instruction, the job I was elected to do,” Hill told a group of journalists gathered in an exhibit hall of the museum.

Hill’s announcement left education department employees and legislators gasping in disbelief.

“About half of the department was listening in on the call,” said Richard Crandall, the director of the Department of Education, who was appointed by the governor last summer after a national search for candidates.

Crandall spoke with WyoFile as he was leaving the Capitol after meeting with Gov. Matt Mead and his staff. The governor would be directing Attorney General Peter Michael to issue a statement clarifying the law, Crandall said.

Crandall, who at first declined to comment on the record, said he was concerned that everyone wait for the court order and follow the law.

Later in the day, Crandall held a brief press conference. He explained that he would be waiting for Hill at the front door of the Hathaway building with a letter from the Attorney General, which he would share with Hill. He had no plans to prevent her from entering the building.

“She can come in and walk around certain parts of the building like any member of the public,” Crandall said. “But she can’t go into people’s offices. We don’t allow the general public to walk in and out of people’s offices.”

Hill began her press conference by reciting the oath of office she took when she was sworn into office. She noted that the governor and the state legislators take the identical oath to obey the constitution of the United States and the state of Wyoming.

She then read aloud from the Supreme Court ruling, emphasizing a passage that instructed the state to take action “without delay.” At that point she called on the governor and the Legislature to restore the duties that SF104 stripped from her office.

Asked if the “without delay” passage relates to the restoration of her duties or the judge’s obligation to issue an order, she said the passage clearly related to restoring the duties of her old job.

“The Supreme Court expressed the urgency of returning the superintendent to office,” Hill said. “The state must return to constitutional compliance as quickly as possible.”

Hill accused “the governor and his lawyers of plotting new delaying tactics.” She said she was going back to work to “serve the children of Wyoming.”

Hill was unconcerned when asked about how the Department of Education staff and security officers might respond to her entrance.

“As always, we’ll work together,” Hill said. “Our focus is on the children of Wyoming. I expect that we will work together as professionals.”

Crandall said at his press conference that three people had resigned from WDE in the last seven days. “And we know of some people who will leave the day she starts. About six people.”

In the meantime, lawmakers drew a distinction between the Supreme Court ruling, which found SF104 unconstitutional, and the district court order, which would specify how the ruling will be enforced.

“We will follow any court order,” said Mary Throne (D-Cheyenne), the minority floor leader, at a press conference an hour after Hill spoke. “We respectfully suggest that the superintendent do the same and wait for a court order.”

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Posted by on March 6, 2014
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Legislative leaders revive talk of special session on SF 104

By Gregory Nickerson
— March 5, 2014

Leaders of the Wyoming legislature revived talk of a special session to address the duties of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Management Council directed the Joint Education Committee to draft legislation responding to the Supreme Court ruling that Senate File 104 is unconstitutional. That 2013 law removed Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill (R) from management of the Wyoming Department of Education. Gov. Mead appointed Richard Crandall Director of the department to take over Hill’s duties.

A bill that would have called a special session of the Legislature died in the House on Monday.

“The idea is to get something moving and in position so we have a plan,” said Sen. Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) of the directive to the Education committee. “This provides the legislature a chance to look at the issue, be deliberative, and move forward on an issue I think all of us want to be resolved.”

House majority floor leader Rep. Kermit Brown (R-Laramie) allowed  Senate File 106 – State education administration to die on Monday afternoon. He said legislation to call a special session would be premature without further direction from District Court.  The state Supreme Court ordered Laramie County District Court Judge Thomas Campbell to direct the state’s compliance with its decision on Senate File 104. No one is certain how long that might take.

The committee must provide “alternative draft bills including a bill implementing state education duties prior to enactment of 2013 SF 104″ to Management Council by April 30, according to a Management Council  amendment. The Joint Education Committee would be required to make a recommendation for calling a special session. Any Joint Education Committee decision about recommending the draft bills to the larger Legislature would require a majority vote of both the Senate and House members of the committee. 

Asked the reason for the April 30 deadline, Management Council Chair Sen. Tony Ross (R-Cheyenne) said that leadership wanted draft bills relating to the duties of the Superintendent of Education to be available prior to the May 15 filing deadline to run for that office. Should a special session be called to vote on bills coming out of the Joint Interim Education Committee, it would tentatively be held in May.

To read about Senate File 106, click here.

— Gregory Nickerson is the government and policy reporter for WyoFile. He writes the Capitol Beat blog. Contact him at greg@wyofile.com.
SUPPORT: If you enjoy WyoFile’s 2014 coverage of the Wyoming Legislature and would like to see more quality Wyoming journalism, please consider supporting us. WyoFile is a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting on Wyoming’s people, places and policy.
 
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Posted by on March 5, 2014
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A bill to call a special session to draft legislation regarding the duties of the Superintendent of Public Instruction died in the Wyoming House of Representatives today. (WyoFile/Gregory Nickerson — click to enlarge)

A bill to call a special session to consider the duties of the Superintendent of Public Instruction died in the Wyoming House of Representatives today. (WyoFile/Gregory Nickerson — click to enlarge)

Bill for special session on Superintendent of Public Instruction dies

By Gregory Nickerson
— March 3, 2014

A bill that would call a special session to address the duties of the Superintendent of Public Instruction died this afternoon when it failed to meet a procedural deadline. Legislative leaders wanted to call a special session to respond to the State Supreme Court decision that struck down Senate File 104. That is the 2013 law that removed Superintendent Cindy Hill from management of the Wyoming Department of Education.

To that end, lawmakers drafted Senate File 106 – State education administration. It passed out of the Senate last week. The special session called for in the bill would have explored constitutionally valid methods of shifting duties from the Superintendent to an appointed director of the Department of Education.

The bill in question had been slated for consideration on General File in the House this afternoon. However the bill was moved to the end of the list for the day’s proceedings, and the House adjourned before bringing it up for hearing. Leaders may have kept the bill from being heard on recognizing that the bill didn’t have the votes to pass the House. Since today is the last day for bills to go through first reading in the second chamber, Senate File 106 is dead.

— Gregory Nickerson is the government and policy reporter for WyoFile. He writes the Capitol Beat blog. Contact him at greg@wyofile.com.

SUPPORT: If you enjoy WyoFile’s 2014 coverage of the Wyoming Legislature and would like to see more quality Wyoming journalism, please consider supporting us. WyoFile is a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting on Wyoming’s people, places and policy.
 
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Posted by on March 3, 2014
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Legislative acts create work for Forslund and Health Department

By Ron Feemster
— March 3, 2014

Ron Feemster

Ron Feemster, WyoFile

Legislative committees are meeting morning, noon and night this week to set topics for the joint interim committee meetings, when House and Senate committees meet together to draft bills that could become law when the Legislature reconvenes in 2015.

But almost every time a committee suggests a topic, a request for another report may fall on the desks of an agency director. And no director seems more likely to get a report request than Tom Forslund, director of the Department of Health.

At a meeting of the House Labor Health & Social Services Committee on Friday, Forslund stood up and announced that he was at the committee’s service, but said that he already had nine reports to submit by the Nov. 1 deadline.

“That’s nine reports in the first 10 months of the year,” Forslund said with a wan smile after the committee meeting. “Maybe we have a free month.”

Some of these reports are holdovers. In Cheyenne earlier this year, the department introduced a mammoth study on needed improvements in three of the state’s residential health facilities: the State Hospital in Evanston, the Wyoming Life Resource Center in Lander, and the state veterans’ retirement home in Buffalo.

Tom Forslund, director of the Wyoming Department of Health

Tom Forslund, director of the Wyoming Department of Health

But other reports are new. Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper) requested a report on cost shifting in hospital care. Many health-care experts believe that hospitals seek to raise costs for some payers to compensate for shortfalls in revenue from Medicare, Medicaid and the underinsured or uninsured patients. How much revenue is cost shifted to insurance companies and others?

“I think the senator wants to know the percentages from each group,” Forslund said. “How much from Medicaid, Medicare and the uninsured?”

At least one project stems from Rep. Elaine Harvey (R-Lovell), chair of House Labor Health and co-chair with Scott of the joint interim committee. Harvey asked for a conference to study developmental disability waiver, especially as it relates to employment for disabled persons.

“In other states, disabled people have jobs,” Harvey said. “In our state we need to work on that.”

Among the other reports and plans that Forslund’s teams must generate is a public health nursing task force, a diabetes care strategy, a study of the new enrollees in Medicaid sorted by the programs they enroll in, and an examination of how managed care might be used in the state’s Medicaid program.

But the big study — arguably enough work for an interim session on its own — is the plan for Medicaid expansion that Forslund must undertake with Gov. Matt Mead and the insurance commissioner, Tom Hirsig. The three were empowered to negotiate with Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to negotiate a Medicaid expansion plan for the state.

The study is required by the budget amendment that passed the House and was adopted in amended form by the budget conference committee last week. The budget committee weakened much of the strongest language in the bill, suggesting that the governor may negotiate with CMS.

“But there are plenty of ‘shall’ passages left,” Forslund said. “The Department of Health ‘shall’ report,” Forslund said. “The waiver ‘shall’ be cost neutral for the state. We’ll have our work cut out for us.”

SUPPORT: If you enjoy WyoFile’s 2014 coverage of the Wyoming Legislature and would like to see more quality Wyoming journalism, please consider supporting us. WyoFile is a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting on Wyoming’s people, places and policy.

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Posted by on March 3, 2014
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Several members of Cindy Hill's leadership team went on the trip to Jackson. From left, they are Kevin Lewis, John Masters, Cindy Hill, Christine Steele, Sam Shumway and Sheryl Lain. (Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile — click to view)

Superintendent Cindy Hill and her leadership team. From left, they are Kevin Lewis, John Masters, Cindy Hill, Christine Steele, Sam Shumway and Sheryl Lain. (Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile — click to view)

Wyoming Supreme Court denies rehearing in Cindy Hill case

By Gregory Nickerson
— February 28, 2014

The Wyoming Supreme Court has denied a petition from state Attorney General Peter Michael for a rehearing on the case that struck down Senate File 104. The action sends the case back to district court to provide further guidance to the legislature on how to proceed.

The denial comes a month after the court’s original decision on the matter. In a 3-2 vote, the justices ruled that the 2013 law violated the Wyoming Constitution by transferring too many duties of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to an appointed director.

In the letter sent by the court today, Justice James Burke rebuked the state for its concerns over disruption caused by the court’s decision, noting the state had no apparent concern for disruption to the Superintendent. He also saw no need to provide further guidance that the state requested:

“With all due respect to the dissent, we have already provided all of the guidance requested by the district court when we answered the certified questions in our original opinion. We do not see anything ‘unfair’ or ‘improper’ about returning this case to the district court where this action is pending.”

Chief Justice Marilyn Kite offered a dissenting view:

“Contrary to the manner in which the majority chooses to handle this matter, this Court should follow the precedent established in the long line of school finance cases by providing parameters for the district court and the legislature to use in determining which powers and duties may appropriately be transferred from the office of superintendent of public instruction and which powers and duties may not be transferred.”

In a separate action earlier today, the Senate Education committee confirmed Richard Crandall as director of the Wyoming Department of Education. He was appointed to the position last summer by Gov. Matt Mead, but waited to be confirmed until the 2014 legislative session.

Earlier this week, the Senate passed Senate File 106 which would provide for a process to reconsider the role of the Superintendent of Public Instruction in light of the court’s January 28 decision. That bill passed the House Education Committee today and will be considered on the House floor during the last week of the budget session. If the bill passes, the legislature will likely convene a special session later this spring regarding the matter.

 Supreme Court Letter

— Gregory Nickerson is the government and policy reporter for WyoFile. He writes the Capitol Beat blog. Contact him at greg@wyofile.com.

SUPPORT: If you enjoy WyoFile’s 2014 coverage of the Wyoming Legislature and would like to see more quality Wyoming journalism, please consider supporting us. WyoFile is a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting on Wyoming’s people, places and policy.
 
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Posted by on February 28, 2014
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Budget amendment allows state to make 2015 Medicaid expansion plan

By Ron Feemster
— February 27, 2014

Ron Feemster, WyoFile reporter

Ron Feemster, WyoFile reporter

A budget amendment passed in conference committee today allows Wyoming to negotiate with the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services to design a Medicaid expansion proposal that could cover nearly 18,000 of Wyoming’s poorest residents.

But not until sometime next year at the earliest.

Unlike the bills debated on the floor of the House and Senate this session, the amendment does nothing now for Wyoming people who have no insurance and are too poor — under 100 percent of the federal poverty level — to qualify for subsidized health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

“I’m concerned about the long-term effect on the people of Wyoming,” said Sen. Eli Bebout (R-Riverton), who co-chaired the conference committee. “We’re not rushing into this. We’re going to do it the right way for all of us. People who rush into big decisions often regret it.”

Supporters of the uninsured see the matter differently. While they appreciate the fact that Wyoming is moving forward at all on Medicaid expansion, they see the year delay as a giant lost opportunity.

“The Rothfuss bill would have covered people right now,” said Rep. Mary Throne (D-Cheyenne) who sat on the conference committee that passed the amendment. “I’m sorry that we are not doing that. But this bill builds momentum.”

Throne was referring to Senate File 118, a compromise bill sponsored by Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie). It came closest of all bills proposed this session to covering people who lack insurance today. It won introduction in the Senate but was defeated 21-9 after debate. A budget amendment based on Rothfuss’s bill was also defeated in the Senate.

The session saw all three of the bills worked by the Joint Interim Labor Health Committee fail to win the two-thirds majority necessary for introduction to the House or Senate. Several budget amendments failed as well.

House Budget Amendment 34, which resembles the failed Rothfuss amendment except that it provides no coverage for poor people this year, was the last act of the House before passing their version of the budget bill.

The compromise amendment, which says the governor “may” negotiate with the federal government to develop a Medicaid proposal, was nearly the last act of a conference committee that must balance the state’s $3.3 billion budget for the 2015-2016 biennium.

Throne takes the optimistic view shared by many legislators and lobbyists who did not expect the Legislature to pass even this watered-down approach to Medicaid expansion.

Dan Perdue, president of the Wyoming Hospital Association.

Dan Perdue, president of the Wyoming Hospital Association.

“This is a start,” said Dan Perdue, executive director of the Wyoming Hospital Association and chairman of the Wyoming Coalition for Medicaid Solutions. “This ensures we will go into the 2015 session with some plan to insure very low-income working adults without children through Medicaid. Currently they have no options for health insurance.”

The people in greatest need of coverage earn less than 100 percent of the federal poverty limit, $11,670 for the typical single childless adult targeted by Medicaid expansion. Those who earn up to 138 percent of FPL are eligible for Medicaid in states that expand it, but may also buy subsidized insurance on the Affordable Care Act insurance exchange.

“We hope the governor and his agencies will move quickly to begin negotiations with CMS,” said Chesie Lee, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Churches. “These people are hurting and need insurance so they can take care of themselves.”

The budget amendment lifts a ban on state agencies negotiating with the federal government in any way that could implement the Affordable Care Act. In fact, the amendment requires the Department of Health to submit terms of the proposed Medicaid expansion proposal by Nov. 1 to two joint interim legislative committees: Appropriations and Labor Health.

No action can be taken on a Medicaid expansion proposal without the approval of the Legislature, according to the amendment.

The proposal may contain a variety of mechanisms for covering the poor, including premium assistance for people who buy insurance on the exchange, “cost sharing” including premiums and deductibles, and straight Medicaid expansion.

The most contentious debate in the budget conference committee, which may be a harbinger of what awaits an eventual bill next year in the Legislature, was the exact way in which the bill must be budget neutral for Wyoming. The language discussed and passed by the committee, which may yet be refined by the Legislative Service Office, specifies that that the cost of administering the expanded program must be paid for by “demonstrated cost savings from implementing the Medicaid expansion program.”

Most of the time in conference committee was spent discussing the details of budget neutrality. Meanwhile, because the state Legislature chose to wait to expand Medicaid, the state must also wait to access the federal money that funds the program.

“This is a compromise,” notes Dan Neal, executive director of the Equality State Policy Center. “We wanted to see the state take advantage of the millions of dollars available to improve the quality of life for Wyoming people this year. That won’t happen, but at least we have a chance in 2015.”

SUPPORT: If you enjoy WyoFile’s 2014 coverage of the Wyoming Legislature and would like to see more quality Wyoming journalism, please consider supporting us. WyoFile is a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting on Wyoming’s people, places and policy.

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Posted by on February 27, 2014
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State lawmakers Canada-bound to tour energy complex as model for Wyoming

by Geoff O’Gara, Wyoming PBS (published with permission)
— February 26, 2014

Geoff O'Gara, Wyoming PBS

Geoff O’Gara, Wyoming PBS

CHEYENNE – Nine Wyoming legislators are flying Saturday on a state plane to Alberta, Canada, to look at a giant industrial complex that could be a model for a similar enterprise in southwest Wyoming.

Legislative leaders say the group will depart on a two-hour flight early Saturday morning and return late that night. The cost of the state plane runs roughly $1,000/hour, and the expenses will be covered by the Governor’s international trade office account.

Speaker of the House Tom Lubnau (R-Gillette) mentioned the idea of a big new Wyoming industrial complex at a press conference early in the session, but since it involved no major expenditure in this year’s biennium budget, the proposal provoked little discussion. However, the so-called “Heartland” complex in Alberta that legislator’s will tour suggests a sizable price tag may face Wyoming if a similar project happens here: the Canadian site houses a $40 billion assemblage of industrial facilities, funded by a mixture of government funds, private investment and tax incentives.

The idea in Wyoming, according to Lubnau and Senate President Tony Ross (R-Cheyenne), would be to take advantage of Wyoming’s abundant natural resources including natural gas, trona, and water, and create incentives for industries to locate here and transform those raw materials into products including plastics, glass screens, and other goods.

Wyoming’s economy, Lubnau said, has changed little from the 1880s, when the state produced raw materials and cattle and shipped them away, often suffering busts when distant markets fluctuated. “This kind of development,” said Lubnau, “could change Wyoming from a colonial economy to a value-added economy.”

The trip to Alberta is meant to give legislators a view of the kind of industrial complex that could be built in Wyoming. Invited on the trip are Reps. Steve Harshman (R-Casper), Michael Greear (R-Worland), Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne), and John Freeman (D-Green River). From the opposite side of the Capitol, Sens. Eli Bebout (R-Riverton), Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower), Larry Hicks (R-Baggs), and Jim Anderson (R-Glenrock).

A location in southwest Wyoming is considered likely because the region has available water, state lands, and fuel supplies. Lubnau suggested that lands already mined for coal in the area would provide suitable and inexpensive sites, and the state could offer industries inexpensive energy with a capped price.

Presently, there is no price tag on the still-speculative Wyoming project. Industrial partners would be expected to pick up a sizable portion of the cost. Discussions with private investors have not been made public.

Posted by on February 26, 2014
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House and Senate to haggle over hikes in Hathaway scholarships

By Ron Feemster
— February 25, 2014

Ron Feemster, WyoFile reporter

Ron Feemster, WyoFile reporter

The Joint Interim Education Committee sponsored Senate File 55 to raise all three levels of Hathaway scholarship awards by 10 percent. But during floor debate, the Senate cut the increases to 5 percent. Now the House Education Committee has voted to restore the 10 percent increase, a move that sets the stage for conference committee negotiations, should the bill pass as amended in the House.

“It was an amendment on the floor,” said Hank Coe (R-Cody), chair of the Senate Education Committee, who testified before the House committee Monday evening just after the House  adjourned for the day. “I think actuarially, the Hathaway fund is strong enough to absorb the 10 [percent]. There was a discussion on the floor: ‘Four or five years down the road if things are not good, what are we going to do if we’ve got this increase in there?’ I’m here to tell you that I’d respect and appreciate it if you’d take it back to 10 percent.”

The Senate could vote to concur with the House amendment and restore the 10-percent hike in the scholarships. If not, the matter will be taken up in a conference committee.

Testifying for the University of Wyoming, Mike Massie noted that the top “Honors” level of the Hathaway scholarship covered 91 percent of the cost of tuition at the University of Wyoming in 2006 and only covers 73 percent today, which increases the gap a student must cover by 18 percent.

The “Performance” and “Opportunity” levels have added gaps of 14 percent and 10 percent in their tuition purchasing power, Massie said.

Wyoming high school students who graduate with a 3.5 GPA and score at least 25 on the ACT standardized test receive the “Honors” award of $1,600 a semester from the Hathaway fund. A 3.0 GPA and a score of 21 qualify a student for a “Performance” award of $1,200 a semester. The “Opportunity” award of $800 goes to students who maintain a 2.5 GPA and score 19 on the ACT.

Mike Massie

Mike Massie

“The Hathaway was set up as a way of taking windfall profits of a boom era to benefit students in perpetuity,” Massie said in an interview after the committee meeting. “The program increases access to college and serves as an incentive for high school students to get better grades. If they perform, the state helps with tuition costs.”

Since the program started in 2006, the percentage of students qualifying for the Honors level has increased from 41 percent to 47 percent, Massie told the committee.

“The program challenged students,” Massie said. “And students responded.”

Both the amendment to raise the scholarship increase to 10 percent and the bill itself passed out of committee by votes of 9-0.

The House committee also passed Senate File 13 by 9-0. The bill would allow students to use their Hathaway money for short summer school courses and mini-courses in January before second term starts. This was allowed in practice, but the bill anchors in statute the students’ right to spend the money for short courses.

SUPPORT: If you enjoy WyoFile’s 2014 coverage of the Wyoming Legislature and would like to see more quality Wyoming journalism, please consider supporting us. WyoFile is a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting on Wyoming’s people, places and policy.

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Posted by on February 25, 2014
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Bill to deny some workers unemployment returns after veto

By Ron Feemster
— February 24, 2014

Ron Feemster, WyoFile reporter

Ron Feemster, WyoFile reporter

A bill passed the House Labor Health committee today that would disqualify employees from collecting unemployment compensation if they are terminated for “employee misconduct.”

Senate File 76, sponsored by the Joint Labor Health and Social Services committee, defines misconduct as “intentional disregard of the employer’s interests or the commonly accepted duties, obligations and responsibilities of an employee.” The bill passed third reading in the Senate 27-3.

But the bill specifies other possible reasons for termination that do not constitute misconduct. These include “ordinary negligence in isolated instances, good faith errors in judgment or discretion, and inefficiency or failure in good performance as the result of inability or incapacity.”

A similar bill was passed by both houses in 2013 but was vetoed by Gov. Matt Mead after the Legislature removed a clause that said negligence was not misconduct under the law.

Language in this year’s bill may sharpen current practice for adjudicating employee misconduct. Wyoming Supreme Court decisions hold that an employee responsible for violating a policy only if he or she knows in advance what the policy is, according to Joan Evans, director of the Department of Workforce Services.

Although this notion of misconduct is not now fixed in the statute, it is followed in practice, according to Evans.

“As part of the process of investigating an unemployment claim, the policy is investigated,” Evans said. “The policy has to be introduced. It’s part of the fact-finding of the claim. That’s part of the process now. What is the policy? When did the employee learn about the policy?”

Dan Neal, executive director of the Equality State Policy Center, suggested an amendment to read, “The employer policies and rules must be spelled out clearly and communicated effectively to employees and must be enforced uniformly.”

“Employers should not be allowed to enforce their policies selectively to deny workers unemployment compensation,” Neal said.

Rep. Mary Throne (D-Cheyenne) proposed a less specific amendment. “Employer policy must be communicated to the employee,” Throne’s amendment read. It passed 5-4 on a show of hands.

Representatives from the state Association of Municipal Employers and the Wyoming County Commissioners Association spoke in favor of the bill.

The bill passed 7-2. Rep. Lee Filer (D-Cheyenne) and Throne cast the “no” votes.

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Posted by on February 24, 2014
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House committee passes Senate bill to protect social media privacy

By Ron Feemster
— February 24, 2014

Ron Feemster, WyoFile reporter

Ron Feemster, WyoFile reporter

A bill to prohibit employers from asking for access to job candidates’ or employees’ social media passwords passed out of the House Labor Health Committee this evening by a vote of 8 to 1. Only Rep. Norine Kasperik (R-Gillette) voted “no.”

Senate File 81, authored by Sen. Leland Christensen (R-Alta), protects the privacy of workers and especially job applicants, who need not refuse to hand over social media passwords. The bill passed third reading in the Senate 28-2.

“If a potential employee says ‘no’ in a job interview, he is up against it,” Christensen said. “But if the employer cannot ask, the job applicant does not have to say ‘no.’”

When Christensen began reading about the issue, he thought about how he uses Facebook. He began to see reasons to pass legislation to protect passwords. As he pointed out to the committee, states around the country and both houses of Congress are debating legislation about social media privacy.

Rep. Leland Christensen (R-Alta)

Rep. Leland Christensen (R-Alta)

“I applied the bill to myself,” Christensen said. “If I had to give up my password to an employer and they got into my messages, they might find constituent issues or family issues that are not public. At the level people now use social media for communication, I think they deserve a shot at privacy.”

The bill defines social media very broadly to include “videos, still photographs, blogs, video blogs, podcasts, instant and text messages, email, online services or accounts, or internet website profiles or locations.”

Exceptions are made for situations in which a person is applying for a job in law enforcement — Christensen has served as a county sheriff’s deputy — if an investigation complies with federal or state laws, or in cases of “employee misconduct.”

An amendment suggested by Dan Neal, executive director of the Equality State Policy Center, to add the phrase “serious misconduct” was not proposed or voted on. Neal also objected to the idea that a law-enforcement job candidate could be required to give up his passwords. Linda Burt of the Wyoming Civil Liberties Union also supported the “serious” amendment.

What if, Neal wondered, there were a picture on Facebook of a candidate engaged in legal activities like drinking beer or gambling at the Wind River Casino, and a potential law enforcement employer did not want to hire a person who drinks or gambles?

Christensen sees the bill as a first step into what he calls an “emergent area of the law.” The law, assuming it passes, may need to be revisited in future sessions as social media evolves and Wyoming citizens and lawmakers acquire experience with the statute.

“This bill does not go all the way,” Christensen said. “It does go a long way. It identifies the problem and takes a first step at addressing it.”

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Posted by on February 24, 2014
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Committee kills measure to give state park officers death benefits

By Gregory Nickerson
— February 24, 2014
Glendo State Park. (Wikimedia Commons — click to enlarge)

Glendo State Park. (Wikimedia Commons — click to enlarge)

The Senate Appropriations Committee has killed House Bill 70 to provide disability and death benefits for state park law enforcement at the same level as other peace officers.

In public testimony, Bill Westerfield of Wyoming State Parks and Historic Sites noted that many of the officers in parks deal with the same issues and go through the same training as other peace officers. The job comes with additional risks, such as being on call 24 hours a day and working alone in remote locations that can be 40 miles from backup. On occasion they face dangerous situations, as evidenced by a 2009 incident in which a Glendo State Park officer was shot in the chest. The officer survived.

“The job of these peace officers has changed over the years. They are at more peril,” testified Sen. John Schiffer (R-Kaycee), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “These people can get hurt, and seriously hurt. If we are going to get them in the line of fire, lets provide for benefits.”

House Bill 70 would have diverted 1 percent of employee salaries into an account that would pay out benefits in the case of disability or death. The disability benefit would amount to 62.5 percent of the employees’ salary if injured on the job, and 50 percent if injured during an off-duty situation. Similarly, the death benefit would pay 62.5 percent of the salary plus 6 percent of the salary for each minor dependent, and 50 percent of the salary for death outside of work. Currently, there are only 21 state park law enforcement officers.

During committee action, Sen. Curt Meier (R-LaGrange) introduced an amendment for the contributions to the fund to be paid in a 50-50 split between employees and State Parks and Historic Sites. That change passed. However in a final vote the bill received two votes in favor and three opposed, meaning the measure will not be heard on the Senate Floor.

— Gregory Nickerson is the government and policy reporter for WyoFile. He writes the Capitol Beat blog. Contact him at greg@wyofile.com.

SUPPORT: If you enjoy WyoFile’s 2014 coverage of the Wyoming Legislature and would like to see more quality Wyoming journalism, please consider supporting us. WyoFile is a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting on Wyoming’s people, places and policy.
 
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Posted by on February 24, 2014
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Watered down Medicaid expansion proposal survives in the House

by Ron Feemster
— February 21, 2014

Ron Feemster

Ron Feemster, WyoFile

In its last act before adjourning Friday evening, the Wyoming House of Representatives passed a budget amendment that authorizes the state to negotiate with the federal government and create a Medicaid expansion plan for Wyoming.

The plan would then be presented to the state Legislature during its regular session next year. The Legislature would decide what, if any, action might be taken to expand Medicaid in the state.

A nearly identical amendment failed in the Senate Friday morning. The amendment resembles in important ways Senate File 118, authored by Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie). That bill survived the two-thirds hurdle to be introduced in the Senate by a vote of 21-9. But after debate, it was defeated 21-9.

Unlike Rothfuss’s bill, third reading House budget amendment 34 does not call for immediate expansion of Medicaid under the normal rules of Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Taking out this provision, which has proved unpopular with many Republicans, seems to have put the amendment over the top.

Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie)

Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie)

Rothfuss’s bill would have offered immediate health coverage to the estimated 17,600 people too poor to buy subsidized coverage on the Affordable Care Act exchange. But it would have done so by expanding the existing Medicaid population to cover them in what is often known as “straight Medicaid expansion.”

Rep. Mary Throne (D-Cheyenne) withdrew an amendment that would have restored the first year of Medicaid expansion after Barlow’s amendment passed. With that, no proposals that could have expanded Medicaid in Wyoming this year remained alive in the state Legislature.

The state’s failure to cover its poorest residents immediately will cost Wyoming at least 15 of the 36 months of full federal subsidies for Medicaid expansion. In addition to the human costs, the state is passing up millions of dollars in federal money that would have been spent on Wyoming people who need medical care.

Gov. Matt Mead said in his State of the State address that Wyoming needs to find an alternative to Medicaid expansion, but none has emerged during the first two weeks of the budget session.

The budget amendment will go to conference committee for House Bill 1 and Senate File 1. Joint Appropriations Committee co-chairmen Sen. Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) and Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper) are sure to lead the committee, but the other members have not yet been chosen.

It is far from clear that any version of the House amendment can survive conference negotiations after the sharp defeat of a mirror amendment in the Senate Friday morning. But few people who have followed the rocky path of Medicaid expansion bills in Wyoming expected to see even this watered-down amendment alive two weeks into the session.

In the eyes of many advocates, it would take a miracle for the amendment to emerge unscathed from conference committee.

If that should occur, the Legislature would supplant its 2012 law forbidding any state agency or employee to take action to implement the Affordable Care Act without legislative approval. That law — which was also passed as a budget amendment in a budget session — has hamstrung the state Department of Health.

Among many other groups, the tribes on the Wind River Indian Reservation would be happy to see the department able to talk with Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. A bill that would have allowed the Department of Health to discuss possible Medicaid waivers for clients of Indian Health Service failed to win introduction in the House last week.

SUPPORT: If you enjoy WyoFile’s 2014 coverage of the Wyoming Legislature and would like to see more quality Wyoming journalism, please consider supporting us. WyoFile is a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting on Wyoming’s people, places and policy.

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Posted by on February 21, 2014
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Senate bill to increase oil and gas bond gains initial approval

By Gregory Nickerson
— February 20, 2014
Senate bill to increase oil and gas bond gains initial approval

A pumpjack in the Lander Field. (Michael C. Rygel photo via Wikimedia Commons — click to enlarge)

The Wyoming Senate has given initial approval to a bill to increase the bond required for oil and gas operators to gain entry to private land. Currently, developers must file a bond of $2,000 per well pad with the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to enter private property without the owner’s permission. Senate File 83, introduced by Sen. Jim Anderson (R-Glenrock), would increase the bond amount to $10,000.

Proponents of the bill said it is needed in order to provide greater protection to private landowners in split-estate situations — where one person owns the surface estate but doesn’t own the mineral estate below. In some cases, developers prefer paying the $2,000 bond rather than negotiate a land use agreement with the surface owner. Sen. John Schiffer (R-Kaycee) said the higher bond would create a motivation for operators to negotiate with the landowner rather than opt to pay the bond.

Opponents said the bill increased the bond too much, and would create a burden for small operators. An amendment sponsored by Sen. Stan Cooper (R-Kemmerer) would increase the bond to $6,000 rather than $10,000.  The amendment failed with 10 votes in favor and 19 opposed.  

The bill then passed it’s first reading of the Senate. The measure must survive two more votes in the Senate before going to the House. 

(For background, read this update on the oil and gas bonding issue from February 12.)

— Gregory Nickerson is the government and policy reporter for WyoFile. He writes the Capitol Beat blog. Contact him at greg@wyofile.com.

SUPPORT: If you enjoy WyoFile’s 2014 coverage of the Wyoming Legislature and would like to see more quality Wyoming journalism, please consider supporting us. WyoFile is a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting on Wyoming’s people, places and policy.
 
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Posted by on February 20, 2014
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Medicaid expansion dies in committee without a vote (probably)

By Ron Feemster
— February 19, 2014

Ron Feemster, WyoFile reporter

Ron Feemster, WyoFile reporter

In two different meetings, the Senate Labor Health Committee heard two and a half hours of testimony on the last remaining Medicaid expansion bill today. But Sen. Charles Scott, chairman of the committee, never called for a vote.

And now it looks like he won’t. Unless he changes his mind.

Medicaid expansion would cover at federal government expense some 17,600 people who are not eligible to buy subsidized insurance on the health insurance exchange, but who also do not qualify for Medicaid under current rules. The bill would move from the committee to the floor with at least three votes. But three of five committee members had already voted against the bill when it was introduced.

If, however, no vote were held, the bill would die in committee.

At three different times on Wednesday afternoon, Scott emerged from the Senate chambers to tell interested parties if and when Labor Health would take a vote. Twice he appeared to change his mind.

He first told WyoFile there was chance the committee might not vote on Senate File 118. At the time, he said the vote would probably happen at 8 a.m. Thursday.

“We might not have a meeting,” Scott said. “They voted the same thing down over in the House.”

In the House, when Senate File 118 was still in committee, the Rothfuss bill was proposed as a budget amendment. The House voted it down 27-29 in a standing vote, according to Dan Perdue, president of the Wyoming Hospital Association, who was in the House at the time.

“We came very close,” said Rep. Mary Throne (D-Cheyenne). “Last year we had nine votes. The eight Democrats and one Republican. I was hoping we would get to 31 votes. We were only four short.”

Later in the afternoon, Scott emerged again to tell members of the Wyoming Coalition for Medicaid Expansion that the vote was off. He was not going to convene the committee to vote on the bill.  The coalition promptly issued a press release condemning the committee chairman for using Senate procedure to achieve his private goal of killing the bill.

“We have a chance to shore up the state’s health care system, including our community hospitals, by insuring thousands of people using federal dollars. It’s unfortunate that the committee turned its back on that opportunity this morning,” said Perdue in the release.

Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper)

Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper)

After the release had been sent out to journalists across the state, Scott emerged again to tell Ben Neary of the Associated Press that he was not planning to convene the committee on Wednesday night, but left the door open a crack for a vote on Thursday, the last day that bills can be reported out of committee.

“I don’t want to drag the committee through that,” he said, referring to a final meeting of a committee that was stacked against the bill 3-2 from the beginning. But in an interview that WyoFile participated in, he stopped short of saying the vote was definitely off.

Marguerite Herman, a member of the coalition, was incensed: “We took him at his word and we wrote the release,” Herman said. “Then he comes out again and says something else?”

The bill appears to be dead. But Medicaid expansion proposals are likely to resurface as budget amendments in both the House and the Senate on Friday.

“We’ll get another chance Friday,” Rothfuss said. “I’m glad that we will have an opportunity to debate and vote on the bill.”

Throne has said all along that she would not give up until she has exhausted all possibilities. She intends to amend the bill in a way that might help win the last four votes she needs for passage.

“It’s not quite a Hail Mary,” Throne said Wednesday near the end of the session. “We’ll have all day to talk to people tomorrow. It’s not over.”

SUPPORT: If you enjoy WyoFile’s 2014 coverage of the Wyoming Legislature and would like to see more quality Wyoming journalism, please consider supporting us. WyoFile is a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting on Wyoming’s people, places and policy.
 
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Posted by on February 19, 2014
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O’Gara: How many legislators actually grasp Medicaid expansion?

by Geoff O’Gara, Wyoming PBS (published with permission)
— February 19, 2014

Geoff O'Gara, Wyoming PBS

Geoff O’Gara, Wyoming PBS

Serious legislation is a complicated surgery to remove or implant or suture up some damaged part of the enormous body of law that is our state’s DNA. When you sit in the gallery in Cheyenne – as few citizens do for any length of time – and listen to the twisting arguments over what government might do to deliver health care to Wyoming citizens, you have to wonder how many of the dozens of legislators on the floor actually grasp it.

This is cruel to say. But the debate over expanding Wyoming Medicaid to serve another 17,680 citizens – with the federal government footing the bill – is a journey through a labyrinth. There are detailed studies and reports by consultants and the state Health Department. There have been several bills. There is the carcass of a failed attempt a few years ago to provide expanded health care “the Wyoming way,” called Healthy Frontiers, to pick over. Several bills have failed already in 2014, with details as gnarly as a lightning-struck juniper. A last-ditch effort to give the Medicaid expansion a sunset-limited tryout, by Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) and Rep. Matt Greene (R-Laramie), is stuck in the Senate Labor Committee, chaired by Sen. Charlie Scott (R-Casper), who has written his own book on how to fix health care. Scott doesn’t like Rothfuss’ bill, or most other bills written by others, and he especially doesn’t like the Affordable Care Act, which he resolutely calls “Obamacare.”

It’s one of the big stories of the legislature, but in the flurry of silly and serious stuff that rains down on this short legislative session, it’s difficult to follow. Medicaid expansion has become a cat and mouse game, which is what often happens with serious legislation: difficult legislation, difficult to track.

Scott’s committee met today and listened to some passionate testimony – people begging for a Medicaid safety net – and some cold fiscal logic – hospitals administrators asking for the expansion so they could stop absorbing the costs of uninsured sick people coming to their emergency rooms. But Scott did not call for a vote on the bill, and could not say when that would happen.

Rothfuss made his pitch. His bill is booby-trapped so that if the feds fail to fund as promised – a fear expressed by Gov. Matt Mead and Scott – the program blows up and goes away. It puts the Department of Health immediately to work negotiating a Wyoming-style program, which is allowed under the ACA, so “we are at the table, in … with some novel ideas as well” (including aspects of Scott’s failed Healthy Frontiers program). According to a Wyoming Department of Health analysis, the Medicaid expansion would save the state $47 million, and the infusion of federal money over the next decade would top $700 million, according to Rothfuss.

Scott’s committee heard testimony Wednesday, but he did not call for a vote. Nor could he say when that would happen. Senate watchers say the committee is stacked 3-2 against the bill. Scott had a bunch of amendments that afternoon to the appropriations bill, such as grants for rural health care, and they all failed. Rothfuss had his own amendment, another circuitous route to jumpstarting Medicaid expansion, but he withdrew it at the last moment. Cat and mouse – perhaps he’s waiting for the committee to act before he tries this last desperate route. “It’ll be back,” he said. (There will be a third reading of the budget bill – a last chance.)

This has proven a troublesome issue for both the governor and the legislature. All will say they want better health care for more state citizens. But there is a political paralysis in Cheyenne when it comes to working with the federal government – even if it costs the state millions.

It’s looking like they will duck it, but we’ll see. Tough issues like this are just too hard in a short session, and it’s too easy to pass – on health care, that includes not just Rothfuss’ pilot Medicaid expansion, but also Scott’s rather complex bill responding to “Obamacare,” which is already dead. From where I sit – pretty much alone in the gallery above the Senate during the health care amendments debate on the budget bill – it appears that only a handful of legislators actually get what’s going on. And among the citizens who elected them, I fear the number may be even smaller.

— Please visit Wyoming PBS Capitol Outlook for further coverage of the Wyoming Legislature by Geoff O’Gara. O’Gara is a longtime Wyoming journalist. He was a Wyoming Public Television producer and host of the influential Capitol Outlook and Wyoming Chronicle programs. He is the author of What You See in Clear Water: Indians, Whites, and a Battle Over Water in the American West (2002) and A Long Road Home, Journeys Through America’s Present in Search of America’s Past (1989) and several other books.

Posted by on February 19, 2014
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Failed amendments required UW deans to meet with legislature

By Gregory Nickerson
— February 19, 2014
Next UW President to Inherit Upgraded Campus, Downgraded Budget

University of Wyoming campus. (Courtesy University of Wyoming)

Both houses of the Wyoming legislature have introduced two identical amendments to the budget bill that would require University of Wyoming deans to meet with standing legislative committees.

Update: Both of the amendments failed to pass during debate on  February 19.

House amendment 54 and Senate amendment 44 both would assign joint interim standing committees to meet with each of the colleges at the university, which include Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Business, and others. Membership of the committees would be decided by the Speaker of the House and the Senate President.

The amendments would have the deans meet with the legislative committees, “to discuss areas of mutual concern and ways in which their educational mission can be enhanced.” In an initial meeting, the deans and committee members would identify, “specific courses of action which the college will take to improve its educational mission within each area of concern.” Following that, the deans would report to the committees twice a year to provide updates to legislators on the action items.

Senate sponsors of the amendments included Senate majority floor leader Phil Nicholas (R-Laramie), Sen. Hank Coe (R-Cody), and Senate president Tony Ross (R-Cheyenne). Sponsors from the House included Rep. Glen Moniz (R-Laramie), House Speaker Rep. Tom Lubnau (R-Gillette), and majority floor leader Rep. Kermit Brown (R-Laramie).

University of Wyoming spokesman Chad Baldwin released the following statement in response to concerns over the amendments circulating on the university’s faculty email list:

“Rest assured, the university’s representatives at the Legislature are working to convince lawmakers that this proposed House amendment, and a similar one in the Senate, are not in the best interest of the state and the university.

“It’s not unreasonable for the Legislature to desire more information regarding the activities of UW’s academic units, but these proposed amendments go too far, with the potential of disrupting the established leadership structure of the university.

“The university’s position is that while it has an obligation to maintain strong communication with the Legislature, individual college deans should not report directly to legislative committees, and legislative committees should not have approval authority over academic programs.

“These amendments are two of several proposed by lawmakers that would affect UW, as the state budget bill is considered in the House and Senate. UW’s representatives are actively engaged in the process to advocate for those proposals that would benefit the university, and to oppose those that are not in its interests. The budget bill won’t be in final form until a conference committee of the House and Senate meets next week.”

UW employees and students are encouraged to follow the legislative process, and we will do our best to keep the university community updated on matters of significance to UW.

The text of House Amendment 44/Senate Amendment 54 is below: 

Page 177-after line 17  Insert the following new section and renumber as necessary:
“[UNIVERSITY OF WYOMING DEANS-COLLABORATION WITH LEGISLATURE]
     Section 334. 
     (a)  The president of the senate and speaker of the house of representatives shall assign a joint interim standing committee to each of the colleges at the University of Wyoming.  The dean of each college shall meet with the standing committee to which their college has been assigned to discuss areas of mutual concern and ways in which their educational mission can be enhanced.  The meeting shall take place at the joint interim committee’s first scheduled interim meeting after the effective date of this section.  On or before September 12014 and September 1, 2015, each college shall submit a plan to the standing committee to which it is assigned which addresses the areas of mutual concern discussed with the standing committee and which identifies specific courses of action which the college will take to improve its educational mission within each area of concern.  After approval of the college’s plan by the standing committee, the college shall provide a report to the standing committee on the actions it has taken to implement the plan two (2) times per year.  The first report shall be made on or before January 1st and the second report shall be made on or before June 30th.
     (b)  This section is effective immediately.”.
To the extent required by this amendment:  adjust totals; and renumber as necessary.  MONIZ, BROWN, LUBNAU 

— Gregory Nickerson is the government and policy reporter for WyoFile. He writes the Capitol Beat blog. Contact him at greg@wyofile.com.

SUPPORT: If you enjoy WyoFile’s 2014 coverage of the Wyoming Legislature and would like to see more quality Wyoming journalism, please consider supporting us. WyoFile is a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting on Wyoming’s people, places and policy.
 
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Posted by on February 19, 2014
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Senate Labor committee may kill Medicaid expansion bill

By Ron Feemster
— February 18, 2014

Ron Feemster, WyoFile reporter

Ron Feemster, WyoFile reporter

The Senate Labor Health and Social Services committee has only a single bill to hear at 8 a.m. on Wednesday morning. That bill is Senate File 118, a Medicaid expansion bill that may be the most controversial bill of this year’s budget session.

The compromise Medicaid expansion bill authored by Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) was a surprise introduction in the Senate with a 21-9 vote last Friday, but it is already facing an expected 3-2 defeat in the committee chaired by Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper).

Vote counters on the floor and in the gallery see Bernadine Craft (D-Rock Springs) and James L. Anderson (R-Casper) voting for the bill, while Scott, Leslie Nutting (R-Cheyenne) and Ray Peterson (R-Cowley) are regarded as likely “no” votes. Scott, Nutting and Peterson all voted against the introduction of the bill.

“I’m still hopeful we can get it out of committee,” said Craft, who estimates that the bill would have a fighting chance on the Senate floor. She estimated on Monday evening that the bill would have 13 of the 16 needed votes to pass in the Senate.

“Sen. Scott agreed to move the hearing to Room 302, a larger room, so that we could hear more testimony,” Craft said. “That testimony may move one of the ‘no’ votes.”

Last year, Scott moved a Medicaid expansion bill that he disagreed with to the Senate floor with a rare “do not pass” recommendation. The state needed to address the issue of providing health care to 17,600 people who would qualify for Medicaid but are too poor to buy subsidized insurance, he said at the time. But this year he says the Senate lacks time to address a bill unless it is likely to pass. There is only so much time, and the Senate has too many bills in the hopper.

“Last year I sent it to the floor for the debate,” Scott said Tuesday afternoon. “A budget session is different. If we send a bill to the floor that cannot pass, we kill a bunch of other bills. We’ve had our public debate this year. I would have no problem letting it die in committee.”

Rothfuss says he has spoken to nearly every member of the Senate since the bill was introduced last week and discussed the bill with members of the committee. He wants to see the Senate as a whole address the bill.

Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie)

Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie)

“It’s an important enough bill that it’s worth the time,” Rothfuss said. “The budget will pass. It will be balanced. We do have time. We might have to work late on a few nights, but that’s why they pay us the big bucks.”

Meanwhile, activists, lobbyists and constituents are reaching out to committee members. Scott’s friends and detractors alike say that he has close ties to the Wyoming Medical Center, whose CEO is on the record favoring Medicaid expansion. Nutting’s district is home to Cheyenne Regional Medical Center, which also favors expansion. But it is not clear that constituent pressure is having an effect.

“The hospital is saying some unrealistic things,” said Nutting, a first-term senator who was elected as a write-in candidate with the support of the Wyoming Liberty Group. “They are looking to get a lot more benefit from the bill than they will really receive. I’m a strong ‘no’ vote on this issue.”

The clock is ticking for poor Wyoming residents, not to mention for the state General Fund. As of January, the federal government has begun paying 100 percent of the health care costs of the poor, but only in states that expand Medicaid.

“My concern is, if not this bill, then what?” Rothfuss said. “We’ve done an admirable job of kicking the ball down the road since 2010. Now that we’re up against a deadline, we’re faced with a choice between Senate File 118 and nothing.”

In fact, there will be a final act for Medicaid expansion if it fails in committee on Wednesday morning.

“We’ll try to get this bill or something like it in as a budget amendment,” Rothfuss said. “But I’m hoping it will advance in committee. At the very least, I hope that legislators who did not have a great deal to do with the debate so far will come to the committee meeting and listen to the testimony.”

SUPPORT: If you enjoy WyoFile’s 2014 coverage of the Wyoming Legislature and would like to see more quality Wyoming journalism, please consider supporting us. WyoFile is a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting on Wyoming’s people, places and policy.

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Posted by on February 18, 2014
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House Education Committee amends bill to step back from Common Core

The House Education Committee heard testimony on House Bill 97 until 7 p.m. Monday. (WyoFile/Gregory Nickerson — click to enlarge)

The House Education Committee heard testimony on House Bill 97 until after 7 p.m. Monday. (WyoFile/Gregory Nickerson — click to enlarge)

By Gregory Nickerson
February 18, 2014

The House Education Committee passed an amended version of House Bill 97, which would change the way the state of Wyoming adopts educational standards and remove the state from the Common Core State Standards and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.

The bill will now return to the House for debate. In order to become law, it would need to pass through the Senate Education Committee and then pass three votes in the Senate.

Members of the public offering testimony included Bill Schilling of the Wyoming Business Alliance, Amy Edmonds of the Wyoming Liberty Group, and a number of teachers, school board members, and parents.

A primary concern among supporters of the bill was that the Common Core increases federal overreach into Wyoming’s education system. “Wyoming residents do not want decisions about the education of our children to be made by the government,” said one member of the public who testified. “The people of Wyoming know what is best for our children. We do not need the government telling us what is best for us. The people will make those decisions for ourselves.”

Hollis Hackman, a school board member from Sheridan District 2, spoke against the bill. He felt the measure would cause disruption by changing  direction on the implementation the Common Core standards, which his  been in progress in his district for four years.

Several members of the committee had similar concerns. “I realize there is great passion behind this issue,” said Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale). “I talked to all the people I know who are educators — I’m not an educator, I’m just a cowboy — and they said (the Common Core standards) are better standards than we had previously.” He said that local school boards in his district have not asked him to change direction.

Sommers commented that the bill is three bills in one, with aspects on data security, assessments, and standards. He said he believes that discussion on the issue might be better as an interim topic.

Rep. John Freeman (D-Green River) opposed the bill and suggested an interim study. “I think we should leave the Common Core alone because school districts need stability and predictability, and I’m not backing off from that because that’s what people have been telling me all along,” he said.

Rep. Patton (R-Sheridan), also supported an interim study, saying it would be a better way to assimilate the wide variety of opinions on the issue. “The one thing I don’t like is being singled out and told you don’t support my interests.  We are not like milk. We are not homogeneous. … We get something that alarms us and we react quickly. … If we are going to do this at all I think we should do it in the interim.”

Rep. Jerry Paxton (R-Encampment) spoke in favor of House Bill 97, though he had reservations about its length and complexity. “I don’t know that we want to wait another year. I’m in favor of moving something forward.” Rep. Hans Hunt (R-Newcastle) agreed that the bill is imperfect and would need to be worked. “While it would be good to work on this as an interim topic, I fear what would happen with Common Core sinking in more deeply,” he said.

House Education Committee chair Rep. Matt Teeters (R-Lingle) also spoke in favor of hearing the bill. After receiving a motion and a second to work the bill, Teeters made a motion to strike the data portion of the bill, saying including it would leave the bill with too many moving parts. The motion passed.

Rep. Sommers then read in 16 pages of amendments, which the committee worked until 8:40 p.m.

“After hearing more than 45 minutes of amendments, I am even more convinced that this (committee) is not the right venue,” said Rep. Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie). She said she would vote no and support an interim study. Rep. Sommers speculated that the bill will die in the Senate and that the issue will likely become an interim study.

In final voting of the amended bill, Rep. Patton, Rep. Connolly, and Rep. Freeman voted no. Representatives Teeters, Sommers, Paxton, Hunt, Northrup, and Piiparinen voted in favor of the bill. The measure passed and will now go back to the House.

“We spent almost four hours on the bill,” said Rep. Teeters. “If you don’t think your citizen legislature works, come to a committee meeting.”

— Gregory Nickerson (@GregNickersonWY) February 18, 2014

— Gregory Nickerson is the government and policy reporter for WyoFile. He writes the Capitol Beat blog. Contact him at greg@wyofile.com.

SUPPORT: If you enjoy WyoFile’s 2014 coverage of the Wyoming Legislature and would like to see more quality Wyoming journalism, please consider supporting us. WyoFile is a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting on Wyoming’s people, places and policy.
 
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Posted by on February 17, 2014
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Senate Medicaid expansion bill faces next challenge in committee

By Ron Feemster
— February 14, 2014

Ron Feemster, WyoFile reporter

Ron Feemster, WyoFile reporter

The staged Medicaid expansion bill proposed by Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) was introduced in the Senate Friday by a vote of 21-9 to the surprise of many advocates who spent the last year pushing other bills that failed.

The bill, Senate File 118, was written to be a broad compromise that incorporated ideas from a wide variety of bills with diverse supporters. The bill had 16 co-sponsors from both chambers.

Health advocates and Medicaid supporters outside the Senate chamber were amazed as they looked over the roll call vote. The same Senate defeated a simple Medicaid expansion bill last year by a vote of 20-10. Medicaid expansion picked up 11 votes in a year, at least for introduction.

“It took a little bit of work,” Rothfuss told WyoFile. “I think there were a lot of people in the Senate that were interested in bringing it to debate, not supporting expansion, but the opportunity to discuss it. I appreciate that.”

The bill will get an energetic reworking in committees and on the floor of both houses, according to legislators who did not want to disclose their plans for the bill on the record.

“I’m sure we’ll amend it in committee,” one House member whispered. But for that member, and others who tried to draft a successful Medicaid expansion bill this year, even hoping to see the bill in the House is optimistic.

Rep. Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) presented House Bill 161, a Medicaid expansion bill that he designed to be palatable to a broad spectrum of lawmakers. The bill was defeated by a vote of 33-25 several hours after SF 118 was introduced.

The Senate assigned SF 118 to its Labor Health committee, which is chaired by Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper). The chairman said Thursday that he is staunchly opposed to the bill. Scott is fed up with the Affordable Care Act in general, and said the Senate’s overall dissatisfaction with the ACA led to the defeat of his “Obamacare Relief” bill 19-11.

Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper)

Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper)

“I don’t think you could pass any Medicaid expansion bill this year,” Scott said.

Scott is the gatekeeper on all health care legislation that moves through the Senate. He voted against this bill as well as another, which he himself authored.

“I hope we’ll be able to have a robust discussion in the Senate Labor committee and hopefully bring it to the floor,” Rothfuss said. “There have been all new topics, new areas of policy discussion since last year when we debated it in the floor.”

Last year’s Medicaid Expansion bill nearly died in the Labor Health committee, which Scott chairs. But Scott decided to pass it out of committee to the Senate Floor with a “do not pass” recommendation.

Many people have fought for Medicaid expansion since the 2013 session ended. They might be happy with that same outcome in Labor Health again this year.

— WyoFile reporter Gregory Nickerson contributed to this story.

SUPPORT: If you enjoy WyoFile’s 2014 coverage of the Wyoming Legislature and would like to see more quality Wyoming journalism, please consider supporting us. WyoFile is a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting on Wyoming’s people, places and policy.

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Posted by on February 14, 2014
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New Medicaid expansion bills replace familiar failed ones

By Ron Feemster
— February 14, 2014

Ron Feemster, WyoFile reporter

Ron Feemster, WyoFile reporter

After Wyoming lawmakers voted not to introduce three Medicaid expansion bills debated in interim committees during the past year into either the House or Senate, the best chances to cover 17,600 of Wyoming’s poorest residents rest with two new compromise bills.

“We’re not dead yet,” said Rep. Mary Throne (D-Laramie), whose “Medicaid Fit” bill fell short by 33-27 of the two-thirds majority required to introduce a bill in the House. “I was excited when I heard the voting in the beginning. I thought we had it. But we can still get a bill through.”

Throne’s bill was the last one standing Thursday after Sen. Charles Scott’s “Insurance Pool” bill failed in the Senate and the 1115 waiver for the Wind River Indian Reservation failed in the House by the same 33-27 margin.

“I think we still have a lot of work to do,” Throne said. “People are still concerned about taking federal money. We need to listen and learn from local communities. Expansion creates jobs. It cuts the community’s costs for charity care. It has a lot of benefits to the state.”

After the bills that came through Labor Health and Tribal Relations were defeated, Rep. Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) and Chris Rothfuss (D-Cheyenne) submitted bills they hope will appeal to the diverse constituencies that have supported some kind of expansion. Both bills come up for introduction today (Friday).

Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie)

Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie)

“I wrote this as a compromise,” Rothfuss said. “I put in everybody’s ideas so that everybody could have something to like and talk about. I’m hoping that people can get behind it.”

To mitigate the fears of expansion opponents who believe the federal government may not follow through on its funding obligations, Rothfuss built two sunsets into his bill, which he titled “Medicaid staged expansion.”

Rothfuss’s bill would expand Medicaid in the traditional sense until March 30, 2015. Rothfuss has several reasons for leaping into expansion immediately, including providing healthcare to the needy. He also wants the state to reap the fiscal benefits of expansion. The state would get the full benefit of 100-percent federal reimbursements.

But the longer term goal would be to customize the plan in ways that satisfy the conservative desiderata of Wyoming lawmakers, so that straight Medicaid could be replaced by a more nuanced plan. During that first year, the governor, the director of the Health Department and the insurance commissioner would devise a “Wyoming” system for providing Medicaid coverage to poor people in the state.

That new system would be required to have three tiers of coverage, Rothfuss said. The least poor recipients would receive premium assistance, similar to Senate File 88, which Charles Scott wrote. The middle tier would pay small premiums to receive Medicaid, much like Medicaid Fit, the bill that Mary Throne authored. And the very poor would continue to get straight Medicaid, which is likely to be the only option that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services would approve for that population.

“The details of the income levels would be negotiated with CMS,” Rothfuss said. Coverage under the new system could start on April 1, 2015, and also has a hard sunset. “It can last a maximum of three years without further legislative action,” Rothfuss said.

Under the staged expansion bill, people whose earnings change enough to move between income levels would enjoy the option of staying with the coverage they have, at least in the short term. This is an advantage touted by supporters of the now defeated “Premium Assistance” plan. In addition, the plan would have to be negotiated to create incentives for people to earn more money.

“You want every dollar they earn to be a good dollar,” Rothfuss said. “Everyone should want to get ahead and be rewarded if they do.”

Finally, Rothfuss’s bill has a feature that is likely to appeal to the many Wyoming lawmakers who value savings. None of the money saved by “offsets,” eliminating General Fund programs and replacing them with Medicaid, can be spent under Rothfuss’s bill.

All offset savings go into a special fund that will remain available to the state in case the federal government fails to meet its payment obligations or the legislature decides not to renew the program.

“If you did this for two years, that money would remain in the fund,” Rothfuss said. “That’s $40 million dollars that you would still have available.”

Both Rothfuss’s and Barlow’s bill envision scenarios in which Medicaid money from CMS could be used for premium assistance for an employer plan.

Eric Barlow

Rep. Eric Barlow (R-Gillette)

“Many of the people who need coverage are working but still not getting coverage,” said Barlow. He wrote his bill to help low-income workers and their employers.

As in the Rothfuss plan, Barlow sees negotiating with CMS as the key to progress. “If an employer said that he just couldn’t afford to provide insurance, I’m guessing we could give 50 percent to supplement employer insurance costs,” Barlow said. “But that could be 60 percent or 40 percent, depending on the negotiations with CMS.”

After spending a year hearing testimony on the joint interim Labor Health Committee, Barlow looked across the nation at waivers that were approved — and sometimes not approved — by CMS. He tried to incorporate elements of other plans that would provide solutions to Wyoming problems.

Among several options he suggests is a “comprehensive care” system in which the health department looks for leadership to different groups in a community, including insurance companies, hospitals, providers and managed care organizations, to get people signed up and covered.

“Lawmakers are starting to recognize different reasons to support a bill like this,” Barlow said. “Fiscal reasons. Looking out for the less fortunate. But also the need to stand up for the rights of Wyoming citizens, who are United States citizens, to access the health care the country is providing them. Article 1, Sec. 38 of the Wyoming constitution says that we have the right to make our own health care decisions. Are we standing in the way of an opportunity for U.S. citizens to access health care that should be freely available?”

Both bills are dark horses. Neither lawmaker thinks he necessarily has enough votes to clear the two-thirds hurdle. But they are the only bills left.

“They both have potential,” said Elaine Harvey (R-Lovell), who chairs the House Labor Health committee. “I’m not in favor of straight Medicaid expansion. I’ve been straight up about that all along. But I am in favor of doing something for the people who need health care.”

The “Obamacare Relief” bill that Sen. Charles Scott wrote as a stopgap measure to help bridge the gap he saw between this year and a future date when the federal government “straightened out Obamacare” also failed to win introduction, falling a single vote short of two thirds at 19-11.

Should these two bills fail to reach a two-thirds majority, the last option will be to try and introduce Medicaid expansion as an amendment to the budget, which only requires a simple majority.

“If both houses have already rejected two options for expansion, the most we can hope for is a study,” Harvey said. “We won’t get expansion in an amendment.”

SUPPORT: If you enjoy WyoFile’s 2014 coverage of the Wyoming Legislature and would like to see more quality Wyoming journalism, please consider supporting us. WyoFile is a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting on Wyoming’s people, places and policy.

REPUBLISH THIS STORY: For details on how you can republish this story or other WyoFile content for free, click here.

Posted by on February 14, 2014
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