Cheyenne — In a lengthy and multifaceted session, Wyoming’s 60th legislature dealt with storage of carbon gases from energy production, ignition interlocks that require convicted drunks to test for alcohol before they drive, long-term financing for the weather supercomputer to be constructed in …

Wait, WAIT! – stay with me, please — I know you don’t want a laundry list of what the legislature did or didn’t pass, not when “The Daily Show” or the Duke game is about to start. Most of you weren’t paying more than passing attention to the legislature in Cheyenne over the last two months — they’re only spending $8 billion of your hard-earned dollars (“yours” though they come from the pockets of Encana and Anadarko ((and what language do these corporations get these names from, anyway?)) and other energy companies) and even if you were interested, there’s no media left in this state to cover it for you anyway, so let’s pour a brew for tip-off –

No, WAIT!, try this:

The good old days...

The good old days...

There used to be fistfights in the Wyoming legislature. They try to prevent that now with some strange rules of decorum, including one that says you can’t refer to anyone on or off the floor by his actual name, which means they address each other, especially when tired, which is anytime after the first week, with arcane constructs like, “the distinguished senator from the county north and slightly east of the oil fields that long provided revenues to the school district where my daughter played basketball”, or something like that. Fun, huh?

But it’s less fun when one of them gets up to oppose a statewide ban on smoking and talks about Nazi Germany, comparing “the funny little guy with the mustache (who) despised cigarettes” to “another fellow in a military uniform.” That would be: Hitler and C. Everett Koop, the former U.S. Surgeon General.

These are your representatives talking! In this case, Rep. Frank Peasley, R-Douglas. They don’t all talk like that — sometimes they say smart and complex things – but I had to get your attention!

2009-legislation-2That’s the way the session went, anyway — short-attention-span stuff, no big theme to it, a million here for an x-ray machine to look at leaf-cutter bees, a million there for a new university parking lot, $400,000 here for a GPS system to track sex offenders, $45,000 there to be sure our beloved wolves aren’t catching brucellosis, and — as long as we’re hung up on wildlife — the all-important designation of a state butterfly, the Sheridan green hairstreak. Oh yes, and don’t forget the last-minute pennies from heaven (billions of pennies!): the federal stimulus bill. leaf cutter bee

THE DOCTOR IS OUT

Over the last five years, education in Wyoming has been transformed. Pay for teachers is way up, and the applicant pool is impressive; teacher coaches are roaming the hallways improving instructors’ techniques; smartly equipped new schools are sprouting all over; Hathaway scholarships are enabling motivated kids to attend college without accumulating debt; and the University of Wyoming is luring top researchers and professors to its ever-growing campus. The football team, unfortunately, is still crap, but the new stadium boxes are bound to please.

This is largely the work of the legislature — with a little nudge from the judicial branch — over the last half a decade. Where they might have deferred to the federal government — since America’s academic slackerdom is a national problem — the legislature instead took ownership of the issue, and invested generously during these years of surplus revenues.

Now we’re waiting for results … and some expected the legislature to turn its attention to turn to another problem of huge scope and importance: health care.

2009-legislation-3Wyoming has some of the problems found nationwide, and some very particular health care problems of its own. Like everywhere else, we have too many people who can’t afford insurance, and too many exorbitant costs that can’t be avoided even if you have it. We have doctors, like everywhere, who run patients through like dolls on an assembly line; and who often practice “defensive” medicine that means over-testing and over-treating maladies real and imagined.

Wyoming specifically has to deal with its dispersed population – hard to get specialized services to Hulett — and some debated recruitment issues — hard to get doctors to work nights in Pinedale when big city riches beckon.

For five years, the state has had a governor-appointed commission Health Care Commission. Commissions, we all know, are either a delaying tactic or a serious effort to find answers. This one has issued reports on access, Medicaid, electronic health records, retention of nurses, medical errors, and rural health care delivery – phew – and I can’t say I’ve heard one hand clapping at the legislature.

When it came time to take this problem by the neck, the legislature largely ignored the commission and made up its own solution. Or, more accurately, Sen. Charlie Scott (R-Casper), in league with slick-talking consultant Dr. Hank Gardner, made it up. Charlie got so excited, he’s written a book about health care.

His bill (S.F. 24) would create a pilot health insurance program for 500 low-income families, with some interesting twists: incentives to encourage healthy behavior and prevention, a ‘family doctor’ approach, health savings accounts and high deductibles. It had the support of the governor and sailed through the Senate. But when it finally got to the House floor, it got shot down on a 29-28 vote, after a twisty floor debate that included kvetching about the effectiveness of incentives among the chosen few, calls for universal health care, and, yawn, fearful cautions about the declining budget surpluses. (Though, it should be noted, the cost of this program – about $2 million – would have been borne by tobacco settlement money, which the state got without lifting a finger, and which is dedicated to health programs.)

And once the House gets into this kind of mood, it rolls. Another incremental expansion of health care coverage, which would have enlarged the state’s laudable health care program for kids, which now provides health insurance for children in families that earn up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level (the federal poverty level, by the way, is currently a Dickensian $21,200 for a family of four.) Sen. Mike Massie (D-Laramie) spearheaded an effort to raise the qualification to 300 percent of the poverty level. But the ever-vigilant House put a stop to that, thus protecting our meager budget surplus (that’s surplus, we should remind – not the basic cost of government, which is already budgeted for the biennium. Surpluses, down from $900 million to a mere $257 million of funny money – no wonder they balked at spending, uh, about $90,000 more for kids’ health insurance!).

COMPETENT ON WORKER’S

For a few years I’ve been watching for bags of money in the hallways – Wyoming and Alaska are alike in so many ways, with our ‘citizen’ legislature and dependence on the energy industry, that it seems logical to expect similar corruption.

But I haven’t seen it. Oh, there’s the soft stuff, doing favors for your own interests (that’s fairly open, and not viewed as a conflict, but rather as expertise – just as John Barrasso once worked hard for a state medical malpractice awards cap, plenty of lawyers, businessmen and others pitch in for the home team) – but no bags of cash. That I’ve seen.

And though many would tell you that the energy industry gets what it asks for in Cheyenne, that really isn’t true all the time. Despite the well-paid suits that jam the committee rooms – luckily, journalists don’t need seats because they’re mostly not there – the legislators surprise you.

2009-legislation-4Take the helium tax bill. Helium is a very valuable gas ($200 per million-cubic-foot) that happens to keep company with the natural gas produced over in the Pinedale area. Exxon-Mobil extracts that gas at its Shute Creek plant and sells it. But here’s the trick: long ago, helium was used for blimps, and blimps were used for warfare, so the federal government decided it better own all the helium stored underground. Exxon-Mobil smartly realized that if it didn’t lease the helium, but just contracted to take it later, Wyoming’s ad valorem tax wouldn’t apply to the federally-owned helium. helium tax

But as Rep. Tom Lubnau (R-Gillette), the legislature’s energy guru, said: “If it looked like, talked like and walked like a duck, treat it like a duck … whether you call it a contract, a lease, or Fred.” The bill was approved in both houses.

Similarly, the legislature strengthened the Wyoming workers’ compensation program, which provides support and damages for workers in dangerous occupations, while shielding the companies they work for from big lawsuits. The program was practically broke back in the 1980s, and benefits were severely restricted. Now the program has a billion dollars socked away, though some of that is obligated for ongoing payments.

Skillfully helmed by a team that included Kim Floyd of the AFL-CIO and Dan Neal of the Equality State Policy Center, the benefits were increased, the timelines enlarged, and a controversial cost-of-living increase provision was included for those on permanent disability. You’re still not going to get rich by getting hurt — and the legislature balked at including mental health benefits for emergency workers — but it’s another sign that legislators don’t take all their marching orders from industry lobbyists.

Hopefully after some study during the interim, efforts to make workplaces safer — particularly oil and gas operations, where there have been a run of fatalities already this year — will go beyond workers comp, which is an after-the-fact fix. We have a state-run Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) office with only eight inspectors, whose visits to rig sites are few and often anticipated. Penalties are astonishingly low.

Wyoming has an interesting statute that requires its OSHA regulations not exceed federal rules. But in this case that shouldn’t hamper improvement: the feds have no regs for oil and gas, so we get to write ours as we please. Let’s get on it.

HANDS OFF

As long as we’re saying nice things about the legislature, this: they may shy away from some big, important issues, but sometimes the restraint is wise and praiseworthy.

2009-legislation-5Every session I’ve attended, there are moments that embody the schizophrenia of modern political conservatism — when the folks who argue often that less government is better government, suddenly want government to barge into the private lives of citizens in a big way.

Political progressives all know what I’m talking about: the “Defense of Marriage” bill, which would have rebuffed same-sex spouses recognized by other states from attaining similar status here in Wyoming.

But let’s consider something dearer to those progressive hearts, too: the bill that would have banned smoking in public places, including bars, because of the health dangers of second-hand smoke.

The marriage bill was one of several advanced by religious conservatives who also want to discourage abortion (by insisting, in a bill that failed this year, that doctors show pregnant women a sonogram of the fetus). The emotional argument for such legislation defends the sanctity of “one man, one woman” against the allegedly unhealthy and corrupting affects of bonds between same sex partners. (There is also a legal argument — that currently in our state constitution contradictory clauses cohabitate — one which defines marriage as between man and woman, and another which recognizes all marriages sanctioned by foreign governments, which might include polygamy as well as gay unions.)

It took some brave and emotional testimony from unlikely sources – Rep. Pat Childers (R-Cody), whose daughter is gay; and Rep. Roy Cohee (R-Casper), the former Speaker of the House, who was moved by the relatives of gays he met after a similar bill died in 2008 – to move House votes against the bill this year.

The anti-smoking bill survived longer – it actually passed out of the House, freighted with amendments that weakened it considerably, so that nobody was saddened when it never got out of a Senate committee. Few on either side will be happy if I conflate it with the “Defense of Marriage” bill, but I’ll do it anyway.

2009-legislation-6If you make the effort to understand the basis for beliefs you disagree with, and then try to convince them to restrain codifying those beliefs in law, the more convincing argument may not be tolerance, it may be the libertarian resistance to government intrusion in private lives. Progressives might want to exercise a similar restraint, rather than insist that the portion of people who smoke – probably as large as the gay population, I would guess – bow to our idea of a suitable public environment. smoking ban

This becomes a bargaining chip (yes, I know – bargaining with the health of service workers!) when conservatives next try to police the bedroom or doctor’s office.

THE BIG STUFF

These are just a few topics in a session that bounced all over the place – and rarely aroused much public interest, even when they tried to push a break on property taxes. (Various bills flew around, and the one that emerged was not exactly a populist winner – it would have given Harrison Ford a better break than someone living in a trailer.)

Gov. Dave Freudenthal and his staff have often argued against the “vision thing” when I challenge them for big themes – they say it’s more reasonable, as a Democratic governor with a Republican legislature, to look for incremental progress, and let others take credit. They cite accomplishments like the wildlife trust fund, workers comp, funding for the supercomputer outside Cheyenne, or the pilot health insura…oh, wait a minute, that didn’t happen.

A lot of big things don’t happen — that seems to be the nature of the Wyoming legislature. Health care is just one area. Senate President John Hines (R-Gillette) asked a simple, heartfelt question at the beginning of the session: why are there so many young men in jail in Wyoming, and what are we going to do about it? Nothing, it turns out, in 2009, unless you count $18 million to pay the guards at the new prison in Torrington.

2009-legislation-7Energy is another area – surely the nation’s “energy breadbasket” ought to have an over-arching plan that integrates its fossil fuel colossus, it’s renewable energy potential, the environmental risks, and it’s delivery systems – trains, power lines, and pipelines – in a way that lets us make balanced policy and investment choices?. A weak little House resolution calling on counties to prepare for wind energy development prompted Rep. Tim Stubson (R-Casper) – an innocent newbie, only in his second term – to wonder why we aren’t looking at the big picture when it comes to massive wind projects now on the drawing boards.

Absolutely right. All we got from this session was a regional energy symposium next August. (Let’s see, at $435,000 for that gathering, partly to fly in guests from the West Coast … how many kids could we have provided with health insurance?)

Freudenthal refuses to expend his enormous favorable ratings among voters challenging a do-little legislature. I used to fault him for that; but he may be right. As Barack Obama learned in Illinois, voters aren’t really paying much attention. Legislators who sleep through goodly portions of debate, and rarely say a word, get elected again and again. Despite the good efforts of a few journalists, there really isn’t much in-depth coverage of what they’re doing – the clerks are so unused to requests from the media that they look at you blankly when you ask for a copy of the materials passed to legislators by lobbyists. What do legislators have to fear from the governor or anyone else?

They will say caution is a smart tactic with the nation teetering on the edge of Depression, and even Wyoming’s revenue stream diminishing to a trickle. But during the five years of explosive budget surpluses that preceded this – with projections that this boom would be decades long – they didn’t have that excuse, and, with the exception of the court-driven efforts to improve education, they didn’t do much.

Plus, the pay is poor, the hours are long, and those bags of money I mentioned earlier (Alaska) are nowhere in evidence. If nothing else, I wish the legislature would vote to raise pay, extend the session, and build bigger committee rooms so I won’t have to stand in the hallway.

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Published on March 16, 2009

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