Wyo’s distrust of feds permeated ‘weird’ legislative sessionBy Gregory Nickerson March 5, 2013
The 2013 legislature adjourned on February 27th, ending 36 days of lively debate. In general, Wyoming lawmakers showed a preference for fiscal conservatism, while maintaining moderate social views and a strong antagonism toward the federal government.
Lawmakers began their time in Cheyenne with a bitter fight over leadership changes at the Department of Education, then moved to the business of cutting 6.5 percent in spending.
This year also brought a new low to civil discourse between constituents and lawmakers. Hearings on gun rights and civil unions brought a surge in off-color and sometimes threatening social media messages aimed at lawmakers.
“It was a weird session,” Sen. Phil Nicholas (R-Laramie) concluded.
A recap of the year’s important legislation is offered below, but first a word on mistrust toward the federal government, a theme that runs so deep in Wyoming politics that it’s often taken for granted.
Throughout the session, lawmakers made several moves designed to subvert and chasten the fed on policies ranging from gun rights to land management and healthcare. Most of Wyoming’s salvos won’t make a major difference in Washington D.C., but these actions come with a price tag.
One of the most significant financial decisions made this session involved forgoing — for now — an estimated $737 million in federal funding for optional Medicaid expansion between 2014 and 2020. That expansion comes as part of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
Department of Health reports projected the federal Medicaid money would contribute to Wyoming’s economy by paying hospitals and doctors, and generally supporting the health of Wyoming residents, all while saving $47 million in state funds.
Many lawmakers, and in particular Sen. Charlie Scott (R-Casper), objected to the expansion because they doubted the federal government’s ability to keep its promises on Medicaid funding. They worried that funding shortfalls for the Medicaid program could leave Wyoming with the full fiscal burden of an expanded Medicaid population and a duty to spend more on the already large Department of Health budget.
But not all lawmakers agreed. “We don’t have a federal government failing to pay its bills on Medicaid,” said Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie). Last week’s sequester does not touch the Medicaid budget.
In House Bill 228 the legislature appropriated $33,000 to the Attorney General’s office to seek out strategies for compelling the Washington D.C. to transfer federal lands to state control. The bill also requires Wyoming to study how much money the state might lose due to federal land management policies.
While critics of the idea said transferring federal land to Wyoming would never fly in Washington, some leaders said scrutiny of the fed’s actions in Wyoming is warranted.
“I’m not interested in another sagebrush rebellion but I am interested in making good decisions,” said Rep. Kermit Brown, (R-Laramie). “We have so much federal presence in Wyoming that we have to understand what their actions are.”
Just before the close of the session, lawmakers tacked a $250,000 gun-rights appropriation onto House Bill 41, which deals with licenses for bison hunting.
The funds would go to the state Attorney General’s office to litigate against any future presidential orders restricting firearms useful for bison hunting. Rep. Brown said the $250,000 is not likely to get used, and will probably revert to the General Fund.
These actions won’t cost the state much compared to forgoing $737 million in Medicaid funding, but they indicate the level of frustration with the federal government.
“We chose to give up ($737 million) in funds on additional Medicaid expansion because of distrust,” said Sen. Rothfuss. “In my view we are overreacting, and we have this feeling of responsibility that somehow our actions in the state can solve the problems in Congress.”
Congress isn’t likely to take direction from Wyoming any time soon. In fact, Washington lawmakers seem more than happy to change the federal funding streams that the Equality State has come to enjoy. For example, last year federal legislators removed $700 million in Abandoned Mine Lands funds for Wyoming, money that got spent on many projects outside of mine reclamation.
Wyoming lawmakers had no choice in the loss of AML funding, and would have preferred to keep that stream of federal money. That legislators chose to forgo $737 million in Medicaid funds shows they assign a very high dollar value to opposing the Affordable Care Act.
Before the session:
The Travel, Recreation, and Wildlife Interim Committee gave initial approval to a bill allowing the use of silencers for hunting. The December 14th mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut brought renewed talk of federal gun control laws.
How it turned out:
Wyoming lawmakers passed gun bills relating to hunting, but stayed with the status quo when it came to expanding concealed carry rights and pushing back against federal gun-control measures.
Shortly after the opening of the 2013 session, the House Travel Committee voted down House Bill 105 to legalize silencers following testimony against the bill from the Wyoming Game Warden’s Association.
Most of the members on the House committee were newly assigned and hadn’t helped draft the bill during the interim. Later on interim committee co-chair Sen. Bruce Burns (R-Big Horn) introduced another silencer bill as Senate File 132, which eventually passed.
In response to the Sandy Hook shooting, Rep. Allen Jaggi (R-Lyman) and other lawmakers introduced the House Bill 105 – Citizens’ and Students’ Self-Defense Act, which would have allowed carrying concealed weapons in schools.
That bill passed the House with a number of amendments, but died on February 8th after the Senate Education committee failed to take a vote on the measure.
Rep. Jaggi also introduced House Bill 103 – Regulation of firearms-state preemption. The bill would have precluded local governments from making any firearms laws stricter than state law. The bill came in response to local laws banning the carry of weapons in public meetings.
Meanwhile, national debate over banning high capacity clips and assault-style weapons led Rep. Kendall Kroeker (R-Evansville) to introduce House Bill 104 – Firearm Protection Act. The bill called for the arrest of any federal official attempting to enforce federal gun control laws or executive orders created after January 1, 2013. The National Rifle Association did not support the measure, but it had backing from the Wyoming Gun Owners Association.
The bill passed the House with a vote of 46 to 13, then got heavily amended in the Senate Judiciary committee by Sen. Leland Christiansen (R-Alta). Supporters responded by disparaging Christiansen on Facebook using foul language.
Ultimately, Senate majority floor leader Phil Nicholas (R-Laramie) decided to hold back both HB 103 and HB 104 from introduction on the Senate floor, saying the bills were poorly drafted and likely unconstitutional.
“If we want to challenge the federal government for violating the gun statutes, that’s what the courts are for. All the governor has to do is walk to the Attorney General’s office and ask to join those actions,” Nicholas said.
Nicholas also objected to personal attacks on legislators whom he felt took centrist positions on the gun bills. “Fair debate was being stifled and the effort was to influence people to make decisions that were not the best interest of our constituents,” he said.
Pro-gun lobbyists must gather broad support and build relationships with lawmakers if they wish to succeed in 2014, when budget session rules require a two-thirds vote for bills to gain introduction.
Pro-gun bills relating to hunting will be more likely to succeed than those aimed at expanding the right to bear arms in schools and courtrooms. Second-amendment legislation like HB 104 may have a better chance at passage if the pro-gun lobby makes gains in the next election.
Before the session:
Gov. Matt Mead asked the legislature to have an open, public debate on the optional expansion of Medicaid. The Department of Health study said optional expansion could result in a $47 million savings to the state, plus $737 million in federal funds flowing to the state between 2014 and 2020 (see chart).
How it turned out:
The legislature declined to take up the optional Medicaid expansion, citing concerns that the federal government wouldn’t be able to meet its fiscal commitments.
Department of Health leadership suggested expanding Medicaid while funds are available, and withdrawing the support if the money disappears. Lawmakers rejected that approach on the premise that it is immoral to end a public program for a needy population after help has been provided.
In other actions, the legislature passed a Medicaid reform bill, and a law providing for study of health insurance exchanges.
The legislature may take another look at the optional expansion of Medicaid in the 2014 session, while continuing to study health insurance exchanges. The Joint Labor Health and Social Services Interim Committee will monitor the effect of the Affordable Care Act on the state.
Before the session:
Just before the session tension between the legislature and Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill reached a breaking point because of conflict over how to implement so-called “accountability measures” in schools.
In the 2012 session, Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper) introduced a constitutional amendment to change the duties of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, but the measure did not pass.
How it turned out:
On the second day of the session, Joint Education Committee co-chairs Sen. Hank Coe (R-Cody) and Rep. Matt Teeters (R-Lingle) introduced Senate File 104 – Education State Administration. The measure reassigned management of the Department of Education from the Superintendent of Public Instruction to a director appointed by the governor.
The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 20 to 10 in the second week of the session, and earned a House vote of 39 to 20 the following week.
The law went into effect immediately on receiving Gov. Mead’s signature on January 29th. The governor appointed Jim Rose as an interim director, and Superintendent Hill moved out of the Department of Education offices.
Following the transfer of duties from Superintendent Hill, legislators took action on House Bill 91 and House Bill 72, two measures aimed at improving K-12 student performance. For more on that effort, read this WyoFile feature.
Lawmakers also made adjustments to the Hathaway scholarship program by passing House Bill 77-Hathaway Success Curriculum. The measure requires students to take two years of foreign language, arts, music, or vocational science to receive the top level of Hathaway scholarship funding.
The Select Committee on Education Accountability will pursue interim work on designing the statewide education improvement program. The Wyoming Department of Education will work on assigning performance rankings and improvement plans to schools.
BUDGET, FIRES, and HIGHWAYS
Before the session:
Gov. Mead called for 6.5 percent budget cuts in his budget message, while asking lawmakers to quickly build up the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account (LSRA). He suggested growing the LSRA by using coal lease bonuses and diverting severance taxes from the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund.
The governor also asked lawmakers to set aside $60 million for fighting fires and find a permanent funding source to fix shortfalls in the Wyoming Department of Transportation budget.
Separately, the Game and Fish asked for license fee increases to cover projected budget shortfalls.
How it turned out:
The Joint Appropriations Committee didn’t comply with all the governor’s recommendations, but the budget policy disagreements weren’t large.
While the governor vetoed some parts of the budget bill, he also let slide some measures that he disliked. Legislators working on the budget felt free to go their own way on budget ideas they disagreed with, and the governor didn’t push too hard for his own policies.
The budget bill delivered the 6.5 percent cuts to ongoing spending the governor asked for. That didn’t mean the overall budget dropped, since the legislature also chose to boost so-called one-time spending.
In the end, the budget bill cut $61 million from the executive branch and appropriated $139 million, for a net of $78 million in additional spending.
The legislature declined to build up the LSRA according to Mead’s proposals, opting instead to keep severance taxes flowing into the permanent fund. They also diverted coal lease bonuses from the School Capital Construction Account to the Permanent Land Fund. That move will eventually build up a $475 million reserve account that could be used to cover school funding shortfalls should mineral revenues decline. For more information, read this WyoFile feature.
The legislature declined to set aside the full $60 million from the LSRA for fighting fires, choosing instead to provide $30 million from the General Fund plus $5 million from the Landfill Remediation Account. Gov. Mead vetoed that $5 million number from the bill, instead allowing access to the full $30 million in the landfill account.
This returned the amount available for fires to the $60 million, though not from the LSRA as Mead requested.
“There was a little fluctuation on fires and landfills, but the magic pen took care of it, and I’m sure we’re all in agreement now,” Mead joked in his closing remarks to the Senate.
The legislature complied with Gov. Mead’s request to find a better funding source for highways, though their solution of raising the gas tax provided only a portion of the money needed to cover shortfalls.
The 10 cents per gallon increase in the fuel tax will provide about $70 million in new revenue. Only $40 million of that will go to state highways. That’s far short of the $134 million the department says it needs to maintain roads in their current condition.
Finally, the legislature rejected the Game and Fish Department’s request to raise license fees to help cover projected funding shortfalls. The move leaves the G&F with enough funding to pay for operations in the next year, with the potential for cuts looming afterward.
The 6.5 percent cuts seem nominal in the face of $3.3 billion appropriated for the 2013-2014 budget. Yet the cuts put the legislature on a trajectory to arrest and even slightly reverse spending growth on ongoing operations. Even as one-time spending continues to increase, Wyoming will be in good fiscal shape if mineral prices hold.
By choosing not to grow the LSRA as Mead requested, the legislature opted for less flexibility in a crisis, but a stronger growth in permanent savings.
Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper) recommends growing the permanent fund from $5 billion at present to $8 billion by 2018. He said the interest on an $8 billion fund would cover 20 percent of Wyoming’s budget, and help cushion against a future income tax.
If this summer brings as many fires as last year, the $60 million set aside should cover firefighting costs. However, spending the full $60 million would mean depleting the $30 million landfill account. Because Gov. Mead and lawmakers agree that fixing leaking landfills to protect the state’s groundwater is a priority, they would then have to look to replenishing the landfill account next year.
In the interim, lawmakers will take a close look at spending for the G&F and highways, and perhaps propose new funding measures in 2014.
Finally, if Wyoming’s investments generate significant capital gains this spring, those revenues will be placed in the new Strategic Investments and Projects Account, which will be used for one-time projects. This seems to have relieved tensions between Gov. Mead and the legislature over the appropriation of capital gains outside of the normal budgeting process.
Before the session:
Lobbying groups on the left and the right worked with legislators to draft the first major round of social issues bills since the 2011 General Session. Democrats announced plans for bills on civil unions, and employment non-discrimination.
How it turned out:
Despite a significant influx of conservative legislators after the 2012 election, Wyoming’s libertarian approach to social issues maintained its status quo.
Conservative social issues bills relating to abortion and bible classes in schools did not win passage. Neither did bills relating to marriage and work equality.
However, marriage equality proponents felt they set a new high-water mark for advancing their legislation by having two bills make it out of committee.
House Bill 168 to create domestic partnerships passed out of the House Corporations committee by 7 to 2 then got a full debate on the House floor before dying by a vote of 25 in favor and 34 opposed.
Senate File 131 would have made it illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) introduced the bill, which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee 4 to 1, before dying on a Senate floor vote by 13 in favor and 17 opposed.
House Bill 169 aimed at changing the definition of marriage to two natural persons, rather than a man and a woman. That bill failed to make it out of the House Corporations Committee by a vote of 4 to 5.
Interestingly, traditional marriage proponents did not introduce a defense of marriage proposal this year.
The only pro-life bill this year was House Bill 97, which would have outlawed abortions after detection of a fetal heartbeat. That bill died in the House Labor committee on a vote of 4 in favor and 5 opposed.
The only major change on the social issues front came with the surprise passage of a House Bill 77 to create a state lottery.
For decades Wyoming has rejected every lottery proposal. However, the balance tipped when lawmakers heard from constituents after the surge in Powerball ticket sales from the $587 million jackpot last November. Many residents drove out of state to purchase lottery tickets.
In the upcoming sessions, legislation for civil unions may continue to make slow progress as national public opinion shifts in favor of marriage equality. Full-scale recognition of same-sex marriage is not likely to pass any time soon.
Conservative social bills probably won’t make a large showing in the 2014 budget session, but may reappear in 2015 as freshman members of the House gain more experience and clout.
In general, debate over social issues will continue, particularly within the conservative and libertarian branches of Wyoming’s Republican Party.
— Gregory Nickerson is the government and policy reporter for WyoFile. Originally from Big Horn, he holds an MA in history from the University of Wyoming and currently lives in Laramie.
For information on how to contact your legislator during the session, click here.
If you enjoyed this story and would like to see more quality Wyoming journalism, please consider supporting WyoFile: a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting on Wyoming’s people, places and policy.