Gov. Mead and legislative leaders offer positions on issuesBy Gregory Nickerson January 9, 2013
Gov. Matt Mead delivered a state of the state address Wednesday morning that largely maintained the policy positions he presented over the past few months. In a press conference held in the afternoon, legislative leaders didn’t stray far from the positions offered by Mead.
Lawmakers from both parties seemed to agree that fiscal prudence is in order, though they differed on whether Medicaid expansion would help or hurt the budget.
State of the state
Mead began his address by introducing a number of distinguished guests, and then declaring Wyoming to be in a strong position.
On the issue of healthcare reform, the governor didn’t take a firm stand on whether or not to pursue an optional expansion to the state’s Medicaid program. Instead he expects the legislature to address the Medicaid question and decide what option is best for Wyoming. However, Mead did recommend a $100,000 appropriation for studying the optional Medicaid expansion along with starting a state healthcare exchange.
On the issue of increasing the gas tax, Mead said the legislature needs to find a way to stop using the General Fund to cover the cost of road maintenance. He voiced his support for increasing the gas tax, or using a portion of severance taxes to cover road maintenance. The gas tax would provide about $70 million in revenue, not enough to cover the $135 million WyDOT says it needs to keep highways in good shape.
Mead urged the legislature to move beyond its recent power struggles with the Department of Education, saying, “We are mired down with disputes that are not necessary.”
In a press conference after his address, Mead said legislative efforts to “siphon off” duties of the Department of Education are “not workable.” Legislators need to take an all or nothing approach to letting the Department of Education do its job, he added.
A study last summer showed that investments in school buildings and budgets haven’t boosted the performance of Wyoming’s educational system. Mead urged lawmakers stop fighting with the Department of Education and use this session to get back on track with education reform.
For video of the address, click here.
Positions of legislative leadership
Following Mead’s address and press conference, leaders from the House and Senate held a press conference presenting their priorities for the session.
Speaker of the House Tom Lubnau (R-Gillette) said Wyoming needs to look seriously at possibilities of exporting coal and natural gas to Asia, which could help improve the state’s fiscal picture given lackluster domestic prices for minerals.
Senate Minority Leader Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) said he was excited to hear that the governor supports the gas tax. He also pointed to the economic benefits of implementing the optional Medicaid expansion, which a state Department of Health study shows could save the state $50 million, versus an increased cost of $100 million if only the mandatory Medicaid expansion were implemented. The state should look closely at the potential economic benefits of expansion, particularly in the era of flattening revenues, Rothfuss said. (For more on Medicaid expansion read Ron Feemster’s WyoFile feature published this week.)
House Minority Leader Mary Throne (D-Cheyenne) said Democrats are ready to move forward with the optional Medicaid expansion. In addition to benefiting the state budget and saving patients from going into bankruptcy, Throne said the expansion could also help hospitals reduce the cost of caring for patients who do not pay.
House Majority Floor Leader Kermit Brown (R-Laramie) disagreed with Rothfuss and Throne that the optional expansion makes sense. He said it could incur a $700 million liability that the state would have to cover if the federal government were unable to meet its Medicaid obligations.
Long-term fiscal concerns continued to hold the attention of Senate Majority Floor Leader Phil Nicholas (R-Laramie), who recently stepped down from his 10-year role as Senate Chairman of the Joint Appropriations Committee. He compared Wyoming’s current fiscal situation with the revenue plateau of between 1986-2000, when the state used up its savings from the early 1980s.
Nicholas said cutting costs now and building up a $3 billion cushion in the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account could help prevent the implementation of new taxes if mineral revenues continue to flat-line for the next 10 years.
Adding to savings could also prevent the drops in salaries and deferred investment in facilities and infrastructure that marked the state in the 1990s.
Nicholas pointed to the Tax 2000 study as a landmark document that shapes his thinking. “It’s time to dust off the Tax 20oo report. Those lessons learned should be applied as we move forward,” Nicholas said. He recommends that new members of the legislature read the study.
Gregory Nickerson is the government and policy reporter for WyoFile. Contact him at email@example.com.