Sometimes I fantasize about what the Wyoming Legislature would be like if people who live in poverty — like those who occupy corner offices — had an army of lobbyists to advocate for them. 

The kind of lobbying firepower that ensures corporate income tax bills die without lawmakers even taking a vote probably still wouldn’t result in a slew of legislation to help the neediest. Those who struggle to survive simply aren’t respected by their lawmakers here. At this point in the 2020 session, though, I’d be happy with just a couple legislative victories on behalf of the impoverished.

A prime candidate is House Bill 139 – Tax refund to elderly and disabled. This worthy program started in 1975, but lawmakers eliminated it in 2016, in response to the sharp decline in state revenues from the energy industry’s downturn.

Until four years ago, the program had a biennial budget of $8.2 million. This “13th” monthly check provided much-needed relief at the end of the year to extremely low-income people who could use it to buy food, medicine, heat, other necessities and perhaps a Christmas gift or two.

House Bill 139 would revive the tax refund program, but at a much lower level: $2.5 million for the 2021-22 biennium. Its sponsor, Rep. Tim Hallinan (R-Gillette), halved the funding proposed in his failed 2019 version of the measure, which also budgeted $2.5 million but would have spent it in one year.

The current bill, which passed the House 42-16, would at least provide minimal help for the state’s poorest residents. Individuals and couples 65 or older could qualify, as could those who are disabled and over 18, depending on their income.

A single person making $7,500 a year would receive $700. The refund would be proportionately reduced as income rises until zeroing out at $13,000 per year.

A couple making $12,000 annually would receive the maximum benefit, $800. The amount would also step down to zero at $21,000 per year.

If HB 139 passes, it won’t break the state’s piggy bank. It represents a tiny fraction of the general fund budget, but it could do a lot of good for the less fortunate among us.

Unfortunately, the bill is far from a sure thing in the Senate, which killed the 2019 version by a 10-16 vote. Since the same people still occupy those seats, it would take a significant lobbying effort to reverse that result.

Who will speak on behalf of the needy? They’re not organized and don’t vote as a bloc, so they have little influence on the Legislature. It’s up to the rest of us who recognize — unlike many legislators who pay lip service to giving low-income residents a “helping hand” — that this is something our fellow citizens desperately need to get by.

Someone on Social Security disability makes $738 per month, or $8,856 annually. Are there legislators who seriously believe that someone can earn so little and still be able to pay for housing, utilities, gas, food, medicine and any other necessities?

Yes, the state does provide a social services “safety net” that lawmakers can use to claim the needs of the poor are being met. But one must only look at the cuts the Trump administration has proposed in food stamps and other federal programs to realize that the net is fraying.

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The only House member who spoke against HB 139 was Rep. Lloyd Larsen (R-Lander). “I appreciate the generosity,” he said. “I know I am Simon Legree, but this is not a tax refund, it’s a cash giveaway. It’s bringing back money to a program that this legislative body eliminated.”

When the governor’s office forced the Department of Health to prioritize its programs in 2016, Larsen said, it put the tax refund for the elderly and disabled way down the list.

But there was reason for that, as Minority Floor Leader Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie) reminded the chamber. The department had to first identify programs that were constitutionally or statutorily mandated. Next, programs that receive federal funds were given priority status if they required a state match.

A program doesn’t survive in state government for 41 years if it doesn’t fulfill a need. Just because Rep. Legree — excuse me, Rep. Larsen — urged the House to “stay the course” doesn’t mean the tax refund for the elderly and disabled should be forever cast into oblivion.

If the Legislature never changed its mind about anything, what would happen to all those tax breaks for the fossil fuels industry that many lawmakers like to vote for even after they’ve set the tax rates?

Another bill making its way to the Senate after being passed by the House is House Bill 112 – Wyoming retirement plants-adjustments sponsored by Rep. Bill Henderson (R-Cheyenne). It would give a modest, one-time amount to state retirees who haven’t had a cost-of-living adjustment since 2008.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics consumer price index, prices have increased by nearly 20% since 2008. When it stripped the annual cost-of-living adjustment in 2008, the Legislature decided the state would not authorize another one until the retirement fund is fully solvent.

That’s not likely to happen for another 30 years, according to several HB 112 supporters.

I realize the vast majority of state retirees are not poor under federal income standards, but many left their employment decades ago, when they were not making much money. Their fixed retirement earnings are relatively low compared to more recent retirees. House Speaker Steve Harshman (R-Casper) said out of the 31,000 state retirees, 700 are in their 90s and 14 are over 100.

Rep. John Freeman (D-Green River) told the House that when he was a teacher, school district secretaries one year received a whopping 2-cents-per-hour raise. These are the low-paid state retirement enrollees who need Wyoming’s help in what are supposed to be their golden years.

Several House members, however, denounced the state retirement adjustments, ranting about how unjust the bill is.

“I don’t want to come off as this heartless grinch, but how often are we going to do this?” asked Rep. Scott Clem (R-Gillette). “Will they get a cost-of-living adjustment next year? Five years? In 10 years?

“I’m just wondering where it ends,” he added. “What happened to personal responsibility?”

Clem and Rep. Don Burkhart (R-Rawlins) effectively said retirees shouldn’t come begging the state for money because they knew what they were getting into when they dedicated their careers to low-paid civil service. “If you want more money in retirement, you’re going to have to make it,” Burkhart said.

You would think the money was coming out of their own pockets.

As satisfying as it would be to hold them upside-down and shake those dollars loose, I have a better idea: Why doesn’t the public rise up and tell them that it’s cruel to erode the purchasing power of former state employees for this long and tell them they have to wait three more decades before they see an increase?

The best thing the Legislature could do to help low-income residents is to expand Medicaid and pass a living wage bill. But I know those are pipedreams in this state.

HB 112 and HB 139, however, are alive in the Senate. I hope a majority of the 30 members will do the right thing and pass them.

There are many famous cheapskates  — the aforementioned Legree, the Grinch and Ebenezer Scrooge leap to mind.

Senators who vote against either of these bills won’t like to join the ranks of such fictional villains, but they will have earned the comparisons — especially since the people who will be affected by their decisions are real. 

Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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