(Opinion) — Many incumbent legislators campaign for re-election on what they’ve supposedly done “for the people.” Voters should focus more on what they’ve done “to the people.” Especially poor people.

Whenever I get riled up about how the majority of state lawmakers continually target low-income residents when they try to balance the state budget, I keep coming back to a news report by Bob Beck of Wyoming Public Radio as this year’s budget session wrapped up. It provided some informative yet disturbing insights into how lawmakers looked back on what they did. It shone the spotlight on one of the major differences between how Republican and Democratic legislators see their jobs.

Rep. Tim Stubson (R-Casper) tried to explain why critics who charged that the Legislature approved capital construction projects at the expense of services for people was off-base.

“I think this budget is all about people and what it’s about is sustaining over the long-term our services to people,” he said.

Wrong. As a whole, the GOP-led Legislature did not only cut programs that benefited the poor, elderly and disabled, it did so purposefully and with a certain amount of glee. It sought out both effective long-time programs to ax and rejected new proposals aimed at improving the lives of thousands of impoverished Wyoming citizens.

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In a remarkable display of candor, Sen. Jeff Wasserburger (R-Gillette) told Beck why the Legislature really shot down Medicaid expansion for the fourth consecutive year. “The only reason I can think of that we are not taking the [federal] Medicaid money is because we are giving it to poor people,” the senator said. “We would have taken it instantly if it had been for highways, if it had been for the university we would have taken it instantly, if it had been for K-12 schools. We take it all the time.”

In addition to adding about $126 million a year to the Wyoming economy and reducing Medicaid costs by more than $30 million annually, expansion of the program would have helped an estimated 20,000 of the state’s working poor obtain health insurance. It likely wouldn’t have been necessary to end or severely reduce funding for several social services programs if Wyoming had joined the majority of states and expanded Medicaid.

Stubson, who is giving up his House District 56 seat to run for the U.S. House, claims the state’s services to people are what really matter. But as a member of the Joint Appropriations Committee he is the one who made the motion to kill Medicaid expansion yet again.

Minority House Leader Rep. Mary Throne (D-Cheyenne) told Beck that everyday people will be the ones who pay the price for such legislative malpractice. She and the other 12 Democrats in the 90-member Legislature unanimously voted against the state’s budget bill because of such bone-headed decisions.

“I’m not opposed to cutting programs that don’t work anymore or aren’t needed,” Throne stressed. “But you have to spend some time and think about it so you don’t make any mistakes.”

Making it worse

When legislators did take their time, though, they often just made their mistakes worse. The JAC cut the governor’s recommended $8.2 million funding in half for the Tax Rebate for the Elderly and Disabled program, then the House wiped it out completely. In 2014, about 6,000 residents got an average refund of $628. To be considered low-income and eligible for the program, individual recipients made less than $17,500 annually; couples earned less than $28,500.

The House rejected an amendment to save the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program, which for several decades has helped the poor pay their utility bills. The JAC also pulled all $2.1 million in state funds for a related program that weatherized the houses of low-income residents so they were more energy efficient and lowered utility costs.

JAC Co-chairman Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper) said the latter was “another program that, while beneficial, is not a top priority.”

“They are all good programs with good intentions,” he said. “But we are just trying to find what we can do and how we can do the most good as we can.”

Gov. Matt Mead recommended $200,000 for Wyoming 2-1-1, a nonprofit program that helps residents get in touch with a range of health and human services agencies from the state, federal government and the private sector. The JAC denied the funding, and amendments in both the House and Senate to restore the money failed.

Let’s see — that’s Medicaid expansion, tax rebates for the elderly and disabled, utility bill help, energy assistance and social service agency referrals… Any other programs to help low-income residents that legislators could wipe out?

Yes! The eight Family Literacy Centers around the state also had to close their doors when the Legislature rejected a $3.2 million appropriation. The program’s mission was to increase educational opportunities for low-income families. The move put the program’s 37 employees out of work.

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Rep. Andy Schwartz (D-Jackson), who tried but failed to get the money put back in the budget, told Wyoming Tribune Eagle reporter Trevor Brown that the literacy program “gives the children a higher likelihood of success in school and when they leave school for the workplace. And for adults, it enables them to participate more fully economically, socially and politically in Wyoming.”

It’s an odd response by many conservative legislators to the problems they complain about the most. They say they want people who speak another language to learn English and be productive American citizens, but they killed the state program that specifically tried to accomplish that goal.

Shiftless people on welfare

Conservatives come unglued at the thought of shiftless people on welfare relying on everyone else to pay their bills while they supposedly use the state’s money to buy drugs. Yet the Wyoming Department of Health has told the Legislature since 2012 that expanding Medicaid would reduce the number of people who need public assistance. Expansion would also help reduce the nearly $200 million in uncompensated care Wyoming hospitals have to eat every year. They pass that on to patients who can afford to pay.

When you consider some of the “high priority” expenditures the Legislature did approve this year, it’s understandable why advocates for some of Wyoming’s most vulnerable citizens get irate. Particularly offensive was the approval of $8 million to help the University of Wyoming’s “athletic competitiveness” effort to recruit better athletes and teach them, among other things, better nutrition.

UW officials, coaches and the Cowboy Joe Club were apoplectic when people — including some of the university’s sports fans — thought it was crazy to use state money for this purpose when the Legislature was cutting $45 million from K-12 education, facing a $619 million shortfall and slashing some of the aforementioned social service programs. But they had nothing to fear — legislators ignored the demands for fiscal sanity and quickly approved the $8 million expenditure.

Rep. Charles Pelkey (D-Laramie) said he couldn’t vote for the boost to athletics funds even though UW is in his hometown. He told Laura Hancock of the Casper Star-Tribune, “I could not imagine standing in front of a room full of constituents and say, ‘Yes, I know we cut the education budget. I know we trimmed social services. I know that key faculty are leaving for better pay at other universities. I know that we are replacing tenure-track positions with poorly paid adjuncts and I know that a significant number of UW support staff are eligible for food stamps … but, hey, we went to the Fiesta Bowl!'”

For those who haven’t been paying attention to the Legislature’s outrageous spending decisions, please consider this column an attempt to show you that lawmakers keep giving the poor the short end of the stick and whacking them with it for good measure. For those who have followed this untenable madness, please consider it a reminder and a call to action to vote this year and push, pull or drag some of your friends to the ballot box.

“Stupid is as stupid does” may be a great line from the film “Forrest Gump,” but it shouldn’t be the motto of the people we elect to represent us.

— Columns are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters. WyoFile welcomes guest columns and op-ed pieces from all points of view. If you’d like to write a guest column for WyoFile, please contact editor@wyofile.com.

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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  1. Kerry continues to write columns that inform and educate. Years ago I told him to run for office, but hopefully his words will make people stop and think. This is a “Big Picture” issue. Clearly, the Wyoming Legislature took the small minds approach to this matter instead of listening to Charles Pelkey!

    1. Mr. Yates,
      Thank you so much for your kind words. I have found my time in the Legislature to be both fascinating and immensely frustrating. I love the back-and-forth, the exchange of ideas and the ability to stand up and speak your mind when it might actually make a difference. Nonetheless, as one of only nine Democrats in a 60-member House, I wish we had more of a balance. This Budget Session was downright surreal. We saw cuts to programs that directly helped people across Wyoming, because “these are tight times and we need to cut spending,” while at the same time the Legislature spent ungodly sums on buildings, the Capitol reconstruction project and the aforementioned $8 million for a sports nutrition program for the UW athletic department.

      I admit we are seeing significant declines in revenue. However, past legislatures have put money aside for just such a situation. Nonetheless, we haven’t tapped the rainy day fund and we’re even adding to it at a rate twice the statutory requirement.

      I am running again, but darn it, my colleagues and I sure could use some company.

  2. You could of changed the states named to Missouri as our legislature is about cutting budgets everywhere but what gets cut is any social program to help the poor and seniors on fixed incomes, yet at the same time give out huge tax breaks to large corporations leaving state budgets lacking. Tells you something of Repulican values, let’s pay out millions across the country to try catching a person using drugs in our social program to save a few thousands dollars. The math is wrong, want depressed hopeless people who are poor and homeless spend those millions on treatments and job training to bring them out of their addictions quit wasting our money, oh I’m sorry I forgot this was about Wyoming not Missouri, where you have a house and Senate controlled by Repulucans, but wait it gets worse have you seen what their Platform will do for the poor and seniors and our Public lands and NATIONAL PARKS

  3. Good article, Kerry. The most disappointing thing for me is the failure on Medicaid. The second most disappointing thing is the characterization of people who are being denied services. Our “poor” include laid-off miners, retail and service sector workers, struggling farmers, ranchers and seasonal workers. They include skilled workers over-50 who’ve lost careers but are are too young for Medicare. They include most residents of the Wind River Indian Reservation and ordinary working families. Caring for less fortunate citizens who need a temporary safety net shouldn’t be this divisive, particularly when we have time limits and work requirements on most all our welfare programs.

  4. Well, this was a certain eye opener. I was considering a move to Wyoming but I believe I’ll cancel those plans. I don’t care to move to a state who openly disrespects those who aren’t able to afford to live without some help from various programs such as LIHEAP, Medicaid and school programs. Shame on the Republican party of Wyoming… when will the voters wake up and vote for Democrats?

  5. Wyoming poor people are taxed less then the poor in any state in the nation. The average disposable income, especially once adjusted for cost of living, is among the highest in the nation (2ndish), making WY one of the best places in the world to get ahead if you are born into poverty. The government has virtually no debt and 20 billion in savings, thereby making sure that every dollar paid in gets some benefit back, not just being frittered away to interest payments to some big bank in New York. We are blessed with some of the lowest crime rates in the nation which the poor disproportionately benefit from as the rich are generally isolated from such things. Tuition at UW and local community colleges is the lowest in the nation, providing the best opportunities in the nation (world?) to educate yourself. The roads are great, the schools are new, teachers are best paid in the nation, infrastructure (water, sewer, etc) is solid. The coal and mineral companies you love to bash pay approximately 27500$ of the 30,000$ in government services you enjoy yearly.

    I guess if you want to complain about something you can always say the government isn’t doing it all for you. But there is nowhere else on earth where the people collectively (ie the government) have done more to make it so you can do it yourself.

    As a Christian who believes everything belongs to God who gives and takes as he wills, I have no idea why Wyoming is so blessed, but I will forever be thankful for the opportunities provided by this state.

    1. Mr. Casey you have some valid points. Did you know that Wyoming is highest government employment State in the Union. 39.1 percent of Wyoming is rural, most of our small communities are subsidized by the Wyoming State Government. Those so-called mineral companies made triple what they invested in Wyoming. The rich come to Wyoming not to be as you stated isolated, they come to protect their money and buy up cheap land. During my past 65 yrs in Wyoming, I have watched my great State disappear on the ideals of isolation. Really do you truly think what you mentioned honors the poor. Did you know that Laramie is primarily Government. Currently you have one of the lowest employment rates, is that related to private sector jobs of Government? Next Wyoming Gross Domestic Product in Wyoming leads the Nation on governmental employment at 22%. One other note if you’ve been keeping track of our layoffs miners 5,565 roughly, private sector in Government 677 roughly making a rough total of 6,242. Wyoming State Government employees 8, 678 total, so who took the hit the people or government?

      1. I appreciate the dialogue Ken. I know very well how large the government in Wyoming is. That is why it frustrates me so much to hear so much whining when the state starts to cut back. I think we all have to pitch in and give a little and I don’t think it is a bad thing to shrink the government down slightly from say Connecticut sized to New York sized.

        I did not state that the rich came here to be isolated, I said they were isolated (at least more so) from things like crime rates. My point, that I still stand by, is that Wyoming is one of the best places in the world to be poor.

        I agree with you on the general point of the dangers of isolation. Proverbs 18:1 says “One who isolates himself pursues selfish desire”. I am kind of preaching now, but there is nothing but emptiness and loneliness in pursuing your own desires. The end is suicide. one of the biggest problems plaguing our state. Isn’t it crazy? Prettiest place in the world, with the highest disposable income and our number one problem is unhappy people killing themselves.

  6. In the past 14 yrs of political trails, I have never seen such legislative actions as 2016, such miss representation, no discussions, in the house as medicaid expansion was brought to the floor. Wyoming voters must realize the future of Wyoming is not in someone else hands their fate lays directly on their circumstance at the voting booth.

    Wyoming can either be governed and ruled like 2016, or change into representation by electing candidates who truly represent the people of their districts,and the republic of all people within Wyoming. Remember this simple thought, that one voice elected represents your principles the choice is yours’.

    Don’t look at the party title, look at the candidate, for when election primary is over the General election will decide our fate. Just Vote!!!

  7. Drake is right on target…the programs that could help families become self-sustaining have been cut and no thought was given to what constitutes a “rainy day”, probably because there are no guidelines for what the rainy day fund is for, or when it can be spent. I empathize with Drake’s rage.

  8. This is a very good article, thank you Mr. Drake. I am a former resident, gone from Wy over 50 years. I am saddened by this but see it all over the USA.