It’s been a good year for Wyoming Dems
— February 25, 2014
After covering the Legislature for two weeks in Cheyenne, what I’ve taken away is that this is a good year to be a Democrat in Wyoming.
No, not because they’re getting a lot of bills passed – they’re too small in numbers to do that. As House Minority Leader Mary Throne (D-Laramie) said Saturday night at the annual Nellie Tayloe Ross Dinner in Cheyenne, they call themselves the “Dirty Dozen.” Having eight members in the House and four in the Senate means that to get their ideas heard or passed, they have had to become experts in the lost art of compromise.
It’s a good year to be a Democrat because it’s an election year, and after watching 10 days of Republican legislators in action, I have absolutely no idea what issues the majority of them are going to run on this fall. Wyoming GOP legislative candidates have had much success in past elections promoting a conservative agenda focusing on such social issues as opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. Democrats should make their opponents be accountable for their no votes on Medicaid expansion, the minimum wage and early childhood education — all issues that have hurt our state’s poorest citizens.
They can’t run as fiscal conservatives. Not after repeatedly voting against Medicaid expansion. How will they explain rejecting a program that would have saved Wyoming $43 million this year? In addition, by their actions, the state will actually lose $80 million by not expanding Medicaid to include approximately 17,600 low-income, childless adults who not only can’t benefit from the program, they can’t qualify for Affordable Care Act subsidies to gain health insurance.
What’s going to be their slogan to explain that horrendous outcome? “We Sure Showed the Feds” and “We Know How to Lose-Lose” don’t exactly inspire confidence on bumper stickers.
After killing four bills and two budget bill amendments, Republicans in the Legislature finally passed something related to Medicaid expansion on Friday when the House approved an amendment that authorizes the governor, health director and insurance commissioner to negotiate with federal officials for a Medicaid waiver demonstration project in Wyoming.
That action provides a glimmer of hope that expansion will eventually happen, but only if what our executive trio agrees to passes muster in 2015 when legislators vote on the deal. But even that small victory could be derailed if the House-Senate budget bill compromise doesn’t keep the House’s amendment. If the authority to negotiate stays in and an acceptable program is crafted, it still means that the thousands of poor Wyoming residents who could have had Medicaid benefits immediately will have to wait at least a year to sign up. Some of them won’t be alive.
Next up is an increase in the state minimum wage, which is long overdue. A bill to raise it from the $5.15 now on the books to $9 an hour was sponsored by Democratic Rep. James Byrd of Cheyenne. He knew it wasn’t going to pass, but the legislator also realized it’s a popular issue. At least one poll DFM Research did late last year in Wyoming showed 69 percent support for an increase.
It takes 40 votes in the 60-member House during a budget session to introduce a bill. If GOP lawmakers were in touch with how the people of Wyoming feel about this issue, Byrd’s measure could have easily won introduction, been debated and passed. Instead, it drew only nine votes for introduction. Only one Republican, Rep. Mike Madden of Buffalo, voted with the eight Democrats on a bill that, according to the Economic Policy Institute, would have given at least 35,000 Wyoming workers a raise.
An employee in the state who receives the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour makes less than $15,000 a year, which means he or she is eligible for food stamps and other public assistance. These jobs usually don’t come with any benefits, including health insurance, and often all of the adults in a family have to work one or more jobs each to eke out a living. There is no evidence that an increase in the minimum wage would increase unemployment, but Republicans in Wyoming and everywhere else trot out that same tired line whenever the question of paying people anything close to a livable wage comes up.
We all know that some Republicans in Congress have done their best to tank the economy for their political benefit while a Democrat is in the White House, but how will the state GOP explain not helping hard-working people in Wyoming?
As irrational as these votes against Medicaid expansion and a minimum wage hike are, voting against early childhood education is downright crazy – especially for a political party that is always talking about how children our are future and the importance of a strong education. House Republicans shot down a bill sponsored by the House Education Committee that would have helped the four state agencies that have early childhood education programs better communicate, along with a $1 million grant program to enhance such programs throughout the state.
Rep. Kendell Kroeker (R-Evansville) made a totally ridiculous argument against the bill when he said, “I just think we need to make it clear that parents are in charge of their children’s education, not the government.”
That was a two-fer, in the GOP’s eyes; Not only did Kroeker get to bash big government, he got to indirectly stick it to disadvantaged parents who have so little concern for their children that they actually put them in preschool programs where they learn things that will help them when they get to public school. The sad thing is, it worked.
The Senate got to shoot down its own early childhood education proposal when Sen. James Anderson (R-Glenrock) offered a third reading amendment to the budget bill that would have added the $1 million grant program that the House nixed. Fellow Republican after fellow Republican stood up to say that gee, we really hate to vote against this, but we shouldn’t be passing a new program in the budget, and besides, if we have better teachers, they will be able to help these disadvantaged kids catch up. So they voted against the amendment, 7-20. And (you probably saw this coming) they voted to decrease the size of the pay hike for public school teachers.
On these three issues alone, Democrats should be able to pick up state legislative seats if they hammer home the notion during the campaign that voting to deny poor people health care, stiffing the working poor on a much-needed raise and not helping kids prepare adequately for public school and to get ahead are not Wyoming values.
This could be a record year for Democratic gains in the Legislature, but first the party has to have candidates to run against Republicans who keep getting re-elected because they are unopposed. With so much to exploit in the Republicans’ voting record, there should be no shortage of Democrats willing to toss their hats in the ring, to the point where maybe we’ll even see more contested Democratic primaries. That competition will be good, too.
And while Republicans’ voting records have made this a good year for all Wyoming Democrats, the one who will probably have the best year of all will be whoever takes on newly appointed Republican Rep. Troy Mader of Gillette, who was picked to fill the seat of the late Sue Wallis.
Even though Wallis was conservative on many issues, she was also pro-choice, favored legalization of marijuana and same-sex marriage and still managed to be elected by her constituents three times. What do you think the voters of her district will think of candidate Mader, the author of a 1987 anti-gay screed who seems intent on destroying her legacy?
Here’s my advice to Mader, based on his performance in the Legislature so far: Don’t even bother wasting your candidate filing fee.
— Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake is editor-in-chief of the nonprofit, online community newspaper, The Casper Citizen. He also moderates the WyPols blog.
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