It’s not good to gloat over any political victory. It’s considered poor sportsmanship and can result in bad karma.

But today, I can’t help it. Wins in the U.S. Supreme Court on two vital issues last week made it very satisfying to be a progressive, and that’s so rare in Wyoming it’s a cause for celebration.

It’s also a significant reward for having listened ad nauseam to GOP state legislators confidently predict the imminent demise of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). They should be grateful the Supreme Court didn’t rule the way they wanted it to in the latest challenge, King V. Burwell, because about 17,000 Wyomingites would have lost their federal health insurance subsidies. Republican lawmakers would have been exposed as having no alternative plan to prevent what would have been an economic catastrophe for these individuals and families.

Conservative state lawmakers expected the high court would buy an incredibly weak argument that some conflicting language in what they derisively call “Obamacare” would be its death knell. Likewise, they figured right-wing justices would successfully rule against marriage equality and allow states to ban same-sex marriage.

Both are landmark cases. Legalizing gay marriage in the U.S. is the result of an unexpected, dramatic shift in public opinion that had previously allowed many Republicans to use it as a social wedge issue. But no more. The Supreme Court’s earlier rejection of the Defense of Marriage Act’s protection of “traditional” unions and sweeping lower court rulings throwing out state bans should have been a clue to conservatives their ability to scare voters that same-sex marriage would come to an inevitable end.

A majority of Americans who love gay family members and care for friends who have come out of the closet turned the tide. Once enough people realized we have victimized an entire group solely because of sexual orientation — which holds absolutely no threat to any heterosexual marriage — the only thing conservatives had to rally the troops was religious intolerance.

In the House last March, the most extreme members made the shameful argument that people’s religious beliefs trump the ability of the LGBT community to be protected from work discrimination. They won that argument, but both Republicans and Democrats were appalled that a majority in the House supported the notion people have an inherent right to discriminate against anyone they want to because they live by a different religious doctrine.

With the Supreme Court’s second ruling preserving the ACA, the reasons conservatives have repeatedly fought the law crumble. Whether that results in the much-needed expansion of Medicaid remains to be seen, but I am suddenly optimistic about its chances in the wake of so much judicial common sense.

Since the ACA passed five years ago, opponents have hid behind crackpot arguments that the reformed system would wreak havoc on Americans’ ability to make their own health care decisions without massive government interference. When many in Wyoming and other red states saw Obamacare help millions obtain health insurance and any negative aspects had been grossly exaggerated, support began to increase.

People also realized the governors and lawmakers in Republican-run states had put them at a great disadvantage in obtaining health insurance. Democratic states that readily accepted most elements of the ACA — including Medicaid expansion to add millions of the working poor to the ranks of the insured — are far ahead of states that fought the system tooth-and-nail from the beginning.

In Wyoming, the first action taken by new-Gov. Matt Mead in 2011 was to join nearly two dozen other states in the initial Supreme Court challenge to the ACA. Initially, Gov. Mead and leaders in the Wyoming Legislature thought it preferable to set up a state exchange, underscoring their distaste for federal involvement. But a state exchange never came to fruition, which was of no consequence to Wyoming’s wrongly-positioned political stance — that litigation against the ACA would eventually render the law unconstitutional.

Wyoming had only two companies offer to insure people under the program, and that lack of competition resulted in our state having the highest insurance premiums in the nation under the act.

Meanwhile, Mead opposed Medicaid expansion, even though it would allow an estimated 17,500 of Wyoming’s poorest residents to sign up for subsidized health care. This population fell through the system’s “Medicaid gap” — they made too little money to qualify for the traditional program, but were also ineligible to get the ACA insurance subsidies and tax credits available to others.

In what has to rank as one of the stupidest decisions the Wyoming Legislature has ever made, lawmakers turned down the chance to have the federal government pay the entire cost of Medicaid expansion for the first three years. The feds agreed to subsequently pay no less than 90 percent, and if they didn’t, the state could immediately opt out of the program.

The governor and others maintained the state cannot trust the federal government to keep its word, despite the fact the state has never let that possibility keep it from using federal funds for a host of expenses, from building highways to public education.

A state Department of Health (DOH) report should have clinched passage of expansion by virtue of the projection Wyoming would lose up to $120 million a year in federal funds by not signing up. Meanwhile, the state would have to spend more than $47 million of its own funds if it turned down expansion.

The loss of about $200 million in uncompensated care for Wyoming hospitals did nothing to change opponents’ minds. Lawmakers decided to spend millions more, not receive hundreds of millions in federal funds, and put some hospitals at risk of closing their doors, all while doing zip to help the state’s poorest of the poor receive health care.

Throwing a bone to supporters, Mead and the Legislature allowed DOH to negotiate with the federal Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services for an expansion tailored to Wyoming’s needs. The department came back with exactly what the Legislature requested.

By this time Mead had changed his mind and told legislators they must pass Medicaid expansion, but they blew off his urgent plea. They killed the DOH plan, plus a red herring offered by the chief expansion opponent, Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper). A last-ditch compromise was snuffed out when the House decided it would never get through the Senate.

Among the arguments in the upper chamber was that the Supreme Court would undoubtedly kill Obamacare the second time around, and the Medicaid effort would be for naught. It’s far better to reject expansion, they said, rather than waste time and money putting more people on Medicaid and having to remove them.

When the Supreme Court upheld the ACA subsidies last Thursday, it removed the phony justification legislators used to fight Medicaid expansion. U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) quickly proclaimed the Obamacare battle isn’t over and more legal challenges will be filed, but he knows the program is here to stay. A hundred more House votes to repeal it won’t accomplish a thing except make Boehner continue to look ineffective. He’s used to that, so the speaker may well stay his course.

Meanwhile, Wyoming Republicans don’t have any credible arguments against Medicaid expansion, and Mead’s flip-flop cost them any political cover he could have provided.

Any Legislature that gleefully rejects helping the poverty-stricken sick see a doctor and ensures their early death, then votes to continue allowing discrimination based on sexual orientation, doesn’t care a whit about what the public, the federal government or the Supreme Court thinks.

Judgment day is coming in the form of the 2016 elections, and the knowledge that enough conservative justices joined their liberal colleagues in two remarkable, nation-changing decisions should finally scare conservatives holding elective seats in Wyoming.

Conservatives have immensely enjoyed winning in Wyoming, but they’ve come to take it for granted. Times really are changing, and the smiles worn by progressives today may last longer than anyone thinks.

— 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 WyoFile editor-in-chief Dustin Bleizeffer at dustin@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. On July 6th, 1415, six hundred years ago this a week, Czech priest Jan Hus was burned at the stake for preaching the heretical message that the Catholic Church was more than the clergy, it was the worshipping people as well. By this time the Church was a thousand year old institution spanning much of the European continent, criticized for its practice of bestowing indulgences and not very receptive of criticism.

    Fast forward six hundred years to our Federal Government, an institution that at the precocious age of only about two hundred appears to tolerate criticism poorly and administratively punish conservative groups who dare to preach the message of small government.

    The American development of a professional political and bureaucratic classes has predictably led to a group of people who, as people tend to do, support each other in common cause- in this case, government. Just as the Catholic Church of 1415 insisted that the clergy was the Church, many Americans resonate with the concern that the government is not working for the people as it was designed but for itself instead.

    Actions speak louder than words, and when government employees receive pensions unavailable to private sector workers, when government can steal from our children (and their children, and theirs), and when government issues regulations obviously hostile to economic growth and jobs, any average citizen can be forgiven for feeling, at best, stuck in purgatory.

    Picking on the federal government alone is unfair when we remember to include the ranks of city, county and state government employees. Consider Wyoming, where about 26% of the population works for some level of government. If we include their spouses and dependents then half of Wyoming’s citizens can look forward to paying for the other half’s underfunded retirement benefits in just a dozen years.

    Our animal nature predisposes us to act in groups, whether it is a flock of government dependents, a herd of bureaucrats or a pride of politicians. Just as organizations resist change, flocks flee, herds stampede and a pride may be rendered leaderless by a bullet in the form of debt. The irony that the birthplace of Western democracy, Greece, is among the first to demonstrate its senescence is not lost on even the most casual political philosopher.

    The burning question for modern times is whether or not citizens around the world are motivated enough to reform their governments’ spending while artificially living so high in Maslow’s hierarchy of need. Without a global change in governments’ natural behavior to spend more than it takes in, we will be burned by our unwillingness to reign in our debt.

    Maybe this would be more apparent if we used the phrase “crack cocaine” every time we want to say “federal funds”. With all due respect to Kerry Drake’s recent column on expanding Medicaid, as a nation we lack the means to expand. There are over 18 trillion reasons not to increase spending at any level. Contrary to your closing remark, the consequences of such government growth can be seen on the faces of progressives in Greece. They are not smiling. Reality has handed them the bill.

    Unlike Jan Hus who was punished for acting against the status quo, we will suffer by our lack of action.

    John Mansell

  2. Maybe we should be talking about this

    “No matter the court’s ruling, it is time for Democrats and Republicans to deliver what the president promised but ultimately failed to deliver,” Enzi said. “We need a health system that expands coverage and promotes quality patient-centered care, while actually bringing costs down.” Why not start in Wyoming?

    Paul Cook
    Wilson, Wyoming

  3. Kerry, Kerry, Kerry . . . let me count the inaccuracies (Part 1):

    There is not one “GOP state legislator” who “confidently predicted the imminent demise of the Affordable Care Act.” On the contrary: some of us were somewhat worried that SCOTUS would uphold the ACA; some of us were sadly confident that it would be upheld (I was in this camp); and some were just unsure. Further, some legislative Democrats had the same doubts.

    Most “conservative state lawmakers” fully expected Roberts and the others in the majority to fall back on “scrivener’s error” and “congressional intent.” And, we were right. Disappointed in some cases, to be sure, but right. You have misread us, and ignorantly and hatefully mischaracterized us – as usual.

    Debates on Medicaid expansion in the Wyoming legislature usually included a “wait and see” provision. There was zero certainty of the ACA’s rejection or affirmation. You are certainly not a keen observer of our legislature.

    Your use of the term “crackpot arguments” is utterly offensive and intolerant of those with viewpoints, and inconvenient facts based on the experience of other states, that are different from yours. Well, I guess when you are out of the media mainstream, you get to take some liberties as you pander to a small progressive base. Wyoming’s legislators have many “credible arguments” against Medicaid expansion. I know you didn’t sleep through the last three sessions, so I can only assume you choose to ignore honest, facts-based arguments against expansion.

    The “$200 million in uncompensated care for Wyoming hospitals” is a totally discredited number. Uncompensated hospital COSTS are less than half of that, and the legislature, in its last session, attempted to compensate our hospitals for some of that. (We tried, but got less than a golf course irrigation system, or a swimming pool repair fund).

    Your statement that the “legislature gleefully rejects helping the poverty stricken see a doctor” ensuring “their early death” is inaccurate, sophomoric hyperbole and only serves to remind us why you are not of the mainstream media. The facts are: the truly “poverty stricken” already qualify for standard Medicaid; access to medical care is guaranteed under EMTALA as well as the common practices of our community hospitals (explaining rising charity care costs); “early deaths” (completely unsubstantiated by you), if they exist, probably have nothing to do with having insurance or not, Medicaid or otherwise, since health care is generally available and compassionately provided.

    Using phrases like “stupidest decisions the Wyoming Legislature has ever made,” besides being downright mean, displays that you don’t know the facts – our DoH “opt-out” trigger was actually rejected by CMS. But, I think you know that – it simply doesn’t suit your thesis.

    I do not think your gloating jeopardizes your karma. My experience is that simple gloating usually results only in a broken fingernail. It’s your total ignorance of the facts, the misrepresentation of the facts you acknowledge and the nasty dissing and sheer intolerance of good legislators with whom you disagree is what’s going to ensure you come back as a mosquito.

    Marti Halverson

  4. Rightwing politicians should take notice of the progressive shift in the U.S. I for One will be happy to see you guys out

    Jerry Carroll