(Opinion) — As a progressive, I’m often disappointed by the fiscal decisions conservative Wyoming lawmakers make. But at the end of the 2016 budget session my typical dismay has been replaced by anger.
I’m not upset about a single issue that was foolishly bungled, like the failure to approve Medicaid expansion for the fourth consecutive year. It was an exceptionally terrible decision, but certainly not unexpected. No, what has me irked is the Legislature’s determination to deep-six Gov. Matt Mead’s well-designed budget plan in total, and replace it with harmful education cuts and the complete defunding of programs that have benefited the public for years. Such action was entirely unnecessary.
Like many observers, I’m baffled about why the Republican leadership of both the House and Senate decided a budget proposed by a chief executive from their own party was dead on arrival.
Do they feel betrayed by Mead, who led the charge against Medicaid expansion for the first two years but decided to back it last year and in 2016? Mead’s change of position actually offered cover for Republican lawmakers worried that voters back home might react negatively to their flip-flop on the issue. They could have blamed Mead for pushing to accept the federal funds and said they were following his lead.
The budget Mead recommended last December was predicated on Wyoming ending its opposition to Medicaid expansion and accepting about $260 million in federal funds over the next two years. The move would have helped make up the budget shortfall the state is experiencing due to lower mineral prices and subsequently reduced tax revenues.
The Wyoming Health Department estimated Medicaid expansion would have also saved the state about $33 million a year due to lower operating expenses. An estimated 20,000 low-income adults could have had access to affordable, quality health care. That would have reduced the number of Wyomingites who rely on expensive emergency room visits, and the public doll that ultimately ends-up paying for them. Federal funding would have helped several small community hospitals in the state — now drowning in debt from uncompensated care — to keep their doors open.
By rejecting Medicaid expansion, legislators had to look elsewhere for the funds state government lost. Lawmakers did what they often do when they make budget cuts: trim programs that have been successful but help poor people who don’t have lobbyists. This time is was the Family Literacy Center program and the Tax Rebate for the Elderly and Disabled.
Both programs have helped thousands of Wyomingites over the years, and there was no reason for them to wind up on the chopping block. But both were completely defunded — $8.3 million for the property tax rebates and $2.8 million for literacy centers. The Legislature also slashed $2.2 million from a program to help residents with their heating and energy bills.
Together that’s a shameful $13.3 million war on the poor in Wyoming. But the losses from those three programs only add-up to about one-third of the damage done to K-12 spending.
Mead’s budget contained no cuts to education.The Joint Appropriations Committee decided, however, that Wyoming could afford to reduce public school spending by $46 million. The House and Senate compromised by cutting a total of $35 million. Most school districts around the state predict the budget reductions will significantly affect their operations.
The Legislature still wasn’t done whacking the 2016-17 state budget. Mead proposed giving local governments $123 million, and told lawmakers he wouldn’t object if they gave cities, towns and counties more. Instead the JAC cut the appropriation to $90 million, about half of what local governments now receive from the state. A conference committee brought the figure up to $105 million, but that was the ceiling for short-sighted legislators. Apparently they don’t understand that helping our communities grow is one of the best ways we can improve the state’s economy.
Mead’s budget plan would have borrowed $488 million from the state’s $1.8 billion “rainy day fund.” He said the money could have been paid back by 2018 using funds that would normally be deposited into other savings accounts. The move would have left $97 million to “shore up” any holes in the budget. The conservative GOP majority, though, decided to take only about $180 million from the rainy day fund.
It’s difficult to believe any legislator could pack up his or her belongings and leave Cheyenne feeling good about what they did, but Wyoming Public Media’s Bob Beck found one in Rep. Tim Stubson (R-Casper). He won’t be back; Stubson is running to replace GOP Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis in Wyoming’s lone U.S. House seat. Stubson, who made the JAC motion to reject Medicaid expansion, told Beck that the Legislature’s job isn’t complete. Maybe there weren’t enough cuts to social services or education to suit him.
Stubson maintained the state budget “gets us in a position to deal with where we are economically going forward. And I think it was a balanced way to do it, you know all savings, it was not all cutting, it was a balance of those two things.” He has a point. He and his colleagues didn’t just make cuts. They also threw away hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds.
“I think this budget is all about people and what it’s about is sustaining over the long term our services to people,” Stubson told WPM. But not, it seems, if you’re trying to learn how to read, or a senior or disabled person who needs help paying her property taxes and other expenses.
My vote for the best assessment of the Legislature’s work this year came from Sen. Jeff Wasserburger (R-Gillette). He took a long break between serving in the House and his current position in the Senate. Maybe the time away gave him a perspective and sensitivity other lawmakers lack. “There were a lot of things that we did that personally I have issues with,” he told Beck, adding the one that bothered him the most was defunding the literacy program. It was especially tough when the senator learned that the budget cut cost 34 people their jobs.
Wasserburger was also upset about the rejection of Medicaid expansion, because he thinks several programs would not have been cut if Wyoming had just accepted the federal money. In one of the most honest sentiments I’ve ever heard from a Wyoming legislator, Wasserburger told WPM’s Beck: “The only reason I can think of that we are not taking the Medicaid money is because we are giving it to poor people. 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.”
I’m still angry about the GOP’s callous treatment of the poor, but Wasserburger’s words make me realize that not all Republicans agree with the majority. Mead doesn’t either, and Wasserburger has joined the Legislature’s 13 Democrats (14 percent of the body’s 90 members) in saying how poorly many state lawmakers did their jobs this year. In fact, all of the Democrats protested by voting against the budget bill.
Knowing that helps temper my anger a bit and gives me hope that someday enough voters will realize we can’t stand by and watch legislators treat the poor as third-class citizens.
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