The Wyoming Legislature won’t consider social welfare measures that had small expenditures or none at all after House conservatives swung votes with arguments against growing government during tight fiscal times.
The House chose not to consider bills that would have created a new office of parental counsel and a behavioral health services task force because of such concerns. The body also rejected a measure to make low-income earners pursuing secondary education eligible for some federal benefits.
Of those bills, only House Bill 17 – Parental Counsel and Family Separation, had a significant expenditure attached to it, calling for a roughly $4 million appropriation to hire staff for the new office. The other bills had no discernible impacts or slight ones, according to fiscal impact statements by the Legislative Service Office.
The two-year budget bill the Legislature will likely begin considering this week holds more than $7 billion in state spending across general government and education. The bill allots another $1.7 billion in federal funding. Not all new spending has been doomed by such concerns — lawmakers are proposing more than $48 million in various endeavors to maintain the state’s coal industry, for example.
The body last week also rejected two medicaid expansion measures, but that’s a more politically loaded proposal that has always faced long odds in the Wyoming Legislature.
In contrast, all the social services bills mentioned above but one, House Bill 104 – Public assistance programs, enjoyed the benefit of committee sponsorship. If a topic receives interim committee attention it’s because members of the Legislature deem a problem of significant import for study over the months between legislative sessions. As such, lawmakers usually view bills from committees as well-vetted.
But the House shot down a bill sponsored by the Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Committee creating a task force to examine the state’s mental health, substance abuse and suicide prevention services. Those services have long been considered inadequate.
Opponents like Rep. Garry Piiparinen (R-Evanston) argued the bill created yet “another task force.” They also said the bill would have given too loose of authority to the group, and would have added more to lawmakers’ already full plates.
“We must remember that this is a citizen Legislature,” said Rep. Tim Hallinan (R-Gillette).
House members on both sides of the aisle wonder whether the state’s unsolved fiscal concerns are preventing the Legislature from applying simple fixes to known social problems.
The behavioral task force would have cost $38,000. Such money is a slight investment to study a problem that costs the state money down the line, through prison costs and health programming, proponents argued.
“Just in the Department of Health we spend over $330 million a biennium on mental health,” House Labor Committee chairwoman Sue Wilson (R-Cheyenne) told the chamber.
Dwindling state coffers makes social welfare concerns more acute, not less, Wilson told WyoFile in an interview. “When we have revenue challenges, you can’t afford to not be thoughtful,” she said.
The legislation is also part and parcel of a years-long effort to stem an influx of people into the state’s courts and prison system.
Similar arguments against spending money or expanding government also hindered the Joint Judiciary Committee’s attempts to bolster the Wyoming legal system’s treatment of child custody issues.
“They just generally didn’t like the optics of creating a new state agency during a time of budget downturn,” Rep. Clark Stith (R-Rock Springs) told WyoFile, speaking of his colleagues’ 38-21 vote on House Bill 18 – Office of guardian ad litem.
That bill sought to separate attorneys within the Wyoming Public Defenders’ office who represent wards of the state from the broader agency. The Joint Judiciary Committee-sponsored measure created a new agency — but with no new spending — to address conflict-of-interest concerns relating to the state’s public defenders.
Opponents argued a new agency would lead to creeping bureaucratic growth and an inevitable ask for more funding. Stith, a Judiciary Committee member and lawyer who spoke for the bill on the floor, told WyoFile such concerns were “hypothetical more than real.” The bill fell two votes short of introduction. (After that vote, Sen. R. J. Kost (R-Powell) brought a copy of the bill to the Senate, where it did make introduction.)
The session kicked off with Wyoming Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael K. Davis issuing a warning to lawmakers about an already-stressed judiciary system that may see a heavier caseload if Wyoming’s economic struggles create more poverty in the state.
An overworked judicial system’s load “may increase as families are under stress, unemployment and poverty increase and businesses fail,” Davis said.
The House also killed the bill to create an office of parent counsel and family preservation after conservatives criticized the $4 million price tag and creation of a new government office.
The bill would have created an office to provide legal representation to parents who face losing their kids because of charges of abuse or neglect. Those parents don’t receive any court-appointed counsel.
“If those parents aren’t advised properly right at the start, ground can be lost, mistakes made and children can go into the foster care system forever,” House Judiciary Committee chairman Dan Kirkbride (R-Chugwater) said on the House floor. The bill was sponsored by the Joint Judiciary Committee.
“There’s a lot of savings to be had in the system if you can keep kids out of the foster care system in the longer term,” Kirkbride said. “There’s money to be saved, there’s heartache to be saved, there’s families to be saved and I think most of us are for that.”
Opponents criticized the bureaucratic growth.
“I’m all in favor of keeping families together,” said Rep. Piiparinen (R-Evanston). “But can we afford a $4-5 million bill? More attorneys, another agency … We need to really buckle down and take a look at our state finances.”
But “I don’t think we can afford not to do this,” said House Revenue Committee Chairman Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne). Zwonitzer saw a bigger cost to not strengthening the system, he said.
“Once you miss this opportunity [parents] never get [children] back,” he said. “The cost on our counties and state government over time are monumental … Send this to a committee. Understand this program better.”
The House rejected the bill with 34 ‘no’ votes.
That vote count, however, isn’t necessarily indicative of the bill’s support.
The 34 no votes included five lawmakers who switched their votes after it was clear the bill had not achieved the two-thirds majority it needed. Lawmakers often switch votes on bills considered politically hazardous once it’s clear they don’t have plurality, making some legislation seem less supported on paper than it actually was.
“You got a majority, but it goes down and people go ‘OK flipping my vote,” Speaker of the House Steve Harshman said. “That happens a lot.”
Speaking to reporters on Friday, Harshman pushed back against the suggestion that budget concerns are stymieing problem solving. Instead he criticized the laws governing a budget session. For the second year in a row, Harshman has brought a resolution amending the state’s constitution to change the process.
“Those bills got a majority,” Harshman said when asked about the failed social service legislation. “It’s minority rules.”
The minority bloc on these bills, however, was not Wyoming’s long-suffering Democrats, but instead more hardline conservative Republicans.
House lawmakers gave a majority vote, but not two-thirds, to the guardian ad litem bill, the behavioral health task force and the public assistance bill.
Rules don’t allow lawmakers in a budget session much time to push their measures, either. “You get two minutes to explain it to people,” Harshman told reporters on Friday.
“It’s probably the wildest, fastest thing ever,” he said of the first week of the session.
Other lawmakers blame an election year and the budget session’s two-thirds majority introduction requirement for lack of action on well-known issues.
Moderate Republicans are too worried about primary campaigns to pass bills that shouldn’t be controversial, House Minority Floor Leader Connolly (D-Laramie) said.
“I think it is an inappropriate concern about an upcoming election,” she said. “Are you soft on crime? Are you not fiscally conservative? You just hear too many fears about those kinds of concerns. It’s frustrating.”
Connolly’s House Bill 104 – Public assistance programs failed by one vote to gain a two-thirds majority. The legislation sought to slightly expand state statute that defined who is available for federal benefits. “The number of people it would have served is not many,” Connolly said. The Legislative Service Office determined the bill would have no fiscal impact, according to an estimate. It was simply a focused attempt to update a piece of statute, Connolly said.
Such bills were “tiny investments that bring enormous returns in the future,” she said, “not just in terms of money but in terms of the well being of our communities. That’s what all of those are about.”
Tax cuts not services
One bill to help Wyoming’s needy was popular with conservatives, however. Hallinan brought a bill to revive a property tax refund program for low-income elderly and disabled citizens. It is the third year he’s brought the measure; it failed the two previous times.
“I think there’s an over concern about the budget,” Hallinan told WyoFile. He blamed that sentiment for the bill’s two previous failures. “In a $2.9 billion budget can’t we afford less than 1/10th of 1%?” he asked. The $2.9 billion figure includes annual general government spending, not education.
The refund program was cut when the state’s mineral revenues took a sudden dive in 2016, Hallinan said.
Hallinan managed to squeak House Bill 139 – Tax refund to elderly and disabled into the session with 41 votes. Many of the lawmakers who’d opposed the earlier measures voted in favor of this one, because it addressed the needy by refunding a tax, not spending new money. Hallinan himself voted against the three bills referenced above.
The bill would cost $2.4 million a biennium, according to LSO’s fiscal estimate. Hallinan had cut back the number of people that would be eligible to lessen the cost and gain support, he said. Opposition to the measure came from a number of House Appropriations Committee members — the lawmakers closest to the budget drafting process.
“I’m very conservative,” Hallinan told WyoFile. “But I think this is a group of people that need our help.”
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to indicate that Sen. R. J. Kost resides in Powell, not Sheridan as originally written in error. -Ed.