(Opinion) — I can lump my many complaints about the Wyoming Legislature’s decisions into two main categories.
The first is a series of policy decisions made by the Republican Senate and House leadership that were built on a fundamentally flawed foundation of failed conservative principles. These stances have helped put state government in the precarious financial situation it finds itself in today. But the legislators are not entirely to blame for this first category of blunder. Part of the responsibility must be assigned to voters who keep electing them.
The second is our lawmakers’ refusal to own the ramifications of their decisions or clean up their own mess. In the latest example the Joint Appropriations Committee’s GOP members voted last week to not request a special legislative session in which they could have picked up some of the wreckage left in their wake and charted a new fiscal course. They must be held accountable for their unwillingness to correct their mistakes.
The Legislature had to make drastic cuts to its 2017-18 biennium budget earlier this year to make up a $480 million general fund shortfall created by plunging mineral prices. The state’s financial experts now believe the shortfall will be even larger, and estimate that an additional $248 million will be needed to balance the biennium budget that begins July 1. That’s at the optimistic end of the scale. Gov. Matt Mead told the JAC more than $500 million may be needed.
Wyoming’s GOP lawmakers — who have absolute control of both legislative chambers — are quick and correct to point out that they don’t have power over the vagaries of global energy markets. But they do have access to history and the documented inevitability of boom-and-bust cycles that come with our ceaseless reliance on fossil fuel industries revenue.
Mineral taxes and royalties fund about 70 percent of state government and are largely responsible for the relatively low personal tax burden on residents. Thanks to the foresight of the Legislature in the early 1970s, the state has a Permanent Minerals Trust Fund worth more than $7 billion. The interest from this account has allowed Wyoming to live off those savings without, for example, a state income tax.
But in the mid-1980s Wyoming experienced a devastating minerals bust that saw thousands of out-of-work energy industry employees leave for greener pastures. Coupled with massive losses for many property owners, the state’s economy suffered for a decade before recovering.
A cry to diversify Wyoming’s economy resulted. The idea was to secure the state’s future by making it less reliant on the fortunes of fossil fuels. There were some small victories — a few data centers and other non-mineral industries added to the state’s economic mix — but these paled in comparison to the failed energy research projects that wasted scarce public and private capital.
Faced in recent years with predictable changes in the nation’s energy needs, Wyoming leaders spurned attempts to bring new wind and solar energy jobs to the state. Wyoming’s opportunity to be a leader in renewable energy fell by the wayside as other states reaped the profits and worked toward a cleaner environment.
The response from Mead and the Legislature has been to “double down” on coal — spend time and money propping up a fading industry by fighting vital, common-sense federal climate change regulations. The absence of new coal-fired power plants and the refusal of Northwestern states to help export Wyoming coal were ignored by officials who stubbornly refused to adapt.
Meantime, state legislators refused for four straight years to expand Medicaid despite undeniable healthcare and economic benefits for Wyoming. Lawmakers squandered the opportunity to have $268 million in federal dollars flow to hospitals, clinics, physicians and other health care providers during the 2017-18 biennium. Expansion would have cut Medicaid costs by more than $30 million a year and insured an estimated 20,000 “working poor” in the state — people with low-paying jobs who conservative legislators apparently want to punish, not help.
At this year’s budget session GOP legislators reluctantly borrowed $221 million from a $1.8 billion “rainy day fund” not nearly enough to take care of the state’s needs. In recent years Republicans insisted on pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into questionable capital construction projects that could have waited, such as the Capitol building renovation. Instead, the GOP opted to eliminate programs like the family literacy centers and the property tax rebate for the elderly and disabled.
Last Tuesday Mead presented a plan to the JAC that would cut the Health Department’s budget by $90 million. When the loss of matching federal funds is included, the reduction totals $133.4 million. This is on top of a $10 million cut legislators made in March.
Wyoming will pay a huge price for these health cuts. Mead said his plan could result in an estimated 677 jobs lost in the private sector, because 90 percent of the department’s budget is filtered down to health-care providers and businesses such as hospitals and pharmacies. Earlier this month the Wyoming Medical Center in Casper laid off 58 workers and announced it won’t fill 57 vacant positions. That’s just a sample of what will be repeated across the state.
Twenty-three health programs will suffer cuts in Mead’s restructured budget, including $6.7 million from development and disability preschools, $4.6 million from behavioral health and $1.3 million from senior assistance programs. An oral health program for low-income people that mainly benefits children would be totally eliminated.
One of the most egregious proposals is cutting $2.1 million from the general fund for a substance abuse and suicide prevention program. Wyoming has one of the country’s highest suicide rates, and state and local officials all bemoan residents’ substance abuse problems. Taken as a whole, reductions in mental health and substance abuse programs comes to about $15 million, or 12 percent.
The Department of Family Services will take a nearly $14 million hit to its child support enforcement program. Higher education will see significant reductions: $35 million at the University of Wyoming and more than $20 million for the Wyoming Community College Commission. A complete list of proposed cuts is available here.
In short, Wyoming’s financial landscape has shifted so dramatically that a special legislative session is needed to immediately adapt to the new reality. Legislators need to expand Medicaid, approve guidelines for tapping the rainy day fund, and find a way to fund school capital construction without coal lease bonus payments. Wyomingites can’t wait until 2017.
The JAC doesn’t have the power on its own to call a special session, but it can make a recommendation to the Legislative Management Council, which would likely grant the wishes of the panel in charge of crafting the state’s budget.
One of only two Democrats on the JAC, Rep. Cathy Connolly (D–Laramie) said she was “horrified” at the prospect of eliminating of nearly 700 private sector health care jobs. She requested a special session, which only drew the support of her Democratic colleague, Sen. John Hastert of Green River. The committee’s Republicans nixed the idea.
Sen. Jeff Wasserburger (R–Gillette) complained that a special session would “literally dominate everything we do until January. … I just don’t see how we can squeeze in a special session.” Republican JAC incumbents apparently have better things to do than fix the state’s finances. It must be difficult to plant yard signs and tell constituents what a great job you’re doing if you’re busy trying to hide the fact that the state is balancing its budget on the backs of the working poor, low-income children, elderly, disabled and mentally ill.
Sen. Bruce Burns (R–Sheridan) said the JAC only has minimal problems with the cuts Mead proposed, so a special session isn’t justified. He said the governor “has done the heavy lifting on this.” Since when has the JAC turned over its budgetary authority to the governor?
There’s also the supposedly inordinate cost of a special session. The Legislative Service Office said the tab could be “several hundred thousand dollars,” — a small price to pay if it results in better ways to balance a $3 billion budget.
All 13 Democratic lawmakers voted against the state budget bill Republicans steamrolled through the Legislature in March. Rep. Mary Throne (D–Cheyenne) House minority leader, said the potentially devastating cuts proposed by Mead and accepted by the JAC are “the direct result of poor decisions” made by Republicans during the budget session. Rejecting Medicaid expansion, she added, only made a difficult situation worse.
“As policymakers, I fear we are continuing to take steps that will further weaken our economy,” Throne told reporters. Her assessment is right on target.
Any incumbent GOP lawmaker who knocks on your door and asks for your vote should be told to go back to Cheyenne this summer and finish his or her work — and do it right this time.
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