Watching the Legislature deliberate measures to provide relief for Wyoming’s poorest citizens this year was a lot like watching Lucy hold the football for Charlie Brown. And like Charlie Brown, I somehow managed to convince myself that this time would be different than all the others, this time it wouldn’t end in painful disappointment.
Good grief! I should have known better.
But in my defense, it really did look promising at the outset.
The House voted to restore $2.5 million in funding for the Tax Refund for the Elderly and Disabled program in House Bill 127. Lawmakers stripped the program’s entire $4.2 million budget in 2017 when state coffers tanked with falling mineral production and prices.
Lawmakers in the House also added $500,000 for food banks to the supplemental budget bill to help cope with emergencies like the recent government shutdown. Many federal employees temporarily out of work relied on such services to feed their families.
My blind optimism that lawmakers would come through for the poor was again shattered. It shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. Since the state’s revenue picture has improved in the past year, I thought they would address such obvious needs.
The Tax Refund for the Elderly and Disabled isn’t a fly-by-night program that some sympathetic legislators added on a whim. It had been funded by the Legislature for 41 consecutive years until 2016, the last year it was active.
The program helped about 6,000 seniors and disabled residents that year, sending them tax refund checks at the end of the year for between $200 and $900, depending upon income. The average refund was $625.
The program wasn’t breaking the state’s back three years ago, but still it fell victim to budget cuts then-Gov. Matt Mead and lawmakers decided were necessary. It should have been one of the first cuts restored when the economy rebounded.
The $2.5 million proposed this session would only have been about 60 percent of the 2016 funding, and the Department of Revenue would have had to change its income guidelines and likely help fewer people. But the sponsor of HB127, Rep. Tim Hallinan (R-Gillette), said he recognized that the state’s economy hasn’t fully recovered so he asked for less money for the program.
The measure seemed to have a great chance of passing. Like many of his House colleagues Hallinan is a fiscal conservative, but he told the Revenue Committee that adding $2.5 million to a $2 billion state budget wasn’t much to help the poorest of the poor.
“I’ve talked to many seniors who said they will be able to buy groceries and buy propane to heat their homes,” said co-sponsor Rep. Tim Salazar (R-Dubois). “Now they’re skipping meals and turning off the heat for two or three hours a day. I don’t know how they do it.”
The House passed the measure 47-13, and the Senate Revenue Committee approved it 4-0. Then it ran into a buzz saw in the full Senate, the current iteration of which seems to have never seen a poverty-relief program that it likes.
Senate Appropriations abetted the bill’s slaughter with a bit of parliamentary sleight of hand. HB245 – Property tax refund program-amendment, which would have revived the state’s property tax refund for seniors, had passed the House Revenue Committee 7-2 but died when it wasn’t even considered by the entire House.
That set that stage for Senate Appropriations to apparently ride to the rescue by putting $625,000 for the program directly into their version of the supplementary budget bill. The move did nothing for the Tax Refund for the Elderly and Disabled but House Appropriations signed off on the action, knowing that HB-127 was still active in the Senate.
But when the Senate debated HB127 two members of the Senate Appropriations panel argued that it was unnecessary — the grand compromise of the budget bill took care of all the tax refunds to people who needed them.
Sen. Dave Kinskey (R-Sheridan) said low-income seniors who qualified for the program would have up to half of their property taxes cut, and that was more than enough. Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) said these elderly residents could take advantage of a reverse mortgage and actually get more income. What a favor the state was doing for senior homeowners!
It was a dirty trick, and the Senate bought it. The body defeated HB127 by a vote of 10-16, with no one mentioning that the program they killed would have covered the disabled population. Nor did they point out that the property tax relief they ballyhooed does absolutely nothing for low-income elderly residents who do not own their homes.
The Tax Refund for the Elderly and Disabled program is still on the books, but once again with zero dollars in its budget.
Rep. Sarah Burlingame (D-Cheyenne) successfully sponsored an amendment to add a half-million dollars from the state’s General Fund to provide more money to food pantries. She was happy when her amendment to the supplemental budget bill passed the House, but the freshman legislator’s enthusiasm was tempered when she realistically considered its chances of survival.
Before the budget bill was debated in the Senate, Burlingame told me she was worried that her measure was merely being used as a bargaining chip that House budget negotiators could sacrifice when the time came.
That’s precisely what happened.
My office in Casper is located next to the Poverty Resistance Food Pantry, and I watch people who don’t have enough money to afford to eat — including many homeless — come and go every day.
Food pantries throughout the state operate on shoestring budgets and are largely staffed by volunteers. The money they raise from donations and grant programs goes almost entirely and directly to provide food for the needy. When natural disasters and other emergencies hit, their thin budgets are stretched past the breaking point.
Burlingame’s compassionate attempt to help food pantries provide for poor residents struck a chord with House members. It’s a travesty that food for the hungry so easily hit the cutting room floor in budget talks.
I am equally dismayed by what Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) told WyoFile reporter Andrew Graham after the session.
Bebout is upset that the House put money back into programs that his committee cut, so he’s wholeheartedly out for revenge during next year’s budget session. Graham reported that the former Senate president said it is time for more cuts to public education and programs for mental health and substance abuse treatment.
Bebout cited the Legislature’s failure to tax residents to pay for schools and other programs as the reason to cut more from the budget. To his credit he did support a lodging tax increase and a corporate income tax that would have provided more money for education. Both still failed.
But it’s unconscionable to target programs that help the poor, students and the mentally ill.
The bottom line is that if current revenue projections are met, state government will sock away an estimated $237 million into its rainy-day account. Yet it could not find $3 million to fund two programs that help the impoverished.
Can we find enough compassion and commonsense next year to not balance the budget on the backs of our most vulnerable friends and neighbors?
I already feel the football being yanked into the air again, and I know the answer is likely no. But it’s up to all of us to ask the question and for the Legislature to do the right thing.