(Opinion) — Many incumbent legislators campaign for re-election on what they’ve supposedly done “for the people.” Voters should focus more on what they’ve done “to the people.” Especially poor people.
Whenever I get riled up about how the majority of state lawmakers continually target low-income residents when they try to balance the state budget, I keep coming back to a news report by Bob Beck of Wyoming Public Radio as this year’s budget session wrapped up. It provided some informative yet disturbing insights into how lawmakers looked back on what they did. It shone the spotlight on one of the major differences between how Republican and Democratic legislators see their jobs.
Rep. Tim Stubson (R-Casper) tried to explain why critics who charged that the Legislature approved capital construction projects at the expense of services for people was off-base.
“I think this budget is all about people and what it’s about is sustaining over the long-term our services to people,” he said.
Wrong. As a whole, the GOP-led Legislature did not only cut programs that benefited the poor, elderly and disabled, it did so purposefully and with a certain amount of glee. It sought out both effective long-time programs to ax and rejected new proposals aimed at improving the lives of thousands of impoverished Wyoming citizens.
In a remarkable display of candor, Sen. Jeff Wasserburger (R-Gillette) told Beck why the Legislature really shot down Medicaid expansion for the fourth consecutive year. “The only reason I can think of that we are not taking the [federal] Medicaid money is because we are giving it to poor people,” the senator said. “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.”
In addition to adding about $126 million a year to the Wyoming economy and reducing Medicaid costs by more than $30 million annually, expansion of the program would have helped an estimated 20,000 of the state’s working poor obtain health insurance. It likely wouldn’t have been necessary to end or severely reduce funding for several social services programs if Wyoming had joined the majority of states and expanded Medicaid.
Stubson, who is giving up his House District 56 seat to run for the U.S. House, claims the state’s services to people are what really matter. But as a member of the Joint Appropriations Committee he is the one who made the motion to kill Medicaid expansion yet again.
Minority House Leader Rep. Mary Throne (D-Cheyenne) told Beck that everyday people will be the ones who pay the price for such legislative malpractice. She and the other 12 Democrats in the 90-member Legislature unanimously voted against the state’s budget bill because of such bone-headed decisions.
“I’m not opposed to cutting programs that don’t work anymore or aren’t needed,” Throne stressed. “But you have to spend some time and think about it so you don’t make any mistakes.”
Making it worse
When legislators did take their time, though, they often just made their mistakes worse. The JAC cut the governor’s recommended $8.2 million funding in half for the Tax Rebate for the Elderly and Disabled program, then the House wiped it out completely. In 2014, about 6,000 residents got an average refund of $628. To be considered low-income and eligible for the program, individual recipients made less than $17,500 annually; couples earned less than $28,500.
The House rejected an amendment to save the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program, which for several decades has helped the poor pay their utility bills. The JAC also pulled all $2.1 million in state funds for a related program that weatherized the houses of low-income residents so they were more energy efficient and lowered utility costs.
JAC Co-chairman Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper) said the latter was “another program that, while beneficial, is not a top priority.”
“They are all good programs with good intentions,” he said. “But we are just trying to find what we can do and how we can do the most good as we can.”
Gov. Matt Mead recommended $200,000 for Wyoming 2-1-1, a nonprofit program that helps residents get in touch with a range of health and human services agencies from the state, federal government and the private sector. The JAC denied the funding, and amendments in both the House and Senate to restore the money failed.
Let’s see — that’s Medicaid expansion, tax rebates for the elderly and disabled, utility bill help, energy assistance and social service agency referrals… Any other programs to help low-income residents that legislators could wipe out?
Yes! The eight Family Literacy Centers around the state also had to close their doors when the Legislature rejected a $3.2 million appropriation. The program’s mission was to increase educational opportunities for low-income families. The move put the program’s 37 employees out of work.
Rep. Andy Schwartz (D-Jackson), who tried but failed to get the money put back in the budget, told Wyoming Tribune Eagle reporter Trevor Brown that the literacy program “gives the children a higher likelihood of success in school and when they leave school for the workplace. And for adults, it enables them to participate more fully economically, socially and politically in Wyoming.”
It’s an odd response by many conservative legislators to the problems they complain about the most. They say they want people who speak another language to learn English and be productive American citizens, but they killed the state program that specifically tried to accomplish that goal.
Shiftless people on welfare
Conservatives come unglued at the thought of shiftless people on welfare relying on everyone else to pay their bills while they supposedly use the state’s money to buy drugs. Yet the Wyoming Department of Health has told the Legislature since 2012 that expanding Medicaid would reduce the number of people who need public assistance. Expansion would also help reduce the nearly $200 million in uncompensated care Wyoming hospitals have to eat every year. They pass that on to patients who can afford to pay.
When you consider some of the “high priority” expenditures the Legislature did approve this year, it’s understandable why advocates for some of Wyoming’s most vulnerable citizens get irate. Particularly offensive was the approval of $8 million to help the University of Wyoming’s “athletic competitiveness” effort to recruit better athletes and teach them, among other things, better nutrition.
UW officials, coaches and the Cowboy Joe Club were apoplectic when people — including some of the university’s sports fans — thought it was crazy to use state money for this purpose when the Legislature was cutting $45 million from K-12 education, facing a $619 million shortfall and slashing some of the aforementioned social service programs. But they had nothing to fear — legislators ignored the demands for fiscal sanity and quickly approved the $8 million expenditure.
Rep. Charles Pelkey (D-Laramie) said he couldn’t vote for the boost to athletics funds even though UW is in his hometown. He told Laura Hancock of the Casper Star-Tribune, “I could not imagine standing in front of a room full of constituents and say, ‘Yes, I know we cut the education budget. I know we trimmed social services. I know that key faculty are leaving for better pay at other universities. I know that we are replacing tenure-track positions with poorly paid adjuncts and I know that a significant number of UW support staff are eligible for food stamps … but, hey, we went to the Fiesta Bowl!'”
For those who haven’t been paying attention to the Legislature’s outrageous spending decisions, please consider this column an attempt to show you that lawmakers keep giving the poor the short end of the stick and whacking them with it for good measure. For those who have followed this untenable madness, please consider it a reminder and a call to action to vote this year and push, pull or drag some of your friends to the ballot box.
“Stupid is as stupid does” may be a great line from the film “Forrest Gump,” but it shouldn’t be the motto of the people we elect to represent us.
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