How much does it cost Wyoming to hate Obama?— May 21, 2013
Many Wyoming politicians sharply disagree with the president’s policies and preach to their constituents that he’s hurting the state. That’s not a productive use of time for anyone, but at least it’s not really costing us any money.
But showing voters that hating Barack Obama means so much to them that they would rather turn down federal funds than use the money to help a segment of the population that desperately needs it — that takes partisanship and stupidity to entirely new lows.
How much does it cost Wyoming to hate the president so much that the extreme right-wing of the Republican Party is actually willing to sacrifice the quality of residents’ lives just to send the White House a message? It’s not difficult to quantify at least some of the state’s losses.
My analysis includes three categories to consider: stimulus money, the extension of federal unemployment funds, and health care reform.
Criticism of the stimulus package that Obama and the Democrats pushed through in the early days of his administration is an example of the type of reaction that may be wrong-headed, but not actually very harmful. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act brought $664 million to Wyoming and, according to Recovery.gov, a federal website that tracked stimulus funds, 1,017 new jobs between April 1 and June 30, 2009. The majority of the money went to construction projects and helped municipal and county governments fix critical infrastructure at a time when their economies were imploding.
Of course, there was much carping about the stimulus from our all-GOP delegation in Congress and the Republican-controlled state Legislature. Sen. Mike Enzi called it “bailout baloney,” but that certainly didn’t keep him from writing six letters seeking funding for a carbon capture and smart grid projects in Wyoming funded as part of the stimulus by Obama’s clean energy program.
But Wyoming received its fair share of stimulus money, it was used for good projects, and no one suggested we give any of the funds back. All Republican House members voted against Obama’s stimulus bill, but they were only testing the waters for when the president launched other initiatives they would find even more offensive.
By February 2011, the Wyoming Legislature was ramped up enough to tell the feds to give other states the $38 million we were offered to extend unemployment benefits for those who had been jobless for a long time and needed retraining.
Some state lawmakers argued that in addition to their desire not to add to the national debt, they did not believe that unemployed people were looking hard enough for jobs — otherwise they would have had them, right? — and the House voted 34-25 to tell the feds to keep their dirty money. It certainly wasn’t needed here.
Except, of course, it could have greatly benefited residents already down on their luck because they lost their job and couldn’t find another one. After this outrageous decision, Wyoming State AFL-CIO executive secretary Kim Floyd noted there were more workers than jobs in many sectors, including construction, which had an unemployment rate of 22 percent.
The extra funds could have helped about 5,600 Wyomingites remain on unemployment for another 13 weeks, and do those little things people like to do for their families, like feed and clothe and shelter them. It must be a difficult concept to grasp for the extreme right, whose cluelessness matches its lack of compassion. In March 2011, WyoFile reported that many of the state lawmakers who voted to turn down the federal unemployment benefit extension were unabashedly collecting tens of thousands of dollars in federal agriculture subsidies.
The travesty over unemployment benefits was merely a training ground for even more foolish actions that many state lawmakers had been gearing up for since the passage of “Obamacare.”
Even though Wyoming was given ample time to develop a state-run health exchange that would enable residents to obtain affordable health insurance once such coverage is mandated next year, the Legislature’s leadership and Gov. Matt Mead balked at the idea, though it would mean that the federal government could come into Wyoming and run our exchange however it sees fit. The governor and lawmakers were counting on either Obama being defeated in his re-election bid or losing the landmark case over the constitutionality of federal health care reform — but neither scenario transpired.
While the GOP kept up its prattle about needing to find a “Wyoming solution” to reduce the high cost of health care and insurance premiums, the states that did opt to follow the new law gained a distinct advantage in their ability to ensure their residents would be insured.
It’s difficult to say what the exact cost of this folly will be to Wyoming in monetary terms, but the state will definitely pay for its mistake. It’s still possible for Wyoming to develop and administer is own health exchange at some point, unless the officials who were too stubborn to do so in the first place stay in power.
Could it get worse? It did. Despite the testimony of physicians and the support of most hospitals in the state, the Senate rejected a bill that would have expanded Medicaid to nearly 18,000 low-income adults, and decreased the state’s uninsured population by 50 percent by 2016.
A Wyoming Department of Health report estimated that by expanding Medicaid to include these adults, the state would actually save $47.4 million in its general fund budget between fiscal years 2014-2020 through program offsets.
Then there are the societal costs: Legislators who voted against Medicaid expansion actually increased the costs of everyone’s health care. Without Medicaid, poor people will have to use hospital emergency rooms to get treated, thus pushing up the cost for hospitals that won’t be reimbursed for charity care. Since somebody has to pay for the services, it will naturally drive up the cost of health insurance premiums for everybody else.
The DOH report also noted that people without health insurance are likely to die sooner than those who are insured, because their health problems are diagnosed later in life or not at all. The report estimated that within five years Wyoming would have 111 fewer deaths per year by expanding Medicaid.
Sure, I realize that spending less money, lowering health care costs and saving lives sounds good, but how could our legislators live with themselves if they actually allowed Obamacare to work?
Why did our state turn down the extension of unemployment benefits, the opportunity to run its own health exchange, and to expand a program that helps sick, poor people? The ones who made those decisions trotted out these explanations, in order:
- People without jobs are lazy and don’t want to work, and if given a chance will just stay on unemployment.
- They were so certain Obamacare would be overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court and that Mitt Romney would be elected president, they didn’t even pretend that they wanted or needed a state health exchange.
- Yes, the feds would pick up 100 percent of the Medicaid tab for the first three years, and at least 90 percent after 2020, but we just can’t trust them to keep their word. (The federal government, however, said Wyoming could opt out at any time.)
I think a fourth option — that they hate President Obama so much, they are willing to throw their most vulnerable constituents under the bus to keep him from winning any battle — is the root reason behind this madness.
Consider that every session, there are brand new attempts to pass bills and meaningless resolutions by the lunatic fringe that essentially claim the state can just ignore federal laws and do what it wants on nearly every issue, from gun control and health care to abortion and the basic safety of its citizens. If we lose federal funds, fine.
Wyoming’s congressional delegation used bipartisanship to secure federal mineral funding in the 1970s, but today’s all-GOP members have bought wholeheartedly into their party leaders’ strategy to fight Obama on every issue at every turn. It’s not a smart move. Congress has taken away a huge chunk of Wyoming’s Abandoned Mineral Land funds — $700 million — as well as dropped its share of federal mineral royalty payments by about $53 million. Our extremely partisan delegation’s only answer is to cry foul, effectively arguing, “You can’t do that, we need that money to live.”
So did the people on unemployment and those who can’t afford health insurance.
I wondered if Wyoming has ever hated an administration so much before Obama that it gave back federal funds. I posed that question to University of Wyoming history professor Phil Roberts, who is vacationing in Sweden but was kind enough to respond to my email.
“Wyoming officials never were as destructive to the interests of the people as they have been at this point,” he wrote. “But there was one time when we came close.”
In order to get funds for interstate highway construction, Roberts explained, the federal government — in exchange for paying essentially 95 percent of the costs of building the interstates — insisted on uniformity, and that included white stripes on the roadways.
“Some Wyoming legislators balked, asserting that they would rather turn down the federal money than to have to change from yellow to white stripes,” the historian noted. “Cooler and saner heads prevailed, however, and we have interstates through Wyoming!”
In another instance, in 1932, newly elected Gov. Leslie Miller was so at odds with a fellow Democrat, President Franklin Roosevelt,that he planned to refuse federal assistance, cut the state budget and have Wyoming “work itself out of the Depression.”
Progressive Democrats who controlled the Legislature compromised with Miller and paid for a commission to investigate how much had to be cut in order to do what the governor wanted. The recommendations made by the Griffenhagen company from Chicago included these gems:
- Eliminate all school districts and make one big district statewide.
- Merge all law enforcement functions from the county sheriffs to the game wardens and city police into a statewide police.
- Have just a one-house Legislature consisting of nine members elected statewide.
- Get rid of the governor and have the Legislature hire a public administrator to run the state’s affairs.
Those changes made FDR’s New Deal programs like the Work Projects Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps look much better to Miller, who decided to accept the federal funds after all.
“Other than those times, we’ve never been so stupid as we’ve been now,” Roberts concluded. “As one Stockholm friend put it when I was trying to explain why Americans don’t want universal health care, etc., ‘You Americans would do anything to keep from being called socialists!’ I think he had that right and then some for Wyomingites.”
— Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake is the editor-in-chief of The Casper Citizen, a nonprofit, online community newspaper. It can be viewed at www.caspercitizen.com.
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