Hey, kids – here’s a fun political science experiment you can try at home! (But only with adult supervision.)
Take a large group of confident Republicans and a smaller group of feisty Democrats and make them interact over the course of four weeks. If you don’t have a large area for them to work, like a Capitol Building, you can use your basement.
Make sure there is a ratio of 7.5 Republicans to every Democrat. Don’t worry about the .5, because you can always round up. This isn’t a biology class, where you can cut frogs in half. No Republicans will be hurt during this experiment. In fact, they almost always end on a happy note, because they get their way.
Here’s the neat part about this experiment: It always finishes the same way it starts, with the two groups arguing over which is better, to spend or save. Since there are more Republicans, saving always wins, but Democrats manage to poke holes in their philosophy.
Next semester we’ll experiment with what happens when more Democrats are added to the equation, but that’s in the advanced class. The prerequisite is Progressive Campaigning 101.
In the real-life experiment that is the budget session of the Wyoming Legislature, which concluded Thursday, Republican and Democratic leaders always meet afterward at a joint news conference to talk about how things went. The Democratic point of view was offered by Senate Minority Floor Leader Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) and House Minority Floor Leader Mary Throne (D-Cheyenne).
“On balance, I think the budget perhaps focused a little too much on savings and not quite enough on people,” Rothfuss said. He noted state public employees were given raises to keep up with the cost of inflation, but K-12 public school employees didn’t get a full cost-of-living adjustment.
“We’re eroding the purchasing power for those groups,” the senator said. “We’re not keeping up the required inflationary adjustments that the [court] decisions mandated for us to continue, and I’m disappointed in that.”
Rothfuss said the budget “just did not quite rise to the level of what we owe the people of Wyoming based on the resources we had available.” Two years ago, he noted, the state was in a fiscal situation where it was prudent to be conservative with its spending.
“We had genuine concerns about our revenue shortfalls,” he said. “Fortunately for us, those revenue shortfalls didn’t come to fruition. We ended up having substantial amounts of funds available to us, but we still acted as if the sky was falling. And I do not see any signs at this point in time that the sky is falling, nor do I see any indication that it’s going to fall in the next couple of years.
“We should have invested more in the people of the state of Wyoming,” Rothfuss concluded. “Instead we’re putting our money into the checking account – the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account – and some money into our long-term savings, but those savings and investments do not go to the people of Wyoming. They’re going to Wall Street; they’re going elsewhere. … I hope next time we think about Wyoming first, and balance the savings in a way that shows vision, shows thoughtfulness, and recognizes that our true strength is the people of Wyoming.”
Throne sounded a similar theme. While she said she was happy with the emphasis on economic development through the Capitol restoration project, some other important issues could have been handled differently.
”In terms of the budget, which is what we were here for, in my mind it’s in some ways a timid and a fearful budget, as opposed to a broad vision of the future. It’s a budget that’s not centered as much as it could be on people.”
Throne said she was disappointed by the low level of salary increases for public employees. “We’re losing good people to other states and to the federal government,” she said, and urged reviewing the salaries again during the supplemental budget process “and see if we’re really doing right by our employees.”
The Democrat also said she was frustrated with the lack of progress on Medicaid expansion. Instead of approving a traditional full expansion, Republicans opted to set the issue aside while the executive branch negotiates with the federal government.
“We had the ability to get health care to people today,” she said, “and save millions of state dollars. Instead we fought over $20,000 appropriations here and there, when we had a huge pot of money right there for the taking to get health care to 17,000 people.”
Throne said while Democrats are glad there was some progress made on Medicaid, “If you’re sick and you don’t have access to health care, a year is a long time to wait.”
She said there needs to be a public forum to explain “why we are amassing huge amounts of cash.” The rainy day fund is now close to $2 billion, she noted.
“We owe it to the public to explain why we are taking taxpayers’ money and not providing taxpayers services,” Throne said.
But Majority Floor Leader Phil Nicholas (R-Laramie) said the budget that was approved is the product of 10 to 15 years worth of strategic planning related to savings.
“We recognized during the last boom that the dollars we take in have to be carefully managed so we take care of our current needs, our needs over the next 5 to 10 years, and our long-term needs,” he related.
Nicholas said Wyoming was saved during this budget principally by investment income from savings of the Permanent Minerals Trust Fund.
“Every dollar we save will eventually get spent either through investment earnings or, if it’s in the rainy day account, it will be pulled out for our budget and spent for our government operations budget,” he said. “Eighty percent of every dollar we spend goes to employee costs.”
Nicholas said the Legislature has also started to lay the foundation for large spending initiatives that will help the private sector, including highways, schools and other infrastructure.
“We made some nice strides in early childhood education, and that was one of our priorities we set out at the beginning of the session,” Rothfuss said. Although both the House and Senate initially kills funding for early childhood education, money was added for it in the state budget bill.
“We opened the door to an area that has been neglected in the past in the state of Wyoming in our education system,” he added.