If you liked what the Wyoming Legislature did in 2014 — putting conservative ideology ahead of common sense, defeating bills that would have helped the working poor — congratulations. You’re going to see more of the same in the next two years.
There were a dozen Democratic state lawmakers out of 90 members in the Legislature this year; next year there will be 13. For those of us who had hoped to see some shift toward a more progressive Legislature, it barely moved the meter. Having nine House members instead of eight won’t change any debates or give Democrats any additional input into the legislative process.
On the plus side, the House will welcome three new Democratic members who bring much to the table. Laramie attorney Charles Pelkey will replace Republican Matt Greene, who didn’t run for re-election.
In Jackson, GOP attorney Keith Gingery will see his HD 23 seat filled by Andy Schwartz, who handily defeated Jim Darwiche. In Rock Springs, JoAnn Dayton sent one of the state’s most conservative legislators, Republican Steve Watt, packing.
Unfortunately, Democrats also lost two seats that they held. Rep. Lee Filer of HD 12, one of the most effective members of his party in working across the aisle to get legislation passed, was defeated by Republican ideologue Harlan Edwards, founder of the Conservative Republicans of Wyoming (CROW) and a major supporter of WyWatch Family Values, a right-wing group that has anti-abortion measures as the key piece of its agenda.
Democratic Rep. Patrick Goggles of HD 33 retired, and his niece, Andrea Clifford, came within 100 votes of succeeding him. She was defeated by Republican Jim Allen, a former legislator who last served in 2002.
Perhaps most disappointing was the number of excellent progressive and moderate candidates who fell short. None was more perplexing than GOP Rep. Gerald Gay retaining his seat despite a vigorous campaign by Eric Nelson, the former Casper city attorney who was one of the most well-qualified candidates the Democrats fielded this year.
In Laramie’s HD 46, Mike Selmer came within 178 votes of incumbent Republican Glenn Moniz. And Joe Barbuto, a Democrat who previously represented HD 48, lost to far-right incumbent Republican Rep. Mark Barker by only 27 votes.
What’s perplexing about the Democrats’ inability to gain some traction in the Legislature is the fact that Republican incumbents who supported the GOP’s unpopular decision to not expand Medicaid in Wyoming were re-elected, and did not pay any kind of political price.
A survey sponsored by the University of Wyoming and Wyoming Public Media in mid-August found 56 percent support for Medicaid expansion, while only 36 percent opposed the proposal. The failure to expand the program, which is one of the centerpieces of the Affordable Care Act, prevented an estimated 17,600 working poor citizens from obtaining health insurance.
As a result, those kept off the program have to obtain medical care in expensive emergency rooms, driving up health care prices for other patients and burdening hospitals in the state with about $200 million a year in uncompensated care.
Meanwhile, the state is losing about $47 million a year in federal funds for Medicaid expansion. The money Wyoming taxpayers have sent to Washington, D.C., are going to other states that did expand Medicaid.
Losing millions while not insuring people was a disaster that should have cost many Republicans who voted against expansion their jobs. They did it for purely partisan reasons, to follow the GOP leadership’s decision that legislators could not take any action — even if it unquestionably helped their constituents — that gave any kind of victory to Obamacare.
The 2013-14 Legislature made several boneheaded moves, notably passing Senate File 104, which unconstitutionally stripped the state
superintendent of public instruction of many of her powers to run the Department of Education. There was a lot of saber-rattling over that action by individuals and groups who swore to avenge the way SPI Cindy Hill was belittled by Republican lawmakers. In the end, though, the only legislator who lost his job over the debacle was Rep. Matt Teeters, who co-sponsored SF 104, who was defeated in the primary election.
The other co-sponsor, Sen. Hank Coe, isn’t up for re-election until 2016. Chances are likely that Hill supporters could muster enough energy to make his contest a close one, but if memories fade, he may be able to retain his seat.
Given the national political mood, which gave Republicans control of the U.S. Senate and additional seats in the U.S. House, as well as elected more GOP governors, perhaps it’s surprising that Democrats could even pick up one legislative seat in Wyoming. But this ultra-red state already has so many Republicans in charge, they don’t have many positions to gain. They already have the three-member congressional delegation, all five state elected offices, and overwhelming majorities in the state House and Senate.
We’ll see how well they do with all of that power during the next two years. What the 2014 general election demonstrates, unfortunately, is that even if they take unpopular, even stupid actions, it won’t make any difference.
Wyoming Democrats fielded some excellent legislative candidates this year, but they will have to do even better in candidate recruitment — including contesting many more GOP seats in 2016 — if they are ever going to have a meaningful voice in state politics.