Authors Posts by Jordan Harper

Jordan Harper

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Last week the Legislature left us with some burning questions that won’t be answered soon and don’t lend themselves easily to prediction. We here at WyPols, ever willing to do the difficult work, are going to try and answer two of what we see as some of the bigger questions about the upcoming week of legislative action.

 How does House Labor Committee fund hospitals?

 Leadership from the House Labor Committee has expressed interest in helping out the state’s struggling hospitals, but has not explored exactly how to help. Lucky for us speculators, the committee only has a few options to achieve this end.

With Medicaid expansion essentially out of the question for the session, if anyone in the Legislature wants to get money to state hospitals, they either hope that SF 145 passes the House or that something can be squeezed into the budget, which will see the House floor two more times. Either way, the real trick of aiding Wyoming’s at-risk hospitals will be gaining support for helping them.

 The state’s hospitals, all confusing and contradictory statistics aside, are in trouble. Legislators have even said during this session that if they don’t find a way get the hospitals funding, at least three will face closure.  Though faced with the possibility of their constituents’ lives and well-being coming under threat, many legislators are committed to voting against any but the very cheapest options. This is problematic, because committing to keep the doors of a hospital open can be an expensive endeavor.

 SF 145 creates a $10 million pool to ease the costs of uncompensated care. This, at best, would keep the doors open at some of the state’s most at-risk hospitals. Though the bill passed the Senate, it will likely find trouble gaining support from the more conservative corners of the House, which has expressed concern about spending state funds in an environment of falling energy profits. On the other side of the issue, Wyoming Hospital Association President Eric Boley says that SF 145 is an unattractive solution because it wouldn’t fix the underlying causes of Wyoming’s healthcare problems, and just open the door for more uncertainty later.

The prospects are worse for some sort of budget amendment. Lacking a preset framework and facing increased scrutiny as the budget is debated, any budget amendment setting aside money for hospitals would be hard up for the needed votes for passage.

 For all of the obstacles, the committee will discuss a way to find solutions that legislators with fiscal concerns will actually vote for at their Wednesday meeting. And as always, WyPols will be there to bring you the latest updates.

What are the chances that an anti-discrimination bill, SF 115 will pass the House?

The House will soon hear SF 115, an anti-sexual orientation/gender identity discrimination bill that creates important protections for members of the LGBTQ community. The protections touch on many areas of life, but center on the work place.

 The bill will certainly face intense debate, as there are more representatives who vote along the lines of their professed religious values than senators both in proportion of the legislative body and in the raw numbers.

 Along with the assertions of this bill’s critics that it ties business owners’ hands and that it recklessly creates another protected class, SF 115 will be seen as directly counteracting HB 83, which passed the House and will be heard in the Senate.

 HB 83 proposes a series of protections for business people and has drawn criticism from LGBTQ rights activists who say that the bill creates a “right to discriminate.” It’s worth noting that SF 115 is designed to prevent discrimination in the workplace, while HB 83 mainly focuses on allowing service providers to be selective in the manner in which they provide services.

 Fairly or not, however, the two bills will be compared when SF 115 is debated. And if the Senate file is to pass the House it will have to win the support of several representatives who voted in favor of HB 83. A total of 23 representatives voted against HB 83 (a pro LGBTQ rights position), and assuming rather safely that Rep. James Byrd (D-Cheyenne) would have joined those who voted against the bill had he not been excused from that day’s voting, SF 115 will have to scare up an additional six votes.

 In short, protections for LGBTQ workers in Wyoming will come down to whether or not six people can be persuaded that protecting them is worthwhile. As always, WyPols’ liveblog will bring you up to the minute updates as they come in.

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On Monday, the house Labor Health and Human Services committee stayed late after its scheduled meeting to discuss the precarious existence of some of the state’s hospitals. The discussion, encouraged by Chairman Elaine Harvey (R-Big Horn/Park Counties), was more of a loose brainstorming session than anything intended to come up with a plan on the spot.

 Harvey pushed the committee to come to their next meeting with some ideas. She said that if they waited a year, three of the state’s hospitals would close. Stressing to the other lawmakers the importance of all of the state’s hospitals, Rep. Harvey shared the story of an injured Basin man from a few years ago, who “lost his golden hour” because of a hospital closing at the time and died.

 Representative Harvey’s keenness on insuring a stable future to the state’s healthcare system may come as a surprise to some, after she pulled the session’s last remaining Medicaid expansion bill from her committee last week without so much as discussing it. She said at the time that the senate (where the bill would have headed after passage) had proven that they were in no mood to pass any form of Medicaid expansion. The bill was “an exercise in futility”, according to Harvey. And maybe she was right, the senate had killed both the Department of Health backed SHARE Plan and an alternative plan that they got to design, themselves. When asked why she felt the need to protect these hospitals and services, when legislators feel an apparent mandate from voters not to act on healthcare, Harvey said, “I just feel this tremendous sense of responsibility as the chairman of the Labor, Health and Human Services that it’s my job to guide the committee into solution building.“

 Solution building may be easier said than done, however. Within that same committee meeting, Rep. Harlen Edmunds (R-Laramie County) hinted that he would never vote in favor of any healthcare spending until ACA is dead. And there’s the rub; nationally unpopular legislation is being used as an excuse by many in the legislature to pad their conservative credentials. Rep. Harvey bemoaned the Wyoming’s aging population as a major reason that healthcare services throughout the state may need extra support, but those same older, more conservative voters are the precise base that many congresspersons feel would never accept a politician who voted in favor of using state funds on healthcare.  And maybe those politicians are right in that interpretation of what their constituents want. But there has to be some middle ground between fiscal responsibility and letting hospitals close down – letting people who need those hospitals die.

Representative Harvey said that she would be open to a wide variety of solutions, mentioning SF 145 as a possible vehicle to keep some of the state’s harder scrabble hospitals open. The bill would allow the state to pay hospitals for care rendered to those unable to pay for it themselves. She acknowledged that such an action would be a stop gap measure at best, but keeping hospitals open will literally save lives in the state.

 When asked whether the legislature could figure out a way to come together and keep the state’s hospitals open, Rep. Harvey paused, looking out at the by then illuminated city of Cheyenne from the top floor of the capitol building. After a moment, she said the question would ultimately be “can we agree on which one is the right solution?”

 SF 145 passed its second reading in the senate this morning with a few amendments, available here. The third reading should be within the next couple days.

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bill to provide funding to explore the Next Generation Science Standards passed its third reading in the House of Representatives Monday morning. HB 23 would repeal the budget footnote from last year which prohibited the use of state funds to explore the Next Generations Science Standards, or NGSS. It seems pretty straight forward; can we pay state employees to look into these standards? But if you follow the legislature, you know that the simplest bills can inspire some surprising debates.

One of the more common arguments brought against the bill is that it includes input from education professionals in other states. Though often slipped in with other complaints regarding the NGSS, this argument was clearly meant to paint the standards as part of a wider narrative of national interests interfering with Wyoming’s affairs.

During discussion on the floor, many representatives also bemoaned Wyoming parents wanting a say in the curriculum of their kids. Other legislators, such as Mary Throne (D-Cheyenne), repeatedly reminded their colleagues that educational standards don’t necessarily determine curricula, but are a broader road map of what should be covered.

A few lawmakers did take issue with what exactly the science standards cover. The inclusion of climate change material in the standards was especially concerning to some. “It does kind of fly in the face of mineral interests,” said freshman lawmaker, Scott Clem (R-Gillette) after the morning session which saw the bill pass. The legislator was also displeased with the handling of evolution in the standards, saying that it was taught “as a fact, rather than a theory.”

The offered reasons behind opposition to the NGSS in Wyoming are a particularly thin veil for the fact that some business interests feel threatened by any and all teaching of climate change science. This causes legislators, ever afraid of being labeled as less than ‘business friendly,’ to play ball in any way they can. Even if that ball game involves a room full of lawyers and geologists pretending not to understand 11th grade science.

In the end cooler heads prevailed and the bill which, to be clear, merely opens the door to the consideration of new science standards, was passed. 39 representatives voted to see the bill survive, while 21 voted against it. Though even if the standards are found to be suitable for the state’s students, they will see a new effort to keep them from being adopted.

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Nationally bills like HB 83 are known either as Right to Discriminate bills, or as bill co-sponsor representative Nate Winters (R-Thermopolis) labels it: Restoration of Conscience. Though part of a broader national conversation on the protection of personal rights, this bill, its introduction and the votes that is draws either for or against have major implications for the Cowboy State..

Representative Winters said that his main motivation in sponsoring the bill was to close a gap in Wyoming law. “[The bill is for] when you are supposed to offer a service, and [that] service violates your conscience.” said the legislator. Winters went on to give the example of a small New Mexico photography company that went out of business over refusing to shoot a same sex wedding and said that he wanted to protect his constituents from similar situations.

Despite the recent rulings regarding same-sex rights in the state and a recent Casper Star article profiling the bill, Winters asserted that it would not allow county employees to interfere with the issuance of marriage licenses. “Someone actually got this wrong the other day, it actually doesn’t touch county clerks at all. It’s designed to help private citizens.” He also said that though all citizens were to be protected by the bill, there are reasonable checks on its power. For example, when asked what would keep an offended orthodox Muslim from refusing service to woman with her head uncovered, Rep. Winters said “When it comes to things like Shariah Law, there are already established cases in American law that tells you what is ok and what isn’t, you cannot chop a person’s hand off because that also violates American law.” The legislator went on to explain, “The Bill says that when there is a compelling government interest, the American Jurisprudence trumps this RFRA.”

Regardless of the intentions behind the bill, many construe the language very differently than representative Winters. In addition to the Casper Star article mentioned above, veteran legislator Mary Throne (D-Cheyenne) sees room in both the bill’s language and its spirit for downright discrimination. Throne noted that in addition to a compelling government interest being incredibly difficult to prove in courtthe bill is “just not neighborly.” She went on to declare that “in Wyoming, to neighbor is a verb – we don’t treat people this way.”

And that presents the bill’s true value. Once this bill hits committee and then likely the floor, it will become a barometer. Its passage or failure will show us the character of this legislature and where the two houses see rights that need protecting. In the same-sex couples who just want to pay the best photographer in town good money to shoot their wedding or in the business owner who would rather close up shop than work with homosexuals. ​

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HB 29 is a bill introduced by representative James Byrd (D-Cheyenne) that lessens several penalties associated with possession of small amounts of marijuana. It passed the Judiciary committee yesterday morning with a 7-2 vote. Its survival gave a small, but promising victory to a subject area that sees bills killed every year. The way the bill passed, however was more unique than the bill itself.

The public testimony started with the predictable lineup of state employees, legal experts and even an ACLU rep. When Deb Palm-Egle approached the cramped room’s microphone, she looked auspiciously normal. A bespectacled woman in her early 60’s, blonde hair growing fairer by the day, Deb not only looked like the majority of people that testify at Wyoming’s public hearings, but the majority of people in the state itself. Bluntly, she looked like she was about to launch into a diatribe about the evils of demon weed and rock n’ roll.

“My name is Deborah Palm-Egle,” she started, and after some light hearted ribbing from the chairman on the spelling of her name, she pushed “and I have M.S.” through a tired smile. The room grew solemn. She recounted her difficulties with steroids and other traditional treatments, before her doctor recommended she try marijuana. So she did. And for a few hours at a time, her symptoms subsided. This was in the late 1980’s, and as the potency of available marijuana improved, Deb had to smoke less and less until today, when she barely finishes a joint a day. It is worth noting that Mrs. Palm-Egle splits most of her year between Wyoming and Colorado, allowing her to grow her own powerful, legal and relatively cheap medical marijuana. Over time, Deb’s ailing family members wanted to try her herbal remedy too. She recounted tense car rides over the border during the final few months of her niece’s tenacious battle with ovarian cancer. Though her fight ended tragically, Deb’s niece had a similar reaction to the plant as her aunt; pain relief, increased appetite, restful sleep and a boost in mood and mentality that gave her overall quality of life an unquestionable upgrade. Deb went on to describe a surviving family member’s chronic illness and her terror in bringing the 84 year-old this life-changing medicine. “But what is a family member supposed to do?” she wondered aloud.

As Mrs. Palm-Egle told her story, heads started nodding on the committee. Her tale of healing, the fear imposed on her by government regulation, and her dedication to family was winning the red-tinted committee over. And before surrendering the mic, she asked “Where is a Republican Supposed to find some pot!?” But the real question hit the ears of the committee just as intended: “Where is a white, 60 year old, female, republican with legitimate health concerns supposed to get some pot?” Smiles spread across the faces of more than a couple committee members (who shall go unnamed), while light bulbs flashed over the heads of others. The committee was finally accepting the thesis statement that Deb had offered early in her remarks: “It’s not just teenagers doing this!” Deb, the legislators came to recognize, was the responsible, adult marijuana user that they’d been told about year after year. The idea of medical marijuana wasn’t just an excuse for otherwise healthy young people with a conveniently bum knee to pick up some wacky tobacky, it could help very sick people to lead fuller lives.

And so the bill passed. Heavily modified, but the bill passed. Its amendments, arguably giving the bill the extra oomph needed to pass with a strong, bipartisan majority.

This bill, while uniquely successful, doesn’t represent a change in lawmaker thinking, but rather their interpretation of voters’ wishes. This is Wyoming, and small government has always been a popular saying, but only recently has that begun to apply to people’s personal lives. With a public that cares less and less about what others do in the privacy of their own homes, it seems like lawmakers are finally starting to get a hint of the times. The bill’s still got some bicameral traveling to do before it’s official, but keep your fingers crossed that HB 29 becomes law.

UPDATE:

The HB 29 failed in the house this afternoon with a vote of 22-38.

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A man speaking as a member of the Northern Arapaho asked for the average age of the Labor, Health and Social Services committee members, settling on (a highly generous) 51. “That’s the life expectancy for my tribe,” said the man, “they don’t even make it to be elders.” He spoke as emotionlessly as if he were describing the weather and not his nephews’ grim life chances. This sums up the mood of this morning’s public discussion on Medicaid; everyone was so tired of having this same conversation that even the ill health of family members lacked the punch it once packed.

 

Set against the sound of personal stories and pleas from increasingly diverse organizations, the familiar scene played out. The public lined up to deliver statistics, personal stories and kitchen table lectures on political theory. All of this to sway the opinion of the committee that holds Medicaid expansion in its hands. And though there was no vote today, if body language is allowed to tell the tale, things don’t look good for Medicaid expansion in the Cowboy State.

 

Representatives Marti Halverson (R – Lincoln/Teton/Sublette) and Allen Jaggi (R – Uinta) both argued in their own way that expanding Medicaid could one day leave Wyoming taxpayers holding the bag for the feds. An argument that, while lacking in evidence, the committee nodded along with.

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Bill Summary:

This bill would eliminate the election process for the office of superintendent of public instruction at the start of 2019. 2018 would be the first election cycle in which Wyomingites would not vote on a Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The Superintendent is an ex officio member of the UW Board of Trustees and the Board of Land Commissioners. No longer being an elected position, superintendent would no longer have ex officio seats on either board. The bill proposes that without a superintendent, the board of land commissioners would continue to exist, simply having dropped the superintendent as a member, and consist only of the governor, secretary of state, state treasurer and state auditor. The University board of trustees is required by rule to have 7 members, however, and it is unclear who would assume the vacated seat should the office cease to exist.

 

Expert Opinion

Wyoming Education Association president, Kathy Vetter was kind enough to answer some questions about education in the state and the possible future of the superintendent’s office.

 

WyPols: How might losing that top executive position affect the education system as a whole?

Pres. Vetter: I’m not sure how it would affect the system as a whole.

 

WyPols: Are there any examples from other states that Wyoming might use as a template for an education system without a superintendent?

Pres. Vetter: Well I know the Governance study put out a bunch of examples and different things that they could possibly do. They looked at all the different states and a number of different things that were out there. They all had pros and cons and I don’t know what they would put forth moving forward.

 

WyPols: Might eliminating this position be helpful for the students of Wyoming?

Pres. Vetter: I don’t know what they would do in place of it, it’s another crystal ball thing. I know one thing that would be helpful for the students of Wyoming would be to make sure that we have an external cost adjustment to make sure that our schools are funded so that all of our students can have a great education.

 

WyPols: Why do you think the committee is looking at dismantling the office superintendent?

Pres. Vetter: I’m not sure, but I would hope that they’re looking at what is best for the students of Wyoming and ensuring that we have a positive education system for all of the students in Wyoming.

 

WyPols: Do you think this bill is going to pass?

Pres. Vetter: I think this is going to garner a lot of debate on the floor of both houses, especially the one it starts in. And I’m excited to listen to that debate and see what comes forth. I can’t see into the future.

 

Best Guess:

 

Two things are abundantly clear when looking at the environment in which this bill exists. First, the public likes the idea of voting for Superintendent (no matter how few of them actually turn out). Second, the legislature likes the idea of maybe possibly streamlining some of the legislative process slightly.

I think this bill is a toss-up, but leaning ever so slightly towards passage. With voter memories seemingly shorter than ever and an upcoming presidential election that will ensure a strong turnout for the Republican base in Wyoming, incumbents will feel a level of security even with some slightly unpopular votes on their records. I think this bill will pass, and the people who still read newspapers will be upset for a week or two until something else will catch the public attention this season.

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Governor Mead delivered his State of the State address Wednesday, kicking off the 2015 legislative session. “The state of the state is strong,” declared the governor, “getting stronger.” In his address Mead lauded Wyoming’s low unemployment rate, its business-friendly reputation, and recent increases in internet access across the state, among other successes.

The Governor backed expanding the state’s medicaid program, a notable departure from recent years, though he fell short of advocating for a specific plan. Mead mentioned his coming water plan as well, noting the importance of water rights to the state’s future.

Sen. Charlie Scott (R-Casper) thought the address was thorough, though he believes dropping energy prices may become a source of concern.  “We’ll be able to withstand an awful lot of downturn for a long time. And I’m afraid we’re gonna have to.” said Scott, noting the state’s large savings fund and the recent downturn in oil prices.

Across the isle, Rep. Mary Throne (D-Cheyenne) was glad about to hear the governor support an expansion for the state’s medicaid program. Throne said that she is ‘cautiously optimistic’ that this session will see some action taken to cover more of Wyoming’s working poor. Medicaid expansion was one of Throne’s major concerns in her time on the Labor Health and Social Services committee.

Soon after the Governor’s State of the State 2015 address, several legislators and civic leaders delivered their response to the state of the state. Touching on issues as varied as wage equality and Medicaid expansion to the capitol building renovation process, the speakers delivered their message just in front of the steps of the capitol building.

Looking over the crowd, one noticed very few of the heads were covered in grey hair. Rep. Mary Throne (D-Cheyenne) was excited that such a young crowd showed up to help kick off the session. “We’ll have to get [young people] more involved!” said Throne, who spoke about Medicaid at the event.

One attendant who wished simply to be called Samantha said that she went because of the light that the rally shined on women’s issues. “The economy is definitely important,” said the UW student, “but a lot of times women just feel like second-class citizens and you just know that nobody will do anything unless you refuse to be quiet.”


This was the first response to a state of the state rally in recent memory, though if the age of the attendees is any indication, there may be many more to come.

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Bill Summary:

This bill is the Labor Health and Social Services Committee’s answer to the DOH’s SHARE Plan. Based on Indiana’s Medicaid expansion plan, the version proposed for Wyoming would introduce personal savings accounts for recipients to manage and spend on healthcare, creating what committee co-chair, Sen. Charlie Scott (R-Casper) calls ‘skin in the game’, intended to prevent overuse of the program. The current expansion bill is meant to be less expensive for Wyoming taxpayers than the share plan’s estimated of $44 million over 5 years, though an estimation of its cost has proven elusive.

 

Expert Opinion

Wyoming Hospital Association President, Eric Boley answered a few questions on the possible expansion of Medicaid.

 

WyPols: Aside from the inclusion of health savings accounts, what do you see as the major differences between the new proposed bill and the SHARE plan?

Boley: I think one of the other big differences is the work component that they’re trying to build in… They want to refer you to the Wyoming work resources or try to help you become employed if you’re not employed and ensure that you do work if you are working.

WyPols: At $44million over 5 years to cover 18,000 new users, the SHARE plan would have cost about $500 per year per new user. Do you think any alternative plan could possibly be as cost effective?

Boley: I think that the Department of Health and the Governor’s Office did a very good job of trying to come up with a plan that would be budget neutral and would be very cost effective and I’m not aware of any other plan that addresses the situation as much as theirs.

WyPols: What are the Hospital Association’s options should this bill fail?

Boley: Our options are pretty limited. What I worry the most about is that you continue to see the very thin margins or actual losses we’re seeing in each of our hospitals continue…  Theoretically, we’re worried that we may end up losing some hospitals within our state if we continue to see uncompensated care grow, especially at the rate it has been over the last several years.

WyPols: What incentive do lawmakers have to vote in favor of expansion when it is easily tied to something as unpopular as the ACA?

Boley: That’s a tough one for them. I don’t envy the position of our legislators are in. Many of them have been told by their constituents that under no circumstance are they supposed to vote for Medicaid expansion. I think the thing that [legislators] have to consider is if we don’t take care of these people and offer a Medicaid expansion, then how are we going to take care of it. Where are they going to come up with the funding? Because ultimately it’s still going to ride on business owners. It’s going to ride on taxpayers. It’s going to ride on the people that already have that coverage to continue to help bear that burden. On the flip side, you’ve got hospitals that are in tenuous situations financially that are going to have to continue to provide that service, but how are they going to survive in those communities? So I don’t envy them.

WyPols: What chance do you think the bill has of passing?

Boley: I think that there’s a good chance that something may pass. I think there are going be amendments that are going to be made as we work through this process, but as far as percentage, I don’t know if we’re [Wyoming Hospital Association] really comfortable that it is truly going to pass. We’re hopeful.

 

Best Guess:

            With all due respect to the LHSS committee, this bill never had a chance. Between a strengthening resolve on the Right to see the ACA fail and a legislature with a perceived mandate from voters to keep Medicaid from expanding in Wyoming (ironically, often to cover those same voters) this bill was doomed from the start. You cue the funeral march, I’ll see if we have any more pictures of this poor bill dying in the WyPols archives.