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House Speaker Tom Lubnau (R-Gillette) wants to go fast, very fast.

House Speaker Tom Lubnau (R-Gillette) knows you just can’t drive 55. He doesn’t want to limit Wyoming drivers to 75 mph, either.

No, 80 mph is the maximum speed Lubnau wants motorists to be allowed to drive, if the superintendent of the Wyoming Department of Transportation considers that limit to be safe and reasonable. The superintendent now has the power to lower speed limits if he deems it necessary for safe travel; Lubnau wants him to be able to go in the opposite direction, too.

House Bill 12, sponsored by the speaker, easily won introduction on Friday, 56-4. Lubnau said the state of Utah raised its speed limit to 80 mph on interstates in a similar bill. Utah’s traffic fatalities, he said, have since decreased under the higher limits.

“When the Utah population can drive 80 mph and our citizens can’t, I have to wonder why,” he said.

In 2013, Utah added 289 miles of highways where the higher limit went into effect. Highway officials there said studies showed that drivers were averaging between 80 to 82 mph before the new law went into effect.

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Supporters of Medicaid expansion were high-fiving each other outside of the Senate chambers Friday morning after a 21-9 vote to introduce a compromise bill that keeps the issue alive.

Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) threw everything but the kitchen sink into Senate File 118, and he probably would have added that too if he thought it would help get some Republican votes. His measure had elements of Medicaid Fit and the Arkansas Model, two plans that failed to win introduction earlier this week, and several innovative new wrinkles.

Rothfuss added a health care trust account, where the Legislature could park about $80 million in savings from Medicaid expansion that will be collected during the first two bienniums. He essentially took out all of the aspects of expansion that the GOP criticized.

“I’m elated,” said Chesie Lee, executive director of the Wyoming Church Coalition. “What’s exciting here is that 17,600 people may get access to health care.”

Gov. Matt Mead and Republican legislative leaders have foolishly opposed Wyoming accepting about $50 million this year to expand Medicaid to low-income childless adults, which was made possible by the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. The expansion was originally mandatory, but the U.S. Supreme Court said states could opt out of the program. Wyoming is one of 24 states that did, despite a state Department of Health study that said the it would save $43 million a year if it accepted the funds, and lose $80 million by rejecting them.

How could anyone make such an economically stupid decision? If you said “blind hatred of Obamacare for no reason,” go to the head of the class.

The Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Interim Committee refused to consider accepting full Medicaid expansion, despite the fact that the federal government would pick up 100 percent of the costs during the first three years. Critics argued that the feds cannot be trusted to fulfill their promises, even though the state accepts hundreds of millions of dollars in other federal funds for a wide range of programs.

Instead, the panel approved two alternatives to traditional expansion. Medicaid Fit would have provided limited Medicaid benefits, and the Arkansas Model would have used federal funds to buy private insurance for the expanded population. Both bills were weak, but they would have at least provided the 17,600 people who fall into the Medicaid coverage gap some health benefits.

Under SF 118, the state would accept full Medicaid coverage during the first year, because Rothfuss said it would take some time for the governor, attorney general and insurance commissioner to negotiate a waiver with the U.S. Department of Health that would allow them to craft the best plan for Wyoming. Included under the waiver would be Medicaid expansion for the two tribes on the Wind River Indian Reservation, which would pump millions of dollars into Indian Health Services.

Full expansion would end after the first year, and whatever plan the state and feds agreed on would automatically sunset in three years unless legislative action was taken. “We could take a look at how it’s going, and if we wanted to continue, we would have to opt in,” Rothfuss told the Senate.

The bill also has a provision that calls for Wyoming to stop participating in the expansion if the federal contribution ever falls below 90 percent.

“I drafted this legislation after listening to all of the debates and trying to figure out what were the best ideas,” the Laramie senator recalled.

Lee said the best thing about Rothfuss’ bill is that it gives the Senate committee a lot of options to consider. She noted that some senators who opposed other Medicaid proposals voted for SF 118.

“I think they wanted a chance to talk about it in committee, and become more educated about the issue,” she said. “I hope we can convince them to vote for the bill that comes back to them.”

Dan Perdue, director of the Wyoming Hospital Association, expressed delight with the Senate vote. He noted that Medicaid expansion would mean that instead of low-income people getting expensive health care in emergency rooms that is uncompensated, hospitals and physicians would be reimbursed for providing services.

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Vote Detail

Bill Number: SF0118-Medicaid-staged expansion.

Action: S Introduced and Referred to S10

Vote Recorded: 2/14/2014 10:56:19 AM

Vote ID: 227

Ayes: Senator(s): Anderson JD S02, Anderson JL S28, Barnard, Burns, Case, Christensen, Coe, Craft, Driskill, Emerich, Esquibel, F., Hastert, Hicks, Hines, Johnson, Landen, Nicholas P, Ross, Rothfuss, Schiffer, Von Flatern

Nays: Senator(s): Bebout, Cooper, Dockstader, Geis, Meier, Nutting, Perkins, Peterson, Scott

Excused:

Absent:

Conflict:

Total: Ayes: 21 Nays: 9 Excused: 0 Absent: 0 Conflict:

For those who do not know, Rep. Troy Mader (R) recently replaced the late Rep. Sue Wallis (R) in House District 52. Sue Wallis supported a number of moderate and progressive policies including legalization of marijuana, women’s right to choose, and gay marriage. As for Rep. Mader, we will post chapters of his book every day and let you make up your own mind.

[gview file=”http://wypols.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Chapter-7-Homosexual-Lifestyles.pdf” profile=”2″ save=”0″]

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Sen. Chris Rothfuss is about to try to save 111 lives.

Medicaid expansion is still a possibility in Wyoming, thanks to a compromise bill crafted by Democratic Sen. Chris Rothfuss of Laramie.

The House killed a proposal called Medicaid Fit on Thursday when it rejected House Bill 84. The measure would have offered limited benefits to the 17,600 low-income adults who qualify for the program but fall into the Medicaid gap that denies them coverage because the state of Wyoming hasn’t accepted the federal government’s offer to pay $50 million.

HB 84 fell seven votes shy of the two-thirds majority non-budget bills need to be introduced this session. On Wednesday, two other Medicaid proposals were shot down.

The House killed a bill that would have allowed tribes on the Wind River Indian Reservation and the Wyoming Department of Health to ask for a federal waiver to start a demonstration project to pump Medicaid dollars to fully fund Indian Health Services. Meanwhile, the Senate rejected the so-called “Arkansas Model” of expansion, which would have allowed Wyoming to use federal Medicaid funds to purchase private insurance for those caught in the gap.

Rothfuss, a chemical engineer, said he has been working for several months on his proposal, which includes parts of all the other plans. House Bill 118 is scheduled to be debated in the Senate on Friday, the final day bills can be introduced in either chamber.

“The intent was to put together a bill that would draw as much support as possible, taking the best features of the other legislation and putting it together, effectively engineering a compromise bill,” Rothfuss said after the Senate adjourned late Thursday afternoon.

HB 118 has premium assistance, borrowed from the Arkansas plan, but it extends it to employer premium assistance, which is something that Rep. Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) had in another Medicaid expansion bill.

“It’s got some Medicaid Fit co-pay type approaches for middle or lower incomes, whenever that’s the appropriate response,” Rothfuss explained. “At the lowest incomes maybe you just end up with the traditional Medicaid expansion.”

The senator said his bill “puts all of the options on the table, and directs the governor and the director of the Department of Health and the Insurance commissioner to go to Medicaid Services and negotiate something that’s in the best interests of Wyoming; something that’s cost-effective and cost-neutral, all of the key things we need to get done.”

Rothfuss said if the state is”overly prescriptive” in its legislation, it could endanger the [possibility of negotiating a] waiver “because we’re not the same as Arkansas and we’re not the same as Iowa. We have to do something that provides flexibility and goes a little bit further and includes a couple of other components.”

The bill sets up a health care reserve account that takes all of the net savings that are realized through the expansion – which in the first biennium is estimated at $43.6 million – and places them in an account “so if there are problems in the future, you’ve got something you can deal with.”

For the first year it does a full Medicaid expansion, because the waiver – which will include the tribes – will take some time to negotiate.

“It has a one-year sunset on the waiver, Rothfuss related, “so nobody’s worried about that being the [whole] expansion. It eliminates that after one year and makes that very clear.”

Several lobbyists who have worked tirelessly to get a Medicaid expansion bill passed like Rothfuss’ solution the best of all the proposals. “I like the fact it includes the tribes,’ said Chesie Lee, executive director of the Wyoming Church Coalition.

Lee called SF 118 a simple bill that doesn’t have any restrictions and should pass muster with the feds. She noted that two co-sponsors are legislators who voted against Medicaid Fit and the Arkansas Model.

“There’s a concern that we should at least discuss this [in committee and on the floor],” the lobbyist said.

The waiver that would be negotiated, the senator said, has a three-year sunset without legislative action.

“The purpose of that is to ensure that we have a chance to visit and proactively extend the time frame,” Rothfuss explained. “There’s a concern among a lot of the legislators that this will just be an entitlement and there’s no way to stop it, and nobody would be willing to step up and end the program.”

The senator said even if Wyoming lawmakers are concerned that the feds might back out in the next four years and not fulfill their funding promises, he doesn’t believe it will happen.

“With the time frame and the reserve account we’ve put in place [with the bill], at that point in time you’d have about $80 million available to figure out what you want to do next,” he stressed.

Rothfuss said he’s optimistic the bill will win introduction Friday, but admits there’s probably only a slim chance it makes it out of the Senate Labor, Health and Social Services Committee.

“But without a discussion,” he said realistically, “it won’t go anywhere.”

If the bill doesn’t get through the Senate, Rothfuss said, there’s still a chance it could win approval as a budget bill amendment, particularly if it gets majority votes in both chambers.

“I’m not worried about getting a particular outcome,” he concluded. “I’m worried about getting an outcome.”

If Rothfuss is successful in bringing the GOP and Democrats together with this compromise, it will be a major achievement. Even if HB 118 doesn’t succeed, his effort won’t go unnoticed by his party or the thousands of low-income people he’s trying to help finally get health coverage.

The best feature of his plan is the health care reserve account. By putting away the savings from the first three years, when the federal government picks up 100 percent of the tab, it will be difficult for Republicans to complain that there isn’t a built-in safety net for the state.

For those who do not know, Rep. Troy Mader (R) recently replaced the late Rep. Sue Wallis in House District 52. Sue Wallis supported a number of moderate and progressive policies including legalization of marijuana, women’s right to choose, and gay marriage. As for Rep. Mader, we will post chapters of his book every day and let you make up your own mind.

[gview file=”http://wypols.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Chapter-1.pdf” save=”0″]

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A DNA bill that couldn’t pass the Wyoming House last year showed Thursday morning that it’s still not ready for prime time.

The Senate Travel, Recreation and Wildlife Committee, picking up some bills that would normally have been assigned to the overloaded Judiciary Committee, heard testimony about “Katie’s Law,” Senate File 47, sponsored by Sen. Leslie Nutting (R-Cheyenne).

Katie’s Law, which has been passed by 22 states, is named after Katie Sepich, who was brutally attacked outside her New Mexico home in August 2003. She was raped, strangled, set on fire and abandoned at an old dump site.

The attacker’s skin and blood were found under the victim’s fingernails. Authorities used a DNA profile to match the evidence with the killer, who was in a New Mexico prison serving a sentence for burglary.

Wyoming already takes DNA profiles of inmates convicted of felonies, but SF 47 would go a step further and allow the state to take DNA samples from individuals arrested for, charged or indicted for felonies, including murder, manslaughter, sexual assault, kidnapping and abduction.

Nutting explained that for states that have passed the law, grants from the federal government have been made available to pay for any extra cost of the DNA testing. She said she doesn’t think it would amount to much additional spending.

But Chairman Bruce Burns (R-Sheridan) said if the Legislature passes the bill and it does not obtain a federal grant, it would amount to an unfunded mandate for the state, and that troubles him.

Some panel members expressed concern that SF 47 contains a list of felonies covered under the bill, which could restrict some other crimes in which testing of suspects charged should occur. But Nutting and her co-sponsor, Rep. Ken Esquibel, D-Cheyenne, told the commitee it was the lack of such a list that led to the defeat of a similar measure in the House last year.

Steve Klein of the Wyoming Liberty Group opposed the bill. The Cheyenne attorney said while SF 47 would allow a suspect who has been found to not have committed a crime should not have to apply to have his or her DNA expunged from the state’s files. He said the process in cases of innocence should be automatic.

“It’s a sad thing to say, but we need to be reminded in our criminal justice system that it’s better for 10 guilty men to go free than to send one innocent man to prison,” Klein said. “People have heard, especially in sexual assault crimes, that DNA is 100 percent accurate. It is accurate as a science, but it is not dispositive in a case. Many remain cases of ‘he said, she said,’ and there are a lot of reasons why an innocent person would not want their DNA collected.”

He said the nation has a “CSI culture” that emphasizes DNA infallibility. “They say, ‘We’ve got your DNA, we’ve gotcha.’ It’s just not true,” Klein said. “People may have had sex, but the DNA doesn’t prove there was an assault.”

Burns said he wants to hear from a Wyoming prosector before taking a vote on the bill. He said the committee will meet again next Tuesday to hopefully get some more information about SF 47

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Rep Mike Madden, Buffalo, was the lone Republican to join democrats in voting to introduce HB 45, a bill to raise Wyoming’s minimum wage to $9.00/hour.

“I thought it was important for the public to have a forum in a legislative committee to hear their respective views,” Madden explained. “Refusing introduction cut everybody off at the knees who wanted to weigh in on it.”

He also thought the Wyoming Labor Department could have provided some accurate information about how many jobs and in which sectors the new minimum wage would affect.

“Based on that information, we could have perhaps amended the minimum wage amount so that a compromise could be reached by those that thought it was a job killer and those that think too many people are being paid under a living wage,” Madden concluded.

If only more members of Madden’s party were willing to compromise and at least listen to the public and the minority party, perhaps the House would do more than kill bills.

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It wasn’t a surprise when the Wyoming House made short work of the minimum wage bill this week. After all, like many of the proposals that the conservative chamber killed, it had widespread popular support.

Yet the wide margin by which House Bill 45 was shot down – only nine votes for the proposal out of 60 members – should be shocking. It only takes a few minutes observing this bunch to realize they are out of touch with their constituents, but how far removed from the real world they are is truly mindboggling.

HB 45 was sponsored by Rep. James Byrd (D-Cheyenne), and co-sponsored by another Cheyenne Democrat, Sen. Floyd Esquibel. Both lawmakers made arguments that should have drawn some support: The federal minimum wage has not been raised since it went up to $7.25 in 2009. The gap between the rich and poor has grown bigger than ever as wages stagnate.

Business owners have traditionally opposed increases in the minimum wage, claiming that such action would force them to lay off employees. But there’s no evidence that has ever been the case in previous instances when Congress has passed minimum wage hikes.

A poll in Wyoming by DFM Research Inc. of St. Paul, Minn., late last year found 69 percent supported raising the state’s minimum wage from the $5.15 an hour that’s now on the books to $9. It’s important to note that women who were polled strongly backed the increase, with 76 percent support.

B31MinWage

Women, of course, have been treated incredibly shabbily by the “Equality State.” For many years Wyoming has had the worst gender wage gap in the nation, with women making only 64 cents for every dollar a man makes. Legislators have never stepped forward and even tried to bridge that gap.

The Wyoming Lodging and Restaurant Association was a major and influential opponent of HB 45. The measure would have gradually increased the minimum wage for workers who receive tips from $2.13 to $5 per hour. Officials of the organization actually said servers and others who rely on tips are “well compensated.” Some may be, but I’ll bet the vast majority of tipped employees in Wyoming would strongly dispute that claim.

The Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C. think tank, released a report last year that said if Congress would increase the minimum wage, it would affect more than 21 million workers across the country. In Wyoming, 35,000 workers would receive a much-needed and appreciated raise.

Why is the concept of people having more money to spend on their products if they actually have money in their pockets so mystifying to Republican lawmakers? Our all-GOP congressional delegation – Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso and Rep. Cynthia Lummis – all oppose the federal minimum wage bill with arguments about how it would increase unemployment and hurt the economy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Did these people ever take an economics class? And if so, did they pass?

Only one Republican, Rep. Mike Madden of Buffalo, voted with the Democrats in favor of HB 45. The rest all lined up behind their leaders and once again gave the working poor the finger.

I can’t let Democrats off the hook, though. Despite all of the attention throughout the nation to the minimum wage issue – especially after President Barack Obama signed an executive order mandating that federal contractors pay their workers at least $10.10 an hour – the discussion never took off in Wyoming. I suspect the lack of visible anger among low-paid employees has been caused because they have been beaten down by both their employers and their elected officials, who keep hammering home the message that they should be lucky they even have a minimum-wage job – or several of them – and just shut up.

It takes more than just sponsoring a bill or two in the Legislature to build popular support for such a political game-changer in Wyoming. Democrats should pick up the issue this election year and let people know they back making employers pay a liveable wage. It would lift up workers’ morale, boost our economy and hopefully send more people to the voting booth.