2 251

It’s official: On Tuesday afternoon, the Wyoming House lost its flippin’ mind.

At least the 33 members who voted to kill an anti-discrimination bill to protect workers who are gay, lesbian and transgendered did. Of course, a fair share of them lost their minds years ago.

Rep. Marti Halverson (R-Etna) said people believe the bill adds “another special layer of legal protection for a perceived and protected condition beyond that afforded other citizens.”

“Condition”? Does she think being gay is a disease?

“I would urge you to remember that the primary role of government is to protect people’s rights, not to legislate special rights,” Halverson told her House colleagues. A majority bought the argument, because an hour and a half later following a debate dominated by those who opposed Senate File 115, they killed it on a 26-33 vote.

Fortunately, that vote was recorded for posterity. At some point in the future it will be considered unbelievable that lawmakers voted against a bill to protect the LGBT population from being discriminated against. But the voting record will be there in black and white, just like it was for those who fought integration, interracial marriage and the voting rights of blacks.

A shameful legacy continued Tuesday by lawmakers who have always seen “special rights” where the rest of us see equal rights, but it’s their legacy. They own it.

For the rest of us, there’s never been a clearer clarion call to action than the one sounded after the House turned its back on thousands of people in Wyoming who can still be discriminated against at work simply because they were born gay.

The first thing that happened Tuesday was a huge compromise offered by SF 115 supporters. Rep. Mike Madden (R-Buffalo) stripped out everything in SF 115 that didn’t pertain to gays’ rights in the workplace.

Madden maintained that’s all people who emailed him wrote about, while opponents raised a lot of issues but not that one. His amendment passed overwhelmingly on a voice vote.

That wasn’t nearly enough to persuade a majority to approve the bill. No, they wouldn’t accept anything but the bloody carcass of SF 115. The audience learned from speaker after speaker they couldn’t protect people from being fired because their sexual orientation offended the legislators’ religious and moral sensibilities.

“If we don’t start out here with something we can agree [on], I fear we’re going to walk out of here with nothing,” Madden implored.

Madden had a reason to be afraid, because nothing is precisely what SF 115 supporters received.

Rep. Elaine Harvey (R-Lovell), chairman of the House Labor, Health and Social Services Committee that approved the bill 6-2, walked to the podium and said “Wow.” She enthusiastically endorsed Madden’s changes, which were approved overwhelmingly on a voice vote.

Some of the most vociferous opponents obviously still hated the bill, but they voted for the amendment so they could get their moment in the spotlight to show how disgusted they were about the very existence of such a bill.

Here are some of the arguments opponents used:

— We’re a friendly bunch. “Wyoming is known for its friendliness,” Halverson declared. “We’ve been consistently rated the top most business-friendly state in the nation.”

— Gays just made the wrong decision. “This will be the first time in all the employment non-discrimination acts that it will be a choice,” said Rep. Roy Edwards (R-Gillette). “It’s how they decided to be — gay or lesbian or if its transgendered or however you want to say it.”

— Protecting the rights of gays is screwing up everyone else’s rights. “Passage will assure that no individual business, institution or organization or faith community will escape a whirlwind of personal, economic and financial upheaval that may result from these actions,” said freshman Rep. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle). “At risk are the rights we say we’re trying to protect — our free speech, freedom of association, freedom of religion and freedom to protect ourselves.”

— We did it for the children. “Human history has created a space and time where we’ve had the opportunity to live according to the rights of a free conscience,” said Rep. Matt Winters (R-Thermopolis). “It is time to see freedom’s torch lit anew. … We desire that dream to persevere for our children. We can stand today and say we stood for them.”

There were many nutty stories that didn’t make any sense considering the context of the bill. Edwards said he once had a business and he hired a guy who dressed nice for the interview but came to work the next day wearing a T-shirt with naked girls, and he showed his tattoos. So?

Halverson said she was asked what would happen if a girls’ soccer coach had a big, strapping boy who thought he was a girl who wanted to play. Exactly how does this relate to on-the-job discrimination?

Winters, a Baptist pastor, began his remarks by saying, “I sincerely love every one of you. I believe every one of you are created in the image of God. You have a human dignity that is worthy of respect.”

Why can’t he spread a little love around for LGBT people, who must also have been created in the image of God (he didn’t just make legislators, did he?) and protect them from being fired for their sexual orientation?

Here’s something that’s really twisted: Halverson cited a poll that showed 96 percent of people in Wyoming think an employee’s work should be based on experience, ability and performance, not their sexual orientation or gender identity.

To Halverson, that means everything is hunky-dory, because we agree gays shouldn’t be discriminated against. What it really means, though, is that you should have passed the law guaranteeing employers can’t legally discriminate against their LGBT workers.

Halverson also said the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services has only had 40 complaints alleging discrimination due to sexual orientation or gender identity in the past four years. She said the numbers were so small, it was just anecdotal — “And we’ve learned not to pass laws based on anecdotes.”

But Rep. Ruth Ann Petroff (R-Jackson) said that many complaints in a four-year span is not “anecdotal.” Besides, she added, “We certainly don’t take away our protections for people of color because we haven’t heard many complaints over the past few years.”

House Speaker Kermit Brown (R-Laramie) led the charge for the bill’s supporters. For starters, he said he doesn’t believe one’s sexual orientation is a choice.

“I would argue with you to the death on that,” he said. “I have a little personal experience to back that up. Some people are hard-wired differently. I don’t know why, but they’re here, they’re among us, they are our friends.”

He reminded the religious zealots on the House floor that “God didn’t put us here to denigrate each other. What we’re talking about here is equality, grace and dignity, and how we treat other.”

The speaker seemed tired of all the religious arguments other lawmakers used in speaking against the bill. Or perhaps listening to all of the hypocrisy wore him down. “For religion to be an impediment [to equality] just floors me,” he said. “For a thousand years, religious people have been persecuted. … It seems as soon as religion attains a level of parity, it has to strike out and inflict the same things on others that were inflicted on it.”

What it comes down to, Brown said, is if a gay person can do the work they were hired to do.

“If they can do the job, what possible justification could there be to say, ‘You know, I’m going to let you go because you have certain characteristics that I don’t approve of,'” he said.

The speaker concluded by asking the 59 other lawmakers of which he is leader to do what they say in Australia — give gays, lesbians and transgendered people “a fair go.”

The Wyoming Legislature’s cadre of right-wing extremists don’t have a clue about what a fair go is, unless it’s about giving themselves a break.

So far this session they’ve rejected Medicaid and killed proposed minimum wage increases, so they’ve shown their disdain for the working poor. Now they’ve said no to providing workplace protection for gays and lesbians, which means for homophobic employers who want to discriminate, it’s open season.

And they have the nerve to call this a “people’s Legislature.” It would be funny if what they did today wasn’t so unjust, and if their petty politics weren’t so damn pathetic.

 

If you would like to thank the legislators who voted “Yes” on this bill, click here.

0 70

Sen. Ray Peterson (R-Cowley) said he was returning home after last year’s budget session feeling pretty good about helping to defeat Medicaid expansion. Then he went to see the director of his local hospital.

“He thanked me for my conservatism, then showed me how much the facility was losing in bad debt and charity care,” Peterson recalled. Some of those funds could have been made up by Medicaid expansion.

Peterson said he still couldn’t bring himself to vote for Medicaid expansion this year, and he was on the prevailing side of a 19-11 vote to reject the plan. Expansion of the program would have brought in $125 million a year to the state in federal funds and provided health insurance to an estimated $17,600 low-income childless adults.

But he told the House Labor, Health and Social Services Committee on Monday that the state has to do something to help hospitals reduce their uncompensated costs.

Peterson acknowledged Gov. Matt Mead, who favored passage of the SHARE Medicaid expansion plan that was shot down in both chambers, isn’t a big fan of the approach to help hospitals in SF 145.

Combined, the 27 members of the Wyoming Hospital Association (WHA) have losses of more than $100 million annually from uncompensated care.

Peterson said the bill he worked on with Sen. Bill Landen (R-Casper) that was being considered by the committee was  merely a temporary “Band-Aid” that could provide Wyoming hospitals some relief — particularly the three small hospitals the WHA said are in danger of shutting their doors unless they get a quick influx of cash.

Originally, Peterson related, SF 145 contained an appropriation of $10 million to be divided between the state’s hospitals, but he and Landen voluntarily lowered it to $5 million. The bill survived a third reading attempt by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Tony Ross (R-Cheyenne) to pare it down to $2.5 million, and SF 145 passed the Senate 19-11 at the $5 million level.

Landen said $5 million “is an appropriate target to shoot at” to help stabilize the hospitals’ situation. He compared Medicaid expansion to “firing a shotgun from 100 yards away” to try to fix the problem.

WHA President Eric Boley told the panel one hospital has only a paltry 19 days worth of cash reserves on hand, which is enough to cover it through one payroll cycle. He said the WHA still firmly backs Medicaid expansion, but it supports SF 145 “because some of our hospitals could really use the money.”

The problem is “gut-wrenching,” Boley said, adding the most at-risk hospital — which he didn’t identify because of privacy concerns — has to do whatever it can to delay paying bills while it tries to collect more money. Sometimes that includes management personnel not cashing their paychecks right away, he noted.

Under SF 145, the $5 million would be distributed through a formula that would give small hospitals two-thirds of the funds, with the other one-third directed at the state’s largest hospitals.

Boley said the funds that would go to the hospital with only 19 days of cash reserves would help it cover about a month’s worth of expenses.

A spokeswoman for the Wyoming Medical Center in Casper said while the national average in uncompensated care makes up about 6 percent of a hospital’s budget, at WMC it is 12.7 percent of the hospital’s total expenses.

Chairwoman Elaine Harvey (R-Lovell) said she wished the House could add another $100 million appropriation to the bill.

 

The House committee passed SF 145 unanimously, 9-0. The bill will move on to the full House and will likely be heard within a few days.

 

1 1572

Freshman Rep. Harlan Edmonds (R-Wyoming Liberty Group) managed to do something Friday afternoon that even long-time observers of the Wyoming Legislature had never seen before.

He got kicked out of a committee meeting.

Edmonds, a legislator for less than two months, got the old heave-ho from Rep. Elaine Harvey (R-Lovell), chairman of the House Labor, Health and Social Services Committee. It came right before the panel was to vote on Senate File 115, a bill that would prohibit discrimination against gays and transgendered people.

Currently employees in Wyoming can be fired solely because of their sexual orientation.

The Cheyenne lawmaker committed two breaches of the House rules for conduct. First, he tried to amend the bill so private businesses and owners could discriminate as much as they wanted to against the people SF 115 was designed to protect.

Puzzled legislators on the committee asked him about the impact of such action. Wasn’t it directly contrary to the purpose of the bill?

Edmonds smiled and said he was trying to put a “poison pill” into the legislation, which is something so objectionable it would keep people — even supporters — from voting for it. Other lawmakers occasionally try to do the same thing, but they show enough respect for the sponsor and those who favor the legislation that they don’t gleefully announce their intention to kill it.

Especially when the sponsor of the bill, Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie), was sitting only a few feet away.

Harvey let that indiscretion go, even though she was obviously perturbed that Edmonds wasted the members’ time when they were trying to finish their work and go back to the House. But Edmonds was on a roll, and he tried to push things as far as he could. A few minutes later, as the committee neared the end of amendments, he said he had another change he would like to make.

Edmonds said he wanted to amend the effective date from July 1, 2015 to “when hell freezes over.”

The chairman immediately ordered him out of the room for breaching the House’s civility rules.

Edmonds seemed to not think Harvey was serious, so he stayed in his seat. But he got up and began walking out when it became clear that he had indeed been kicked out.

The panel’s secretary began the roll call, and Edmonds said “no” as he was walking out. “He’s absent,” Harvey said, declaring his vote would not count. The committee passed SF 115 by a vote of 6-2.

After the meeting, Edmonds tried to brush off what happened as a joke gone awry. “Things were pretty tense, and I was trying to lighten up the mood,” he said. “But nobody laughed.”

And nobody bought that weasely explanation, either. Edmonds eventually told reporters he would apologize to the chairman. If he wants to play the class clown, fine, but not at the expense of belittling the legislative process everyone else follows.

The Edmonds ejection overshadowed the rest of the meeting, which had been strange enough. Harvey let those who wanted to testify against the bill speak first.

So much fear filled the room, it’s amazing it didn’t blow out all the windows in Room 302. Opponents created many terrible scenarios about what would happen if businesses were forced to treat homosexual and transgendered people as human beings, and not be able to discriminate against them and fire them for their “chosen lifestyle.”

Some of the most ludicrous testimony focused on perceived threats about how protecting the rights of people based on their sexual orientation would lead to heterosexuals not being able to use public restrooms out of fear of being molested or seeing something that offended them and was contrary to their religious beliefs.
Former Attorney General Pat Crank, a supporter of the bill, had a good answer to that claim. He said gay, lesbian and transgendered people obviously use public restrooms now, and there’s no problems like the opponents described.

“The Alliance of the Catholic Church has put out a legal memorandum attempting to try to spread fear that if this bill passes we’re going to have gays, lesbians and transgendered people in our bathrooms,” Crank said. “The bottom line is they’re there now. I’ve traveled all over Wyoming and I use public restrooms all the time, and I’ve never been accosted, flashed or sexually assaulted … The fear is just that, it’s crazy.”

Representatives of the Wyoming Restaurant and Lodging Association, the Wyoming Alliance of Churches, the Wyoming State AFL-CIO, the Wyoming Association of Municipalities and the Wyoming Highways Association all testified in favor of the bill.

Jason Marsden, director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, said emails the organization receives from people who have been fired because of their sexual orientation “are truly shocking, they’re depressing, they’re saddening and they’re unjust. We’re better than that.”

“I’m probably the least likely person a year ago to be here to advocate for LGBT rights,” said Kasey Jones of Gillette. “I’m a life-long conservative and member of the LDS Church. I’m here because our son recently came out to us.

“He does not feel safe here,” she related. “He is not sure he can stay. If you say ‘no’ [to this bill] you’re saying no to my son. … You’re saying it to real people. You’re saying, ‘You’re not worth our protection.'”

Earlier the bill passed the Senate 24-6. SF 115 now moves on to the House, where it will be placed on general file and should be debated by the entire chamber.

1 860

Of all the eloquent words used on the House floor Thursday to make a rock-solid case for Medicaid expansion in Wyoming, the most succinct argument was spoken by a Democratic leader from Cheyenne.

“It’s a no-brainer,” said Minority Floor Leader Mary Throne.

It is indeed, but that fact didn’t faze the 41 House Republicans who voted the same way 19 senators did last week when they killed Medicaid expansion for the next year. That makes 60 dolts — that’s the nicest word we can think of — who proudly voted against the best interests of the working poor, hospitals, businesses, churches, city and county officials, insurance companies and economic development groups.

If a coalition with these members came to the Legislature supporting any other bill, Throne noted, lawmakers “would jump to get on that bandwagon.” But in their refusal to pass Medicaid expansion, the opponents made certain that poor people cannot get affordable health care; some hospitals will close; city and county coffers will be drained trying to bail out health-care facilities, and no new jobs in the health-care industry will be created.

And even though opponents have callously ignored the figure, let’s not forget the Wyoming Department of Health — the states own experts — estimated 111 people will die every year because we have not expanded Medicaid to include impoverished, childless adults. A considerable number of this vulnerable population will get sick, get worse, suffer and perish because 60 Republican legislators couldn’t bring themselves to support a federal program that is tied in any way to “Obamacare.”

Rep. Mark Baker (R-Rock Springs) apparently spoke for many of his GOP colleagues about 80 minutes into the debate when he strolled to the microphone and said the discussion should end because “we want to have lunch.” Yes, we certainly wouldn’t want to interrupt the dining plans of legislators, when they’re just wasting time talking about how people eligible for Medicaid expansion now have to choose between going to the doctor or eating.

Rep. Ken Esquibel (D-Cheyenne) noted the Legislature is a pretty elite bunch of people, most of whom probably make more than $100,000 a year. He said if they had to rely on what they made as legislators, they would qualify for Medicaid.

“Could you live on your legislative salary?” he asked. Esquibel didn’t get any response, but everyone on the floor and in the gallery knew the true answer would be a resounding “no.”

Rep. Sue Wilson (R-Cheyenne) patiently explained to her colleagues something most have never seemed to grasp, even though they’ve been talking about the issue for three years. People who make 100 percent or less of the federal poverty level — the poorest of the poor — do not qualify for the expanded Medicaid program solely because state officials foolishly won’t agree to take hundreds of millions in federal dollars. And unbelievably, they don’t qualify for federal subsidies under Obamacare because the 17,600 people who need help don’t make enough money under the program’s guidelines.

To anyone who thinks this population can just go out and buy health insurance like everyone else, Wilson said the average private insurance plan available to them in Wyoming costs $640 a month. That’s amounts to about half of their average total monthly income; the other 50 percent has to be used for shelter, food, transportation and many other necessities.

There is one thing to be grateful for about Thursday’s debate, thanks to Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne), who tried to amend the state budget bill to include Medicaid expansion. Because of his efforts, the public knows exactly which House members are intelligent, caring human beings, and which ones are thick as a brick and don’t give a damn about poor people.

We thank the six House Republicans who joined the chamber’s nine Democrats in voting for Zwonitzer’s amendment. Chief among them was Wilson, who gave a brilliant explanation about why expansion makes perfect sense for both health and economic reasons.

Wilson was the right GOP legislator to make this pitch, because like the majority of her party, she would like to see Obamacare repealed. Nevertheless, she researched Medicaid expansion and wisely concluded “it would spend public money in the most efficient way possible.”

Even though it failed to sway many representatives, Wilson’s words should be used the rest of this year and in 2016 to convince opponents to put the partisan fear-mongering away and examine what Medicaid expansion actually means for the state. It would:

— Provide about $125 million per year in federal funds that would boost Wyoming’s economy.

— Create about 800 new jobs, mostly in the health-care industry.

— Reduce hospitals’ massive debt of more than $100 million annually due to uncompensated care.

As a side benefit for those legislators who are always asking how Medicaid expansion would help hard-working citizens like themselves, passage would likely stabilize health insurance rates or cause them to decrease.

For every ideological point opponents tried to make, expansion supporters had an answer that could be backed up with facts. When they piped up that Medicaid recipients need to be forced to work so they have “some skin in the game” (could someone please retire that phrase?), expansion backers said the majority do work, sometimes two minimum-wage, part-time jobs with no benefits, because that’s the only employment they can get.

Rep. Catherine Connolly (D-Laramie) said most of the rest of those who would be new Medicaid recipients can’t work; they’re too sick because they don’t have adequate health care.

Stupidity ran rampant out of the mouths of the amendment’s opponents.

Rep. Matt Winters (R-Cody) said he was concerned because it’s “an ethical issue.” It is, but not in the way he considers it.

In the traditional Medicaid program, costs are split 50-50 between the federal and state governments. Winters said instead of adding more people to Medicaid, the feds need to fix the program.

His comments ignored the fact the new recipients represent our most vulnerable population. If the federal government is willing to initially pay all of the cost, then at least 90 percent after 2020, significantly reducing state spending while actually helping people who desperately need it, how on earth is it unethical to anyone?

What isn’t ethical is to effectively tell the working and/or sick poor to drop dead, because they don’t deserve the state’s help.

Winters soon explained what’s really behind his opposition. It’s the “destruction” of the 10th Amendment — which is constantly cited by conservatives as a major reason to get rid of most of the federal government, because it gives states the powers to do what isn’t explicitly given to the feds in the Constitution.

Of course, strict constructionists like Winters don’t mind holding out their hands and taking the $2 billion the federal government sends to Wyoming every year. But if a small portion of those dollars would go to Medicaid expansion, it gets their blood boiling. The representative should ask himself how the state government is going to replace that $2 billion if his dream comes true and the feds say “Adios, you’re on your own.”

We’re going to quote freshman Rep. Harlan Edmonds (R-Cheyenne) at length, because of all the Medicaid expansion opponents, he’s the most unhinged about the issue:

“I’d like to remind the body that from the conservative point of view, I think we’re on the cusp of victory, and this is no time to go wobbly and embrace socialized medicine,” he said.

“We’ve fought this battle for years now, and I’m sorry if I offend anyone, but the way leftism works is to create a problem and then offer a solution and reap the benefits of power, bureaucracy and control. … We’re seeing ‘Oh. We have this problem now, and this was created by socialist ideas. And now the solution is more socialism.”

Edmonds said Wyoming is in an excellent position to resist Obamacare and “to stand tough and provide some leadership to the other states.” He wrapped up his lecture on conservatism by saying once Obamacare is gone, “We can begin rebuilding the private sector solutions that will address the health-care crisis, if that’s what we want to call it.”

Please, give us a break. The private sector is largely responsible for the health-care crisis — and it is a crisis — we find ourselves in today because the “free market” approach led to soaring costs and a steady decline in the quality of American health care.

Zwonitzer’s amendment addressed all of the concerns expansion opponents have cited for years. It called for a suspension of the program if at any time the federal government’s contribution fell below 90 percent. It limited it to four years without further legislative action, and it spelled out how the state would pay for administrative costs by setting up a $1.5 million health-care reserve account without spending any new state dollars.

Throne related a story about a Campbell County man who has diabetes, would qualify for expanded Medicaid and has no health insurance. He was forced to choose between eating and buying insulin. He picked food.

On the same day the Senate voted 19-11 against Medicaid expansion, the man was rushed to the hospital with insulin shock, Throne said.

“That’s what happens to real people while we argue about taking or not taking the federal government’s money because we don’t trust them,” she said. “Real people have real crises easily preventable if we took the Medicaid money. It’s the right thing to do.”

0 203

Trying to provide sexual assault victims the ability to obtain protection orders against their alleged assailants is something the Wyoming Legislature has unsuccessfully tried to do for several years.

The Senate passed the latest effort, House Bill 17, on first reading Wednesday. But at least one lawyer, Sen. Tony Ross (R-Cheyenne), said the bill isn’t ready for prime time yet.

“There are problems with this bill because it’s not balanced,” Ross said. “Quite frankly there’s no way [as a suspect] you can defend yourself, because if you do you open yourself up to potential criminal attack also.

“That’s how these things work,” he added.

Ross said a victim can ask for a protection order even if there isn’t much evidence against her alleged attacker. If that person is potentially facing a criminal charge, he won’t be able to testify in his own defense at the civil proceedings.

“You’re not going to take the stand; you just can’t,” the senator said. “If I was advising a client, I would tell them do not take the stand, because anything you say in a court of law can be used against you in another court of law, and the provisions of this bill do not reflect that.”

Ross said he is willing to work with the Joint Judiciary Committee, which sponsored HB 17, plus judges, prosecutors and anyone else interested in crafting a workable bill.

The original bill made the protection orders effective for a year, but the House amended it to three months. The Senate changed the provision back to a year on Wednesday, with Sen. Drew Perkins (R-Casper) explaining that judges told the panel they didn’t want to review such cases every three months to see if an order should be extended.

Ross said he favored the change to a year, but it’s unknown if the House will agree with the Senate’s amendment. If it doesn’t and the bill stays the same and is approved, the two chambers would have to work out the differences in a joint conference committee.

Sen. John Hastert (D-Green River) said in most states that have similar protection orders for sex assault victims, they are in effect for two years.

He said HB 17 as amended would make a protection order in effect for up to a year, but judges would have the discretion to make it for a shorter period of time.

Hastert reminded senators whether the alleged offender is actually charged with a crime is up to state, city or county prosecutors, and is something a victim has no control over. HB 17, which would put sexual assault cases in the same state statute as stalking cases, would finally give victims a civil remedy for protection.

“A lot of the time victims don’t want to go public, they simply want the person to leave them alone,” he related.

Hastert said in Wyoming, 22 percent of women will experience rape in their lifetime. He noted 43 percent of women and 29 percent of men will experience sexual violence other than rape.

Nearly three-fourths of all female victims are sexually assaulted by someone they know, Hastert said.

Sen. James Anderson (R-Glenrock) said he supports the bill, which is “born out of a real, defined need.” He explained that he and his wife have provided shelter for women who have been sexually assaulted

“There’s a lot more protection needed for these young individuals,” he said.

The House passed HB 17 earlier by a vote of 58-2. The only members who voted no were Rep. Gerald Gay (R-Casper) and Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne).

0 60

Nothing is ever really dead in the Legislature, until they turn out the lights on Day 40 and everybody goes back to where they came from.

That goes for Medicaid expansion, which looked awfully dead when the Senate killed the last active bill on the issue. And it probably is, but House members will resurrect it again when they consider the budget bill on third and final reading today.

Amendment 31 to House Bill 1 will be offered by Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne). It is basically the SHARE plan that negotiators for the Wyoming Department of Health developed with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). If the Legislature approves the plan, Wyoming would officially apply for a demonstration waiver from the CMS to operate an expansion plan unique to the state. The amendment is co-sponsored by Rep. Sue Wilson (R-Cheyenne).

In an email to WyPols late Wednesday night, Zwonitzer wrote, “The conversation/debate was needed on the House floor by the entire House.”

“I do not believe it will pass,” he added. “If it did, I see very little possibility of the Senate agreeing to it. It’s just a chance to get more debate from all elected legislators.”

On Sunday, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle reported House Speaker Rep. Kermit Brown (R-Laramie) wanted to see the members have a full debate on the controversial issue, which it hasn’t had this year. All of the action has been in the Senate, which considered a compromise bill that included a few elements of the SHARE plan, but it killed the bill in an 11-19 vote.

“At least people on our side will have a chance to speak their mind, have their say, have it considered and know whether they’ve persuaded the majority of the body or not,” Brown told the newspaper.

That’s all well and good. And if the House wanted to, it could take a populist stand (as opposed to the conservative “we hate the feds, especially Barack Obama, and we can’t trust any of them to keep their word” stand the Senate has steadfastly adopted) and put Medicaid expansion into its version of the budget bill. The House members would be heroes to the working poor.

Still, it would be an extreme long shot to bet on the Senate changing its mind about a program most of its members seemed eager to kill only a week ago.

Under Zwonitzer’s amendment, the state of Wyoming would agree to accept $54 million from the federal government to fund Medicaid expansion beginning next year. Any waiver negotiated could only be in effect for up to four years without further legislative action, and if the feds’ share of the cost ever dropped below 90 percent, the program would be discontinued.

The expansion program would include premium and cost-sharing by eligible individuals, an estimated 17,600 low-income, childless residents who cannot be helped now by either Medicaid or the subsidies available under the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.

A work search and training “benefit” developed by the Department of Workforce Services would be offered by the program. The Senate loaded its bill up with a “poison pill” work requirement offered by Senate Majority Floor Leader Eli Bebout (R-Riverton), who insisted that individuals in the Medicaid expansion program must work at least 32 hours per week. The CMS has never approved a waiver for any state that mandates a work requirement.

Zwonitzer’s amendment includes a provision for the state to create a $1.5 million healthcare reserve account to pay for the administrative costs of Medicaid expansion. The account would be funded by money saved through reduced costs for state agencies because Medicaid would be helping the same clients.

When the Senate killed its Medicaid bill, the House Labor, Health and Social Services Committee scrapped its plan to offer its own SHARE-based Medicaid expansion plan. Chairman Elaine Harvey (R-Lovell) explained there was no reason to work on the bill since the Senate’s overwhelming vote against its own measure would doom anything the House passed.

Harvey is also sponsoring a health-related amendment to the budget bill. Her amendment, No. 4 on the House list of proposed changes, would appropriate $5 million from the state’s general fund to the Department of Health to be distributed to rural health clinics and community-based health centers.

The funds would provide reimbursements for uncompensated care for patients with an income 100 percent or lower compared to the federal poverty level. This is part of the population that would be covered under Medicaid if the state accepts the expansion offered under Obamacare.

A bill already passed by the Senate would provide $5 million to Wyoming’s acute-care hospitals to help reimburse the facilities for uncompensated costs. The Wyoming Hospital Association (WHA) estimated the total amount of uncompensated care for its 24 member hospitals at more than $100 million annually.

The WHA said at least three smaller hospitals in rural parts of the state are at risk of closing if they do not receive immediate help to reduce their uncompensated care, and other facilities might join them.

If the House passes either or both the Zwonitzer and Harvey amendments, the Senate would need to have a concurrence vote on the changes. If it rejects those or any other amendments the House may pass on final reading, a conference committee would have to be appointed to work out the differences.

 

0 103

Motorists are ignoring safety equipment mandated by the courts and too many people are getting hammered using powdered alcohol, a Wyoming legislative committee learned Tuesday.

If you happen to do both, it really wasn’t your day. The House Judiciary Committee passed two bills: one aimed at enforcing the law requiring convicted drunken drivers to install ignition interlocks, and the second banning all powdered alcohol.

A Wyoming Department of Transportation (WyDOT) official told the panel nearly half of the motorists ordered to install the interlocks on their vehicle just ignore the law and either drive with a suspended license or not at all. The ignition interlock keeps drivers with DUIs from starting a car if their blood alcohol content (BAC) is .02 or greater.

A driver with a BAC of .08 or higher is considered legally intoxicated. The Legislature passed the ignition interlock bill six years ago to help reduce drunken driving.

Tom Loftin, head of WyDOT’s Driver Support Services, said 1,269 people required to install the interlocks have complied with the court mandate, but 1,169 others have not.

“They’re either ignoring the law and driving while their license is suspended, or they’re trying to wait out [the punishment] and just don’t drive at all,” the division director said.

Rep. Sam Krone (R-Cody) was confused. “Isn’t getting them off the streets the purpose of the program?” he asked.

Loftin said while the state obviously does not want people with DUIs to again drive while intoxicated, that’s not the whole point of the law. “It actually affects behavior,” he noted. “It teaches them to not drive after consuming alcohol.”

If someone simply stops driving during the length of their sentence mandating use of the ignition interlock system, Loftin said, they haven’t learned to control their alcohol consumption and are much more likely to keep drinking and wind up driving after their suspensions are lifted.

“People don’t make good decisions sitting on a barstool,” said Senate File 77’s sponsor, Sen. Drew Perkins (R-Casper), adding that since the legal clock doesn’t start ticking until the system is actually in use, an offender who doesn’t have one installed will have his or her license suspended indefinitely, not just the length of the original court order. The safety equipment costs between $60 and $80 per month to use, Loftin said.

The sentence for someone convicted under SF 77 is the same as for driving with a suspended license: up to seven days in jail and up to a $750 fine.

Perkins, who also carried the original bill to begin using the system in Wyoming, said the goal is to help people learn to drink responsibly, not to simply send them to jail.

“When they get out the only thing you’ve done is make them really thirsty,” Perkins said.

Rep. Charles Pelkey (D-Laramie) said he supports the concept behind the changes that would go into effect if SF 77 wins approval, but he couldn’t vote for it in committee because it contained language he said is too vague.

The committee deadlocked at 4-4, leaving Chairman Rep. David Miller (R-Riverton) to break the tie. He explained he voted in favor of the bill so it could be debated on the House floor. He made it clear after the meeting, though, that he’s not sure the proposal will get his final vote on third reading.

SF 106, sponsored by Sen. Bill Landen (R-Casper), would make the sale or use of powdered alcohol illegal. He noted while the federal government initially approved it last April, the order was rescinded about two weeks later. The matter is now being left up to the individual states.

Landen said 24 states are now considering a ban on powdered alcohol, including all of Wyoming’s neighboring states except Montana. He said one of the things that makes it dangerous is that it can be taken in so many different ways, including mixing it with beverages, adding it to food, snorting it or taking it in pill form.

Mike Moser, executive director of the Wyoming State Liquor Association (WSLA), said even though his group’s members could make money selling the product, they won’t do it because it’s a bad idea with a lot of risks, especially for young people who can’t purchase traditional alcohol legally.

Moser said if someone decides to put the powder in food, other people who have no idea they’re eating it can get extremely drunk and sick. He said the powdered form is being marketed on the internet with the suggestion that it’s easy to carry into concerts, sports events and movie theaters.

Powdered alcohol has been around since the 1800s but is once again becoming popular, especially in Europe. Moser said it looks pretty innocent, “like pixie stick powder.”

Miller asked Moser if he thinks mini-bottles of alcohol should be banned, too.

“No, because they are fun and legal,” the WSLA director said with a grin.

The committee voted 6-3 to approve the bill, which previously passed the Senate by a 23-7 vote.


UPDATE

SF 106 died in the house Wednesday on a 16-43 vote.

 

0 73

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.

0 117

Brian: Welcome to another Super Bowl half-time show in the Wyoming Political Football League.

Today’s game between the House and Senate has featured some issues we’ve seen before, like Medicaid expansion, guns in schools and the Next Generation Science Standards, as well as some newcomers, including taking away binding arbitration from firefighters. Joining me to analyze the first-half action is Rod, a retired all-star politician who played for both the House and Senate —

Rod: Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here. When you’ve been out of politics for as long as I have, it’s a pleasure to be anywhere.

Brian: — And our special guest, Rudy. Rod, do you know why we asked Rudy to be on our show?

Rod: I don’t. I’ve never seen or heard of him before.

Brian: And he’s never seen or heard of you, either, despite the fact you’re a shoe-in to join the WPFL Hall of Fame as soon as you die!

Rod: I have to die first?

Brian: That’s the WPFL rule. Rudy, can you explain to Rod and our viewers why you’re here?

Rudy: They told me it’s because I don’t know anything about Wyoming Political Football. I’ve never seen a game and I don’t vote. All my friends tell me it’s a waste of time, because the teams are going to do whatever they want anyway.

Brian: We polled 100 Wyoming residents, and no one knew less or cared less about today’s Super Bowl than Rudy. He’s our control group.

Gentlemen, let’s talk about the 800-pound gorilla in the chamber: Medicaid expansion. The Senate really played this issue for all it’s worth and could have scored, but unbelievably threw an interception with a deflated ball at the 1-yard line. Rod, how critical of a mistake was that, and is there any way it can be fixed?

Rod: I think the best way to explain its impact is that the commissioner, who governs this sport, said Medicaid expansion had to cross the goal line for both teams. With the Senate shooting itself in the foot in the first half, it left the House off the hook on Medicaid.

Brian: The Senate has the lead right now, but can it go on to win with such a blunder looming over it and the House playing great defense?

Rod: Ordinarily I’d say no, but you’ve got to remember that the House has some new players this year who are not making the transition to the pros well. The House’s offense is flat and predictable, since 90 percent of the time they run or throw the ball to the right side of the field.

Brian: Rudy, do you know anything about Medicaid expansion you can share with our audience?

Rudy: Well, the other day I read on the Internet how bad Obamacare has messed up everybody’s health care, and it said Medicaid expansion was to blame. So I don’t see how killing it was a mistake at all, like you guys seem to think.

Brian: So are you saying you think the Senate threw that interception on purpose — that it was part of its game plan all along?

Rudy: I reckon so.

Rod: That’s ridiculous!

Brian: Still, an interesting theory. Let’s talk about a fan favorite in the WPFL: guns in schools. Rod, the House came out throwing on this issue and never stopped. Were you surprised by its intensity?

Rod: Not at all, because guns in schools — and everywhere else — is the House’s bread-and-butter play. The real question is if the Senate’s defense can keep the House out of the end zone on this one, like it’s done in past seasons. Personally, I like the Senate’s chances.

Brian: Why is that?

Rod: Because the Senate has had the same nucleus of players for years, and they just don’t think guns should be allowed in schools no matter how popular the idea is with fans. They didn’t like Medicaid expansion either, even though three out of every four fans said it was the right thing to do.

Brian: So the Senate isn’t afraid to show its maverick side, like Sarah Palin?

Rod: Bad analogy there, Brian, because what the Senate is doing on the gun issue makes sense. But sometimes they really are mavericks, simply because they know no matter what they do, voters will renew their contracts.

Brian: Rudy, anything you can contribute on guns in schools?

Rudy: Listen, if either the House or Senate or anybody else tries to take my guns, they’re going to be staring down the barrel of my Smith & Wesson.

Brian: For someone who doesn’t vote, you certainly have some strong political opinions. Ever thought about trying it just once?

Rudy: My Daddy told me not to, because he said it just encourages the bastards.

Brian: The House and the Senate both took away the Board of Education’s right to even talk about adopting the Next Generation Science Standards, but the House kicked a field goal when it repealed that action in the first half. The Senate did the same thing, but was ruled off sides on the kick because it insisted that the board should see if there’s a way to emphasize that Wyoming is unique, whatever that means. Can the Senate make the kick in the second half?

Rod: It’s possible, but I think it’s likely the House will go all-out to block the kick. And if that happens, I wouldn’t put it past the Senate to try a fake field goal and throw it. That’s part of the team’s mavericky nature, you know — it’s not afraid to take chances.

Brian: Your thoughts, Rudy?

Rudy: As long as they use the Next Generation Science Standards to teach that evolution is a theory, not a fact, I don’t care who scores the points on this issue.

Brian: We just have time for one more issue. The Senate looked like it was going to take binding arbitration away from the firefighters, but at the last minute it didn’t, scoring a touchdown on the rarely seen reverse-end-around-screen-flea-flicker.

Rod: That’s why the Senate went into the locker room with the lead, 7-3, and all the momentum.

Brian: Anything the House can do to get the “big mo” back?

Rudy: That’s the trouble with this “sport”: You always have to beat the other guy! Why can’t the House and Senate work together, and compromise once in a while, and work for the common good?

Rod: Are you serious?

Brian: It would compromise the integrity of Wyoming Political Football. If they did as you suggest, who would watch it?

Rudy: I don’t watch it now!

Brian: Exactly. That’s why we’ve got to get you to root for a team, to keep you interested in putting up yard signs and wearing T-shirts and political buttons with your team’s logo.

Rod: If you were going to watch the Republicans vs. Democrats, who would you pick?

Rudy: Since they have three times as many players, I’d have to go with the Republicans.

Brian: It turns out Rudy does know a little something about Wyoming Political Football after all. Enjoy the second half, and pray we don’t go into overtime. My heart can’t take it.

 

3 128

The Senate Thursday had the chance to put to rest the whole, ugly saga of the Legislature stopping the Wyoming Board of Education from considering controversial new science standards.

It just couldn’t do it.

The Senate voted 27-3 in favor of House Bill 23, which would erase the budget bill footnote lawmakers passed last year to keep the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) from being adopted.

Because the House also passed HB 23 on a 39-21 vote that would normally be the end of the issue for legislators, and the bill would be sent to the governor to decide if he wants to sign it into law.

But the Senate insisted on amending the bill to make it clear the board of education “may consider, discuss or modify the NGSS, in addition to any other standards, content or benchmarks as it may determine necessary to develop quality science standards that are unique to Wyoming.”

At numerous forums last summer, the incessant point made by NGSS opponents was that state standards should be “unique to Wyoming” and/or “reflect Wyoming’s values.”

The House killed the identical amendment to its version of HB 23, while the Senate passed it 16-12 on Thursday. If the House does not vote to concur with the Senate’s version, the issue would go to a conference committee to work out the differences.

Since the House already rejected those differences once, it’s likely to do so again, if only to see how married the Senate is to the idea that the standards need to be “unique to Wyoming.”

The differences in the two bills are not inconsequential. Passing the amendment led one of the co-sponsors, Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie), to vote against HB 23.

In passing the amendment, the Senate ignored the advice of its president, Sen. Phil Nicholas (R-Laramie), who called it “absurd” to think that somehow science is unique in Wyoming.

“There’s nothing unique about the science that exists in Laramie or Cheyenne, or that the minute you drive across the border the science changes,” he said.

“In no way, shape or form are we saying (Wyoming’s) science is unique,” said Senate Majority Floor Leader Eli Bebout (R-Riverton), who sponsored the amendment. “… What we said was let’s talk about what’s unique to Wyoming and what we want to try to do with that.”

Bebout emphasized NGSS is still in the bill. “We’re not taking that away,” he said.

Rothfuss was in full-court-press mode to kill the amendment. He argued it wasn’t germane to the bill, but Nicholas ruled that it was. Then he said it was unconstitutional because it changed the intent of the bill.

“What we’re trying to do here is make amends for a bad piece of process whereby we tried to take and tie the hands of the State Board of Education, and we’re now trying to undo that,” Rothfuss explained. “If this tries to put further directions on the State Board of Education, then we’re just doing the same thing.”

Sen. Jim Anderson (R-Glenrock), sponsor of the bill in the Senate, said he views HB 23 as “sort of an eraser, to erase something that’s been couched as a mistake, and this is the correction.”

Anderson said initially he didn’t think the amendment harmed the bill, but later wondered, “Why do we even need this thing? We’ve erased this small mistake, let’s not insert a bunch more verbiage.”

Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper) said with its permissive language, “I think it’s a good amendment and at worst it’s harmless.”

But Nicholas said while it uses the permissive language ‘may consider’ and ‘may determine,’ it still clearly mandates the state is to develop quality science standards that are unique to Wyoming. The president said nowhere in the legislation does it define what “quality science standards” are.

“I would submit to you that our role and what we’ve been trying to do is not develop quality science standards — we’re looking for a very rigorous set of standards to [obtain] a high level of performance,” Nicholas added.

Sen. Curt Meier (R-LaGrange) said the arguments against the amendment were in conflict with each other. “One is, we shouldn’t be telling the state board anything, and the other is, we should be more descriptive and tell the state board exactly what we want.”

“I think this is a good amendment because it gives flexibility to the state board to determine what is appropriate for Wyoming,” Meier said.

We’ll have to wait until next week to see if the House, which adjourned Thursday afternoon for the four-day Presidents Day holiday, agrees.