Opinion by Kerry Drake, WyoFile
Some people may think the Legislature’s recent special session came up completely empty, but I don’t.
It’s true that far-right legislators cost the state an estimated $175,000 for their two-week tantrum over the federal government’s effort to slow a pandemic that has killed more than 1,200 Wyoming residents and 750,000 Americans.
It’s also true that lawmakers who demanded the not-so-special session are disappointed with its product — a single inconsequential bill. They wanted to jail and fine anybody who enforced a COVID-19 vaccine mandate, and those “Republicans in name only” they detest wouldn’t let them do it.
But look at what Wyoming has learned from the experience. The Legislature will never again be held captive for two weeks by ideologues hell-bent on pushing a radical agenda that wastes everyone’s time and a whole lot of taxpayers’ money.
I’m kidding, of course. The state’s legislative leaders would do it again in a heartbeat, because none of them want to face primary challenge charges of siding with Comrade President Joe Biden.
The sole survivor of the 21 filed bills prohibits many Wyoming employers from requiring staff to be vaccinated, at least until the feds do so, which is already in the works. And it gives the governor $4 million for litigation against the feds, which he’s already begun.
So, following the worst special session the Legislature has ever held, what will it do for an encore during February’s budget session? Here’s a preview of what we can expect to happen on some of the state’s key issues.
Medicaid expansion: The Legislature has rejected more than $1 billion in federal funds for Medicaid expansion since the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010. The main reason for this monumentally stupid economic decision is GOP lawmakers’ determination to not let former President Barack Obama — who hasn’t held office in more than half a decade — and Democrats in Congress claim any victory for the landmark healthcare law.
Legislators have willfully deprived at least 25,000 low-income residents of health insurance. Wyoming hospitals could greatly reduce the more than $100 million a year they lose in uncompensated care if they could bill Medicaid for expansion beneficiaries.
The Joint Revenue Committee will sponsor a Medicaid expansion bill that finally has a fair chance of passing. Giving advocates hope is the House’s approval earlier this year of the first expansion measure to pass either chamber.
Medicaid expansion needs 16 senators’ votes, and nearly a dozen of the 30 members remain vehemently opposed. It’s a high bar, but all of Wyoming’s neighboring states except South Dakota have expanded their Medicaid programs. The economic and humanitarian reasons are getting harder for lawmakers to ignore.
Education: Last month the Joint Appropriations Committee gutted the work of the Joint Education Committee, which had approved a $72 million increase in education funding to compensate for inflation and hire faculty and staff at market values. The JAC reduced that overdue investment to $10 million, and only allowed funds to be used for utilities and supplies.
It was a slap in the face to Wyoming educators, but not unexpected, given the Senate’s passion for cutting public school funding. The JAC’s action is far from the last word on the issue. Gov. Gordon will make his recommendation to the Legislature next month, and he’s likely to look more favorably on school funding, especially during an election year.
The last session ended with a $108 million difference between legislative and consultants’ school funding models. Federal COVID-19 relief funds were used to bail out education for the current fiscal year, but a permanent solution is needed.
As long as the Senate digs in its heels, another stalemate looms. It’s up to Gordon to broker a deal, but his failure to do so in 2021 led to the school system’s continued instability. He needs to rise to the occasion.
Elections: In 2021 the Legislature passed a watered-down version of a voter ID bill that Rep. Chuck Gray (R-Casper) and others on the far right promoted for three years. It was unnecessary, but hardly the type of radical voter suppression measures many red state lawmakers have passed since former President Donald Trump lied about the 2020 election being stolen from him.
The Wyoming Republican Party insists that its members toe the line and approve a primary runoff election system that allows the two top vote-getters to square off. The state GOP tried to convince legislators to enact the change to keep Rep. Liz Cheney from winning a crowded primary race next year by splitting the vote.
That effort failed after state and county election officials testified that the system could not be implemented in time for the 2022 primary. But phony fiscal conservatives in the GOP will continue to push it even if it adds an estimated $1.3 million per election. They may well have the votes to enact it in time for the 2024 election.
Abortion: For nearly three decades, Wyoming resisted making changes to its abortion laws. That ended in 2017, when legislators passed two bills. One required physicians to give women seeking an abortion the opportunity to have an ultrasound. The second prohibited the sale and transport of fetal tissue from aborted fetuses, which was already against federal law.
Every session, legislators have tried to chip away at a woman’s right to choose, even calling for prison sentences for physicians who perform abortions. Several bills have been rejected multiple times, including a 48-hour waiting period and bans of the procedure if a fetal heartbeat can be detected.
This year the Legislature passed a measure to prohibit the University of Wyoming from expending any funds for abortions. With Texas and other states passing some of the most restrictive bills since Roe v. Wade made abortion legal in 1973, expect a new wave of anti-abortion measures in Wyoming next year.
Far-right legislators who want to make vaccine mandates illegal often cited the Wyoming Constitution’s provision that citizens have the right to make their own healthcare decisions. I can’t wait to see hypocritical contortions they tie themselves in trying to justify taking that right away from Wyoming women.
Vaccine mandates: What, you thought this issue would just disappear? Not when there’s so much perceived political gain tied to the topic in Wyoming.
In a rational world, Wyoming’s title as the most vaccine-hesitant state in the nation would embarrass elected officials so much they would loudly call for everyone to take the COVID-19 vaccine. It’s the one sure way to reduce coronavirus cases and deaths in the Equality State, and make certain that businesses stay open.
Instead, many Wyoming lawmakers have bought into the extreme right’s campaign of misinformation and outright lies about the vaccine, which is safe, effective and free. So expect Sen. Tom James (R-Rock Springs) and Rep. Bill Fortner (R-Gillette) to dust off an absurd special session bill to impose $10 million fines to anyone who tries to enforce any so-called “vaccine mandate.”
Will calmer, cooler heads prevail — like they did during the special session — and resist bills that make it more difficult to contain COVID-19 in Wyoming? I hope so, but with more than twice as many days to consider them, I wouldn’t bet on it. Time to ruminate on bad ideas at the Capitol too often leads to their passage.
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.