Rep. Dan Laursen was pretty discouraged last week when talking about the legislative session that ended March 31.
“I was disappointed we didn’t work on education, but I didn’t like the bill we sent to the Senate. It had a half-cent sales tax that started three to five years down the road. That’s just ridiculous,” the Powell Republican said, adding, “I’m not in the majority in the House.”
The conference committee with both members of the House and the Senate were unable to come to a consensus on funding K-12 education and adjourned without passing any changes. That puts schools in line to receive the same amount of money this year as last year, taking funding from savings accounts as a $300 million shortfall went unaddressed.
“While several other programs and departments throughout the state did receive cuts, K through 12 education did not,” said Rep. Rachel Rodriguez-Williams, R-Cody. “So that was interesting.”
She said House Bill 173 started out as an attractive, doable bill with “very modest cuts,” but was heavily amended before negotiations broke down.
Rep. Sandy Newsome, R-Cody, said the Legislature’s failure to deal with K-12 education and its funding shortfall was her biggest letdown of the session.
“That was a big disappointment,” Newsome said. “We just kicked the can down the road.”
She expects that won’t be taken up again until the interim topics are tackled.
However, Newsome was glad to get some work done on the state budget.
“We cut $340 million. The governor wanted to cut $500 million but a lot of that was in health programs. We were able to add some of that back in. There were 324 state positions eliminated. That’s unprecedented in a supplemental budget,” Newsome said.
Williams said she supported restoring some of Gov. Mark Gordon’s recommended cuts to programs that serve “the most vulnerable of our population” — including those who are developmentally disabled and on waiver programs and seniors. However, Rodriguez-Williams was disappointed that the Legislature restored the funding without making cuts elsewhere.
“To me, that wasn’t balancing the budget,” Rodriguez-Williams said, saying she thinks the state needs to control its spending.
Williams wanted to fund the programs by cutting funding to the University of Wyoming’s athletic programs, the Wyoming Business Council’s Business Ready Communities program and others.
“Also, balancing the budget based on money coming in from the federal government — you know, [President] Biden’s printing the money — that wasn’t something that I was on board with,” she added.
Laursen did say he was relieved to have fixed the air ambulance issue in the state; Newsome and Rodriguez-Williams were pleased with House Bill 7 as well.
The legislation should make it easier for air ambulance services to sell subscriptions in the state, with some consumer protections in place.
A bill passed in 2019 that classified air ambulance transport services as “disability insurance” and subject them to those requirements, prompted multiple companies to stop offering memberships in Wyoming. That, in turn, drew an outcry from members who appreciated the service.
The original problem the Legislature was trying to address, Newsome said, was that multiple companies were selling memberships and targeting the elderly. Newsome said she spoke to residents who had been told by enrolling agents that air ambulance services were not covered under Medicare, when in fact they were.
“I had to tell them they had been lied to,” she said.
The new bill no longer classifies air ambulance memberships as insurance, but does allow the insurance commissioner to suspend or revoke a company’s certificate of registration if they misrepresent their service, engage in unfair practices or fail to fullfill their obligations to members, according to a summary from the Legislative Service Office.
“I think consumer protection’s a big key,” Rodriguez-Williams said of the bill. She added that HB 7 effectively invites the air ambulance companies back into communities.
“It’s desired by constituents throughout the state, given that we live in rural areas,” Rodriguez-Williams said, adding that she believes people will be satisfied with how the new legislation turned out.
Both Rodriguez and Laursen said they were pleased by Senate File 34, requiring care for infants born alive during an abortion (meaning aborted viable babies must receive the same medical care as any other infant). Rodriguez-Williams, the executive director of Serenity Pregnancy Resource Center, also supported Senate File 96, which creates a second charge of homicide if a pregnant woman is murdered.
As for gun-related bills, the Legislature passed House Bill 116, which allows qualifying nonresidents to carry concealed weapons in Wyoming — extending a right granted to residents several years ago.
“That was a good bill,” said Rodriguez-Williams, who cosponsored the legislation.
But Laursen also supported the two Second Amendment protection bills that did not pass; they would have either invalidated or prohibited the enforcement of any unconstitutional federal actions that infringe on the right to bear arms, among other measures.
“The speaker [Rep. Steve Harshman, R-Casper] sat on it,” Laursen said of House Bill 124. “I worked hard to get it out [to the floor] but I couldn’t, between the speaker and the majority floor leader.”
One of Laursen’s bright spots was the passage of House Bill 36, shaking up the Legislature’s Management Council. The legislation, which Laursen sponsored for years, reduced the size of the leadership body from 12 members to 10 and reduced the minimum number of seats given to the minority party from five to two.
Williams, meanwhile, noted House Bill 207, which gives the attorney general (who answers to the governor) $1.2 million to sue other states if they impede Wyoming’s ability to export coal or cause the earlier retirement of coal-fired electrical plants, according to an LSO summary. For instance, Rodriguez-Williams sees some legislative changes in Colorado as requiring Wyoming to move toward renewable energy at the expense of reliability. She said the funding can be used “to keep our economy vibrant and fight [against] that war on coal.”
Among other bills noted by Newsome was House Bill 95, which she co-sponsored and which will allow residents to claim road-killed animals.
One disappointment for Newsome was the failure of a bill to require school districts to provide suicide prevention education to students. She said it was an important issue and said she was deeply concerned about the prevalence of suicide among students. Newsome felt taking the education to the classroom where students could talk to their peers might help stem the tide, whereas now the required education is for teachers and administrators, even though many schools do have a classroom program for students.
Lawmakers will meet again in Cheyenne in July for a weeklong session to discuss the hundreds of millions of dollars of relief funding that are being released by the federal government under the American Rescue Plan.
“We have to decide how to spend this money. The Legislature thinks it needs to tell the governor how to spend the money and they haven’t decided how to spend the last one,” Laursen said. The stimulus is a sore point for the Powell representative.
“It’s frustrating,” he said. “We’re $38 trillion in debt and they [the federal government] think they can keep throwing money out there. One day we’re going to have to pay that bill.”