When legislators convene Jan. 8 they could face one of the busiest and most pivotal sessions in recent memory, local delegates say.
“It’s going to be a wild ride,” said state Rep. Sam Krone, R-Cody, of the 40-day general session.
District 18 Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody agreed, noting there could be real dissension about whether to dip into the state’s $1.5 billion reserve fund.
“That’s our ‘rainy day account,’” Coe said. “But is it, in fact, raining in Wyoming? I don’t think it is.”
A new delegate, House District 50 Rep. David Northrup, R-Willwood, agreed that budgeting could be the most vexing issue for the Legislature.
Northrup, Coe and Krone reflected on some of what could be the biggest issues facing the Legislature.
Krone and Coe say they support Wyoming “opting out” of the Affordable Health Care Act and Medicaid, to the extent possible.
“The Joint Labor Committee has already recommended we not participate in the Affordable Care Act,” Coe said. “But that doesn’t mean delegates can’t still bring specific things to the floor during the session.”
Neither he nor Krone expect many legislators to disagree with the committee’s decision.
Northrup said he wants to learn more about the legislation, but also worries it could be too expensive for Wyoming.
“I want to be brought up to speed on all the ins and outs of how the federal health care policy could affect our state,” he said.
Likewise, most legislators will probably oppose a Medicaid buy-in, which could bring up to 17,000 new recipients into the program in Wyoming, Coe said.
The federal government is offering a 90-to-10 percent split on that funding, picking up most of the tab.
But Coe said he’s dubious that support would stay in place for many years.
“The feds might not be able to sustain it, so that percentage would change,” he said.
“I have great sympathy for people needing those services,” he added. “But once you bring new people on, they’re staying.”
Krone also said if the federal government cannot hold up its end, the program could “truly become an unfunded federal mandate.”
“I would hate to commit more of our tax dollars to it, before I could see clear evidence of how it could benefit Wyoming,” Northrup said.
Regarding a proposed 10-cent fuel tax increase, to raise money for highway funding, Coe, Northrup and Krone hold different views.
“I don’t think I’m going to support the fuel tax increase,” Coe said.
“The good news is, I don’t have to worry about it for a while,” he added. “It’s a revenue-raising measure, so it will have to go through the House first.”
“Clearly, it would have an effect on gas prices, and this is a rural state that depends on driving great distances,” he said.
The fuel tax increase is projected to raise about $71 million annually; WYDOT says it needs $134 million annually to maintain the state’s highways in their current condition.
With the state expecting 4-8 percent funding cuts for agencies, residents will probably see some reduction in services, so now is not a good time to also ask them to take on a tax increase, Coe said.
Northrup said he wants to learn more, including taking a look at WYDOT’s budget.
“I’m waiting to learn the rest of the story, I would like to be able to make a better-informed call on the proposed fuel tax,” he said.
“I would like to take a close look at WYDOT’s budget,” he added. “I would like to see if there’s a better way to get the funding we need for our highways.”
Krone said he might favor the tax, but only if it’s phased in.
“I’m not sure I can support a 10-cent hike all at once,” Krone said.
“Doing it all at once would be a big bite for the average taxpayer to take right away,” he added.
Krone and Coe agree that I-80 holds sway over the highway budget.
“I think we have good highways, but it’s an I-80 problem,” Coe said, adding that he doesn’t hold much hope for federal funding to take up the slack for spending on interstates.
“I-80 is a beast in terms of maintenance,” Krone said. “I don’t foresee any life preservers coming from Washington for I-80.”
The gas tax was last raised in Wyoming by five cents in 1998.
Coe added that he’s sponsoring a bill to give the Department of Transportation discretion to raise the speed limit to 70 mph on some state highways.
It could be on “big, wide, not-so-busy highways,” such as Veterans Memorial Highway between Cody and Powell, Coe said, or the highway between Meeteetse and Thermopolis.
“The measure would allow WYDOT to decide which highways might qualify for an increased speed limit,” he said.
Game and Fish fees
Game and fish is requesting a hike in some license and hunting tag fees, saying it needs the revenue.
But G&F’s closed budget could be an issue.
“G&F has always been autonomous,” according to the people’s wishes, Coe said.
“But that agency has come to us for some one-time funding appropriations, without the same scrutiny that other agencies are subject to, in terms of an open-book budget,” Coe added.
“The Joint Appropriations Committee should have the right to look through their budget if we are going to give them a revenue increase,” he said.
Krone said his biggest concern would be hikes affecting youth or elderly hunting, but the proposed increases apparently would not do that.
“I think the youth fees remain untouched, and those for older hunters would go up only a little,” he said.
He added that care should be taken raising fees for out-of-state hunters and anglers.
“We don’t want to get to a tipping point, where it’s no longer feasible for them to come to Wyoming,” Krone said.
“I’m undecided on the issue of the (Legislature approving) G&F budget,” he said. “I need to get into the mix a little more before I take a position on that.”
Northrup agreed the G&F budget should be open.
“I would like to see how much money they are getting from the feds, and how it’s being spent,” he said.
While he appreciates G&F has a largely fee-driven budget, Northrup added that raising those fees could be counter-productive.
“My concern is, if they raise those fees too high, they might drive off some of their customers, who feel they can no longer afford the licences and tags,” he said. “If enough people are driven off by high prices, then the G&F fee revenue stream could shrink, and they could end up right back where they started.”
Significant portions of the G&F and WYDOT budgets are approved by those commissions and not the Legislature.
Krone said he and Coe will work together on legislation to reform the “Title 25” process by which people adjudicated to be a threat to themselves or others because of acute mental illness can be detained.
Krone said he also will push to eliminate confidentiality for defendants charged with sex crimes.
Currently, such defendants’ names cannot be made public while the case is still in circuit court; they become public once bound over to district court.
Krone would like to see sex crimes treated like other criminal cases – becoming public information as soon as a complaint is filed in circuit court.
Northrup, who has a strong background as a school board member, said education issues will be an interest of his.
He would like to see Wyoming and neighboring states work on a uniform “common core” system.
“That way, if Johnny moves with his family from Texas to Colorado, Wyoming, and back to Texas, he’s getting the same core curriculum throughout his school years,” Northrup said.
He also plans to sponsor a bill calling for uniform allowable weights for agricultural trucks traveling across the border between Montana and Wyoming during harvest season.
That would allow farm trucks to move between the states during harvest, without special permits, he said.
(Mark Heinz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)