As the 65th Wyoming Legislature’s general session came to an end recently, leaders of both chambers said they had accomplished much they could be proud of this year.
At first, we scoffed, shook our heads and said something to the effect of: “Of course. They say that at the end of every session.”
It was frustrating to hear House Speaker Steve Harshman and Senate President Drew Perkins, both R-Casper, pat themselves and their colleagues on the back as at least 20,000 residents continue to go without health insurance because they refuse to accept federal money to expand Medicaid.
It was aggravating to hear them downplay the significance of their failure to pass any meaningful tax reform to end the boom-and-bust cycles caused by the state’s dependence on the mineral extraction industries. And it was downright insulting to hear them say they had made great progress for Wyoming even as they failed to protect LGBTQ residents from losing their jobs because of who they are and who they love.
But they were right when they said they passed some key legislation that will serve Wyoming well in the years to come. That includes:
Public records access – Senate File 57 was the result of many months of work by an interim committee, in consultation with media representatives, nonprofit organizations and others. It sets specific deadlines for public officials to respond to records requests and creates a state-level ombudsman position to address problems as they arise. We think this will help improve the public’s access to the information that’s theirs to be had.
Hathaway Scholarship program – Senate File 43 adds career and vocational education to foreign language and fine/performing arts as part of the success curriculum options that qualify Wyoming high school students for the Hathaway Scholarship. Coupled with other efforts, it’s great to see the state supporting students who choose one of the many important career paths that don’t require a four-year college degree.
Veterans skilled nursing facility – Though it surely was frustrating for community leaders in Buffalo and Casper to have the facility’s potential location bounced back and forth during discussion of House Bill 82, we’re glad that was the focus of debate, rather than whether it was needed. Wyoming is the only state without a VA skilled nursing facility, which provides long-term care to veterans, their spouses and Gold Star families, and is partially subsidized by the VA. The sites are built through a VA grant program, which pays for 65 percent of the cost of construction. (Buffalo prevailed in the end, by the way.)
Hemp production – The U.S. Department of Agriculture has to develop guidelines for hemp production and testing before Wyoming can do the same and farmers can plant the seeds. But in addition to authorizing hemp farming, House Bill 171 allows for the production and sale of hemp-based products, such as plastics, rope, animal feed and more, including ones containing CBD oil. The expanding global market for industrial hemp could provide growers with a lucrative cash crop for generations to come.
Efforts to reduce opioid addiction – Senate File 46 limits new opioid prescriptions to no more than a seven-day supply in a seven-day period. In addition, Senate File 47 will require doctors to receive ongoing education on how to prescribe opioids, and to check the Wyoming Prescription Drug Monitoring Program before writing a prescription for an opioid-based medication.
Judicial system reforms – Three bills approved by the Legislature are designed to reduce the amount spent on the state’s corrections system, and instead invest in programs aimed at reducing recidivism. Since a large portion of the state’s prison population comes from probation and parole violations, keeping many of these offenders out of prison should save a lot of money and be better for them in the long run.
Bachelor’s degrees at community colleges – In some ways, the passage of Senate File 111 in the first year the idea was brought to the table was nothing short of a minor miracle. Laurie Nichols, the president of the state’s only four-year university, lobbied against it. Legislative leaders opposed it. But sponsor Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, and Laramie County Community College and Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce leaders prevailed, giving students a way to get a four-year degree closer to home using Hathaway Scholarship money. As the state focuses on workforce diversification, this has the potential to be a game-changer.
Lawmakers also should be applauded for what they didn’t do, including wasting $260,000 on another unnecessary Medicaid expansion study, preventing voters from changing their party affiliation before a primary election, removing public notices from community newspapers and adding work requirements to certain Medicaid recipients.
But during the next 337 days until the 2020 budget session begins, we hope our elected representatives seriously address the bigger challenges, such as reducing health-care costs and finding a stable source of funding for K-12 education.
If they can accomplish these harder tasks, this time next year, we’ll eagerly join them in celebrating their accomplishments.