Legislative Update – March 22-25

Hello Sublette County, this is Albert Sommers reporting to you from Cheyenne on Wednesday morning, March 24, 2021. I missed filing my daily reports to you folks for two days in row, because we went late on Monday and Tuesday nights.

Monday was the last day for Committee of the Whole in the house of origin, so we worked until nearly 8 p.m. that night. We debated 23 bills Monday, including the following bills that I supported.

HB0051, Meat Processing Programs, provides stipends utilizing federal dollars to eligible businesses to address COVID-19-related problems by planning, constructing, expanding and maintaining mobile and modular meat-processing units or facilities. Wyoming has a shortage of meat-processing facilities, and perhaps this program will improve our livestock producers’ ability to direct-market.

HB0127, Public Health Amendments, gives the governor the authority to appoint the state health officer, instead of the director of the Department of Health making that decision. Any health order issued by a county, municipal or district health officer that restricts individuals' movements, that applies to individuals not under an isolation or quarantine order and that is designed to prevent or limit the transmission of a contagious disease would be effective for a period of not more than 10 days.

Subsequent orders, including order extensions for the same purpose, can only be issued by locally elected bodies, like a county commission. I like this bill, because it puts locally elected bodies in charge. Other similar bills would bring the decision to extend health orders back to the Legislature, a 90-member unwieldy body not designed for rapid decisions.

I also supported three pro-life bills, including a Medicaid expansion bill. I had never heard of Medicaid expansion being considered a pro-life bill, until the Catholic Diocese in Cheyenne referred to it in that manner. I have never voted for Medicaid expansion, but I am considering that option today.

On Tuesday in third reading, we debated HB0173, School Finance Funding - 2, the comprehensive solution for education funding. Debate on this bill lasted the entire afternoon and into the night. We laid this bill back for several days, which was fortuitous. Congress recently passed a federal relief bill, the American Recovery Plan (ARP), which provides $303 million to K-12 education in Wyoming.

This news steered the discussions on HB173 in a new direction. HB173 provides a three-legged stool to solve our $300-million annual shortfall in education funding. It uses funding reductions, revenue diversions, and the “insurance policy” of a 1-cent sales tax if the state’s “Rainy Day” fund drops to $650 million. The federal ARP money can be used as a local resource, thus reducing the amount the state will need to spend on education for the next three years.

However, federal conditions stipulate that states can reduce K-12 education funding only slightly over the next three years to qualify for this federal aid.

In third reading, HB173 was altered to include the American Recovery Plan dollars, creating a four-legged stool for education funding. Between funding reductions and federal dollars, the School Foundation Program will save about $320 million over a three-year period, depending upon the final federal guidance for the ARP dollars. Due to the addition of this fourth leg, the House reduced the 1-cent sales tax for education to a ½-cent sales tax, which will still serve as an “insurance policy” if our revenue streams don’t stabilize.

By a 41-19 vote, the House sent the Senate this comprehensive solution to our K-12 education shortfall. I supported this solution.

More information about these bills and many more can be found at https://wyoleg.gov/Legislation/2021.

Hello Sublette County, this is Albert Sommers reporting to you from Cheyenne on March 25, 2021. We have now finished “crossover,” so the House will be debating only Senate Files moving forward. The first Senate Files that we will debate are committee bills, which were developed during the interim by joint committees. Most of these bills have gone through an extensive public review process, which helps them move forward during the session.

On March 24, the House debated and passed several bills on third reading that I supported, including HB0036, Management Council Membership. This bill changes the membership of Management Council to better reflect the current proportion of Republican and Democrats in the Legislature. I have resisted voting for this bill in the past, because Management Council is more ministerial than political. Management Council is the board of directors for legislative staff and determines interim topics to study.

The reason I changed my mind was twofold. First, the number of Democrats in the Legislature has shrunk significantly since the membership was last altered. The second reason was that the Legislature now has a member from a third party, an Independent, who also has a right to vote for representation on the council.

During debate, the House amended the bill and reduced Management Council membership from six Senate members and seven House members to five members from each body. This will include the leadership positions (Senate president, Senate vice president, speaker of the House, speaker pro tem, and minority and majority floor leaders of both bodies), plus one member voted on at large by each body.

Because Senate president, vice president and speaker of the House are elected by their respective full chambers, these are not party-affiliated positions. The majority and minority floor leaders of both chambers, on the other hand, are chosen by their partisan caucuses. This seems like an equitable solution to me.

The most heavily debated bill on third reading was HB0162, Medical Treatment Opportunity Act, which is a bill that would bring Wyoming closer to expanding Medicaid to the working poor. This idea has been debated every year since I was first elected, and I have never supported it in the past. This year is different, because the federal government is providing more dollars to incentivize states to participate and no alternative idea has been brought forward in my entire tenure that solves the health-care dilemma for this population.

The federal government provides Medicaid to the traditional population and Wyoming has always participated. The Feds also provide stipends for health insurance for certain populations that earn more money than the Medicaid Expansion group. This group of 20,000-plus working poor and single mothers falls into a donut hole where no coverage exists.

I received a lot of calls, texts and emails from local government, health-care providers, hospital board members, chamber of commerce folks and ordinary citizens from Sublette County to support this bill. I do not believe this program will break the bank. So I voted for the bill, and it passed the House on a narrow vote.

More information about these bills and many more can be found at https://wyoleg.gov/Legislation/2021

I can be reached at [email protected] with questions or concerns.

Thank you.