Wyoming Medicaid expansion budget amendment ruled unconstitutional

CHEYENNE — The full Wyoming Senate wasn’t able to vote on a Medicaid expansion amendment to the budget bill Wednesday night after the Rules Committee declared it unconstitutional. 

Medicaid expansion has been a long-term effort by advocates such as Better Wyoming and the Healthy Wyoming Coalition, which made arguments in support of passing legislation so 24,000 residents could gain access to medical insurance. The groups said it also would encourage economic growth and help businesses retain employees.

Although there has been considerable support shown across the state, the Senate entertaining the amendment was one of the last opportunities for expansion promoters this year. 

House Bill 20, the “Medical treatment opportunity act,” was never introduced in the House of Representatives because House Speaker Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, said there weren’t enough votes for it to meet the two-thirds threshold required for non-budget bills during a budget session. 

But Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, followed through on his intention to bring it to the Senate budget discussions. He is co-chairman of the Joint Revenue Interim Committee, which sponsored HB 20. 

“This expansion is pro-hospitals,” Case told fellow legislators as he introduced the amendment. “It creates jobs. It supports those very people that we care about, the people that wait on your table or clean your hotel room. These are working people. These aren’t unemployed people.” 

As soon as the amendment was introduced, however, Majority Floor Leader Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, asked Case to withdraw it or adhere to a Senate Rules Committee review. 

The proposal was sent to the Rules Committee, where it was deemed unconstitutional by a 3-2 vote, since it wasn’t an ordinary expenditure of the Legislature. 

“I see nothing in here that has anything to do with appropriations,” Driskill said. “And it is a bill.” 

This was one of the last budget amendments in a long line of them considered throughout the day Wednesday, spanning from education cuts to appropriations for suicide prevention. 

Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper, was successful in receiving votes for the first addition to the budget, which was $25,000 for the purpose of hosting a statewide conference on suicide by first responders, and developing a plan to address the issue.

Health care was among other major discussions. An appropriation of $3.2 million was made by the Senate for developmental disability agency providers, as well as requirements laid out for the Department of Health to submit a supplemental budget request for the fiscal year 2024 for the continued operation of the Wyoming home services care program. 

After the health department was addressed, Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, made a case for adding $1.2 million for the stabilization, reform and expansion of Community Juvenile Services Boards. She was supported by members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who said the boards provided necessary data on the juvenile system and its success rates. 

“The Judiciary Committee spent significant time studying juvenile justice concerns across our state and those concerns persist,” she said. “But these Community Juvenile Service Boards really provide an excellent resource to our communities. They’re community based. They’re intended to prevent long-term incarceration and juvenile incarceration of these youths, and really keep them out of trouble and a great unnecessary need across our state.” 

Education was the next largest discussion between senators and involved multiple amendments. 

Sen. R.J. Kost, R-Powell, brought forward an amendment which gave an additional appropriation of $7.5 million to be split among the state’s seven community colleges. It was passed 23-7, as many legislators said they recognized the importance of the higher education institutions in their communities. 

“We’ve cut deeply into all of our community colleges,” Kost said. “This is probably one of the ways to get back. It’s not getting them even close, but it’s giving them a little hope for their future. They’re dedicated to our communities, they’re dedicated to our people.” 

The other investment into the education system was not as widely supported. A $70.2 million “external cost adjustment” to add funds for K-12 teachers and faculty, as well as increased energy costs and inflation, was recommended by the Joint Education Committee. 

But the Joint Appropriations Committee cut that by $60.1 million last fall to $10.1 million, and Gov. Mark Gordon reduced that amount to $9.3 million in his budget proposal. 

Sen. Jeff Wasserburger, R-Gillette, suggested providing an additional adjustment of $24 million in the face of rising inflation and budget cuts. That was rejected by a 24-6 vote. 

“Districts are struggling to hire,” Wasserburger said. “People are struggling to hire cooks, substitutes, custodians, aides, (paraprofessionals), teachers, administrators, and even superintendents are seeing a scarcity. And we’re told that there’s a teacher shortage coming because young people aren’t going into it like they used to, which is sad.” 

Other senators said the state’s 23 K-12 districts had enough funding, especially coming from the American Rescue Plan Act, but they might not be distributing it responsibly. And the two amendments that followed were in complete opposition to any additional financial investment into education. 

Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, introduced an amendment to completely eliminate the external cost adjustment. That amendment passed 16- 14. 

An even more extreme cut to K-12 schools by Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, was considered next. It would have removed all capital construction projects in the state from the budget bill completely, which amounts to about $83 million. Very few senators supported the amendment, but Wasserburger condemned his fellow legislators for what he said was a punitive measure. 

“We’ve got to be reasonable about what’s going on here,” Kost said in support of Wasserburger. “And we’ve got to quit slapping our schools.” 

Other legislators said they needed the funding for their constituents to provide maintenance on buildings, fund leases for modular classrooms and finish construction projects that weren’t finished. 

Scott, who also chairs the Senate Education Committee, said he understood the concerns, but the Legislature would need to address funding setbacks for capital construction soon. His amendment failed 23-7. 

This was the last of the significant decisions made before Medicaid expansion was brought to the table. Smaller amendments were made in efforts to clarify expenditures and set expectations for funding, but another opportunity for additional amendments will take place during third reading.