COWBOY POLITICS: Budget bill amendment barrage WY Legislature grinds through sixth week

By on February 24, 2015

The sixth week of the Wyoming Legislature was marked by hundreds of attempts to amend the Senate and House versions of the budget bill, one more chance to talk about Medicaid expansion and yet another science standards amendment to a budget bill. The week ended with the rare event of a representative being ejected from a House Labor Committee meeting.

Budget Bill

One of the most important parts of the legislative process happens out of the spotlight this week: the horse-trading of amendments to get one compromise budget bill. Legislative Service Office staff takes conference committee members through a coded list of scores of amendments passed by the House or Senate. They decide what to keep, what to delete and what to cut in half, based on the strength of their passage, how much they cost and – let’s face it – politics. It’s an inside game even for the legislative insiders. The legislators’ summary “cheat sheet” is the key to amendment action and is a coveted prize.

Leadership is frustrated that so many “mirror” amendments passed by both chambers are untouchable, but no one is suggesting removing that immunity (at least not yet).

One of the most effective conference committee negotiators I saw in action was former Sen. Tom Kinnison of Sheridan, who could bully or cajole with equal ability, and the Senate dominated many budget bill battles in conference committee.

You can read the amendments and roll call votes on the “Digests” of SF1 and HB1 (the Senate and House versions of the supplemental budget bills). Find the list of bills on the Legislative Service Office Web site.

The public can contact members of the budget conference committee to lobby for or against certain spending or policy amendments. First, the House and Senate will vote not to concur with each other and then the conferees will be named.

One of the most heavily lobbied amendments is an $8.2 million External Cost Adjustment (inflationary adjustment) for school districts’ block grants. That was a mirror amendment, so it is off the table.

One that slipped in is a directive to the State Board of Education to approve science standards “unique to Wyoming.” It comes from the second-in-command in the Senate, Eli Bebout of Riverton.

Health care for the uninsured

The House got its chance to debate Medicaid expansion with a third reading budget amendment Thursday morning. You can listen to the audio archive, starting with a link on the LSO Web site home page. Although it was a doomed effort, supporters provided compelling reasons, while opponents relied on straw men, misinformation and a preference to leave the uninsured out in the cold rather than participate in a federal program.

The amendment (31) was defeated 15-41. Find the roll call vote on the Digest of HB1.

The House and Senate also considered an amendment to put $5 million into community health centers and rural health clinics for uncompensated care. Both were soundly defeated.

Meanwhile, SF145: Hospital Uncompensated Care, has $5 million for hospitals, with most going to small, financially fragile hospitals. Wyoming hospitals report $200 million lost annually to indigent care.

Science Standards footnote

The controversy continues, thanks to Senate Majority Floor Leader Eli Bebout. The fate of a bill (HB23) to remove an anti-Next Generation Science Standards footnote from the 2014 budget bill is in question. At the behest of right-wing groups and legislators, Bebout won Senate approval for a footnote on this year’s budget bill to tell the State Board of Education to approve “quality” science standards that are “unique to Wyoming.”

No one knows what “unique” standards would look like or why they would be good for Wyoming students. Bebout claims it has no force, but others find a mandate in the language – a mandate that is impossible. So Wyoming students spend yet another year with outdated science standards, unless legislators remove the language from the budget bill.

Insisting on civility

House Labor Chairman Elaine Harvey is accustomed to maintaining order and civility while hearing bills that stir emotional testimony. On Friday, it was SF115: Discrimination, to add “gender identity” to the list of employment protections. After an hour of passionate testimony, the committee was working hard to finish before the afternoon session. With a smile, Rep. Harlan Edmonds of Cheyenne proposed an amendment he called a “poison pill” and then asked to change the effective date to “when hell freezes over.” Chairman Harvey ordered him from the room and recorded his vote as “absent.” Leadership sent the bill to her committee because they knew it would get a fair hearing, and it did.

Governor veto

Gov. Matt Mead exercised his first veto of the session: SF14: Asset Forfeiture. It passed with large majorities in the House and Senate, and supporters want a two-thirds override vote. The bill makes it harder for police and prosecutors to seize property they believe are involved in drug crimes, requiring that the owner be charged with a felony before the seizure. Mead said he thought the current law was adequate

Other issues for the week include: The next major deadline falls at the end of this week as bills must be reported out of committee in the second House by the end of the day on Friday; Senate leadership may decide to put a veto override on SF14 before senators, which would require a two-thirds vote of both chambers; HB114: Wyoming Repeal Gun Free Zones, is scheduled to be heard in Senate Education on Wednesday morning; SF115: Discrimination, was approved in House Labor 6-2 on Friday and will be debated by the full House this week. It has many exceptions based on religious belief.

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