Berger: Budget remains focus of legislative session

SHERIDAN — The Wyoming Legislature has five days down and 15 to go in its 2014 budget session in Cheyenne. The first week of proceedings was described as “robust” by local delegate Rep. Rosie Berger, R-Big Horn.

“With more than 179 bills to consider in the House and 120 in the Senate, only a handful of non-budget bills have survived the required two-thirds approval for introduction,” Berger said. “With the session lasting only 20 days, the budget will remain the focus.”

The Joint Appropriations Committee on Tuesday approved House Bill 1, which is the fiscal year 2015-2016 budget for the state. It will be introduced in both houses on Monday and Tuesday. Second reading of amendments will be Wednesday, and third readings Friday, according to a press release from the Majority of the Wyoming State Legislature.

The bill appropriates $3.32 billion, a slight decrease from the previous biennium with nearly 300 fewer state employees.

Apart from the budget, another issue loomed large over week one of the Legislature, Berger said.

Just 13 days before the Legislature began, the Wyoming State Supreme Court ruled 3-2 that the law enacted by the 2013 Legislature that stripped State Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill of most of her powers (Senate File 104) was unconstitutional and she must be allowed to return to work as head of the Department of Education.

 

 

This week, the Management Council sponsored a bill, Senate File 106, that outlines the process to hold a special session following the regular budget session to deal with the supreme court ruling and figure out how to manage the 37 state statutes that were affected by Senate File 104, including statutes that will affect the 2015-2016 budget.

On Thursday legislators traveled to Laramie to welcome home the Wyoming Army National Guard’s 133rd Engineer Company. The 162 soldiers deployed from Wyoming in April 2013 and are from 38 communities across the state, as well as Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Nebraska and Utah, according to a press release. The soldiers were stationed at Isa Air Base in Bahrain to provide security for personnel and equipment at the base.

Here are some key bills that are either moving up or moving out after week one in the Wyoming Legislature.

 

Moving up

 

These bills passed the 2/3 vote for introduction to begin moving through the approval process in the House of Representatives or the Senate:

• Senate File 103 — This bill will provide funds to rehabilitate and restore the Wyoming State Capitol building.

• House Bill 22 — This bill will reduce the interest rate that counties may assess on mineral tax audits from 18 percent to 12 percent. Local delegate Rep. Mike Madden, R-Buffalo, said people who don’t like energy companies will think the bill gives them a break, but it doesn’t. They will still owe an 18 percent interest penalty if they are late with their taxes or refuse to pay.

• HB 46 — This bill increases employee and employer contributions in certain state pension plans.

• HB 65 — This bill provides for a sales and use tax exemption for telecommunications infrastructure. It was sponsored by Berger.

“HB#65 has good momentum, all of industry is working with me to pass a solid piece of legislation. I view elimination of the sales and use tax as one more step in the efforts we have already undertaken to attract high tech and communications related businesses to Wyoming. Ending the taxation of communications network investment would complement the Governor’s broadband plan, where he is trying to leverage dollars to boost investment and infrastructure deployment statewide. It makes little sense to incentivize industry to invest on one hand, while taxing that investment on the other,” Berger wrote in an email to The Sheridan Press.

• HB 78 – This bill pushes back on the Environmental Protection Agency and empowers the Governor to fight back against the EPA ruling that would enlarge the boundaries of the Wind River Reservation by a 50-mile radius.

• SJ0001 – This bill requests Congress to require the EPA to respect the primacy of Wyoming in developing guidelines for regulating dioxide emissions.

 

Moving out

 

These bills failed to get a 2/3 vote for introduction and are moving out of the session:

• HB 31 — This bill would have raised Game and Fish license fees for hunting and fishing to alleviate budget woes for the department.

As chairman of the Senate Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee, Sen. Bruce Burns, R-Sheridan, said the failure of the bill wasn’t surprising given the House’s previous votes on similar bills.

“There are two mitigating factors, SF 45 is still alive moving responsibility for healthcare and grizzly bear management to the general fund and an large increase in gun and ammunition sales around the country in the past year,” Burns wrote in an email to The Sheridan Press. “The Pittman-Robertson Act taxes those sales and sends the money to state Game and Fish agencies. It has resulted in millions of dollars in revenue whenever a politician in Washington DC makes noises about gun control.”

• HB 45 — This bill would have raised minimum wage to $9. The wage for tipped employees would have been increased to $5.

• HB 49 — Defeated by a vote of 15 for and 45 against, this bill would have decriminalized possession of marijuana up to one ounce.

• HB 84 — One of three Medicaid expansion bills, HB 84 would have authorized expansion of Wyoming’s Medicaid program with more limited benefits than the federally recommended expansion.

• Senate File 49 — A bill sponsored by Burns, SF 49 would have designated firing squad as Wyoming’s alternative form of execution in death penalty cases because the gas chamber is the current alternative, and Wyoming doesn’t have one. Burns didn’t think it would be fiscally responsible to build one for the limited executions done in the state. Burns also expressed concern about the availability of drugs used on lethal injection.

“I was disappointed SF 49 didn’t pass introduction. It will have to come back next year,” Burns said.

• SF 88 — This bill was one of three Medicaid expansion bills to be considered by the Legislature. It would have authorized subsidy of health insurance premiums for Medicaid clients.

Rep. Kathy Coleman, R-Sheridan, said the failure of two Medicaid expansion bills didn’t surprise her.

“On the two bills regarding Medicaid expansion, my comments are that I don’t believe those are the answer. It doesn’t really solve a bigger problem, and that’s why I wasn’t in favor of them,” Coleman said.

• SF 90 — This bill would have required all hospitals in the state to serve Medicare and Medicaid patients before receiving new or renewal licenses. Sheridan Memorial Hospital CEO Mike McCafferty was in favor of this bill because he said allowing hospitals to not accept Medicare and Medicaid would enable those hospitals to charge less, endangering the viability of SMH and other hospitals that do accept Medicare and Medicaid.

• SJ 2 — This joint resolution proposed by Burns would have amended the State Constitution to eliminate the elected status of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction after Jan. 5, 2019, and allowed the governor to appoint a cabinet officer to supervise public instruction.

About

Hannah Wiest is the government and outdoors reporter for The Sheridan Press. She has lived in Colorado and Montana but loves her sunny home state of Wyoming best. She joined The Press staff in February 2013.

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