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Adam Thompson on April 2, 2009 - 11:00am
Despite a budget surplus of $257 million, Wyoming lawmakers failed to act substantively on big issues like health care reform, prison reform, and development of a coordinated energy policy, as WyoFile.com reports in its end of session recap. Still, progressives made important gains in workers' compensation, health insurance regulation, and beat back an anti-gay "defense of marriage act", a voter ID initiative, and an anti-choice measure. However, lawmakers failed to expand health care for kids and, most regrettably, passed laws making it easier for people convicted of domestic violence to regain their gun ownership.Notable Gains:
- Workers' Compensation: Workers achieved a key success when the legislature acted to strengthen the state's workers' compensation program with HB 54. As WyoFile.com explains, the win was shepherded by the AFL-CIO and the Equality State Policy Center and resulted in a medley of increased benefits for injured workers and a cost-of-living increase for people on permanent disability. The legislature failed, however, to include mental health benefits for emergency workers.
- Health Insurance Regulation: The Coalition for Wyoming Insurance Solutions in Healthcare successfully introduced and pushed two bills to close loopholes that allow insurers to deny coverage for medical procedures "just because". SF 95 defines when a treatment qualifies as medically necessary and creates a timely external review process for patients who are denied coverage for a procedure. And SF62 prohibits the use discretionary clauses in insurance contracts that allow insurers to arbitrarily deny coverage for treatments.
- Corporate Taxes: Lawmakers closed a corporate tax loophole by taxing the production of helium gas, which is relatively abundant in parts of Wyoming. While the federal government owns the underground helium, under the 1920 Mineral Leasing Act, it leases out the production of the gas. The sale of the commercial helium produced was previously untaxed by the state, a loophole that Exxon-Mobile had been taking advantage of.
- Mental Health Services: The state increased funding for mental health crisis stabilization programs in certain regions.
- Telemedicine: Lawmakers passed HB 281, directing state health agencies to collaborate in the development of a statewide telehealth/telemedicine network, a potentially significant initiative in a vast and rural state like Wyoming.
- Energy Policy: Although bigger decisions were put off, lawmakers passed HB 295 to direct and finance the Western States Energy and Environment Symposium. To be held prior to November 1, 2010, the symposium will bring together academics, lawmakers and other experts in energy and environment policy from neighboring states to "develop a high level cost/benefit analysis assessing the challenges of energy development, production, marketing, use and environmental impact within the western states."
- Nursing/Teacher Shortages: To help address workforce shortages, lawmakers passed SF 23 to assist nursing students in acquiring their degree, providing $25,000/year/student in financial aidand requiring participants to practice in Wyoming for at least two years upon graduation. Similarly, lawmakers passed HB 173 to expand the state's loan repayment program to include teachers who teach reading or English as a second language in Wyoming's schools upon graduation.
- Voter Registration: Lawmakers enacted SF 26 which will allow voter registration up to 14-days prior to an election. The previous time period was 30-days prior.
- Domestic Violence: In what can only be seen as an affront to survivors of domestic violence, lawmakers weakened statutes designed to keep guns out of the hands of people convicted or accused of domestic violence. Under new state law, people convicted of domestic violence will be able to apply to the courts to expunge their record and regain their gun ownership rights. They must wait five years from their conviction and are limited to one expungement. Additionally, a new law requires judges to warn people accused of domestic violence that they stand to lose their gun rights if they plead guilty. These laws will make it more difficult for survivors of domestic violence to seek justice and ensure their own safety through the legal system.
- Kids Health Care: A senate bill failed to pass that would have increased eligibility for the state's SCHIP program to kids in families with incomes up to 300% of the poverty line. The current cutoff is 200% of poverty, or $21,200 for a family of four.
- Public Smoking Ban: A house bill died that would have banned smoking in public places, including bars. Scientific studies show that public smoking bans have no negative impact on local economies and in many cases increase economic activity and job growth.
- Predatory Lending: A bill to limit interest rates and other predatory lending practices died in committee.
- Healthy Food: A bill creating the Wyoming Healthy Food Initiative to ensure healthy food is served in schools and state institutions did not make it to a full floor vote.
- Immigration: A bipartisan resolution calling for comprehensive federal immigration reform and expedited and increased numbers of visas. The bill was mixed, and also contained guest worker measures while discussing easing reunification with family members, but it was a missed opportunity for dialogue.
- Reproductive Rights: Lawmakers beat back a proposal to require doctors to show a pregnant woman a sonogram of the fetus prior to an abortion.
- Attacks on Gay Rights: The so-called "Defense of Marriage Act", which died in committee, would have amended the state constitution by specifying that a marriage between a man and a woman would be the only union legally valid or recognized in Wyoming.
- Attacks on Civil Justice: Legislation capping medical malpractice awards of non-economic damages was defeated.
- Election Integrity: Proposals to increase campaign contribution limits and create a Voter ID requirement were defeated.
2009 General Session - House and Senate Legislation