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2010 Legislative Session Roundups: Wyoming

In a state dominated by the oil and gas industry, it's not surprising that one of the major bills of the 2010 session was a tax on alternative wind energy, just as it was little surprise that right-wing "states' rights" bills dominated political debates. 

Health care bills enacted by the legislature followed conservative models, such as promoting health savings accounts and interstate insurance sales that critics worry will undermine consumer rights.  Civil liberties advocates also condemned a series of new criminal justice laws that will likely undermine due process for juvenile offenders.  And the state failed once again to raise its minimum wage even to the federal level and failed to pass a bill banning discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

On the more positive side, the state extended its Loan Repayment Program for teachers, enacted an indigent civil legal services program for the first time, and rejected a proposed constitutional amendment condemning federal health reform requirements for individuals to purchase health insurance.

Regulation of the Wind Generation Industry:  Wyoming passed HB 101, which imposes an excise tax of $1 per megawatt hour on any wind turbines operating more than three years in the state. 60% of projected tax revenue of $4 million annually will will be received by the counties where the wind projects are located and the remaining will be apportioned to the state's general fund. Some surrounding state governors criticized the law, the first tax on wind power in the nation, as undermining an alternative energy source fuel source. On the other hand, the Wyoming Conservation Voters supported the bill although they thought the tax should apply to other sources of electricity as well.

Health Care:  Wyoming promoted two of the right-wing's favorite health care approaches-- high-deductible Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) and interstate health insurance plans that bypass local consumer protections:

  • Using money from a tobacco settlement fund, Senate File 61 creates a health care pilot project for low-income employed persons making less than 200 percent of the poverty level.  The pilot project for 500 participants (which may be expanded) includes preventive services, a personal health account for uninsured expenses, and a high-deductible insurance plan with subsidies available based on each individual's income.
  • HB 128 authorizes the sale of health insurance in Wyoming by out-of-state insurers without a Wyoming certificate of authority, raising fears of creating an "environment of cherry-picking" of young and healthy customers by insurance companies that undermines consumer protections, according to AARP Wyoming Director Tim Summers.  The Wyoming Health Insurance Commission is instructed to work with at least five other states to develop a consortium to buy health insurance plans across those states.

On a more positive note, SF 48 will allow licensed professional midwives to practice in Wyoming in an out-of-hospital setting.

"States' Rights":  The Wyoming legislature approved a number of resolutions and bills opposing federal authority:

  • The Governor signed a resolution claiming "sovereignty" for the state under the Tenth Amendment and denouncing many federal laws such as the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act as violating the U.S. Constitution.  The legislature also passed a separate resolution, HJ 9 calling for a constitutional amendment to restrict Congressional authority under the Tenth Amendment.
  • The governor also signed HB 95 to prevent federal regulation of "firearms, firearm accessories or ammunition manufactured, sold, purchased and which remain solely within Wyoming have not entered the stream of commerce."  To achieve this goal, it creates a criminal offense for a federal agent to enforce a federal restriction on a firearm covered under this act.  Additionally, the law prohibits a Wyoming public servant or firearms dealer from attempting to enforce any federal regulation relating to a personal firearm, firearm accessory or ammunition covered.

On the other hand, resolutions (SJ 1/HJ 12) to amend the state constitution to oppose federal health reform provisions requiring individuals to purchase health insurance failed to receive the two-thirds vote needed for introduction.

Education:  In order to make education more attainable to Wyoming residents and promote teaching, Wyoming extended to five additional years the Teacher Shortage Loan Repayment Program for students who will remain and teach in Wyoming after graduation.

Criminal Justice:  The legislature passed a number criminal justice laws that critics see as undermining due process in Wyoming.

  • HB 12 requires a person taking an alleged delinquent minor into custody to conduct a risk assessment to determine placement of the child pending an appearance before a court.  With no specification of best practices or who is required to do the risk assessment, the Wyoming ACLU, the law lacks in specification of uniform best practiced assessment; the ACLU declared the law has "no oversight and no accountability [and] gives unfettered discretion to sheriffs" with "no solution to any of the multitude of problems Wyoming has in dealing with juveniles."
  • Similarly, SF 09 give sheriffs wide leeway in developing and implementing operating standards for juvenile detention facilities with little oversight by community organizations and "complete discretion to do whatever they want."
  • HB 20 makes intimidation a crime when it is used by gangs to harass victims; it focuses on a pattern of scare tactics, menace, and bullying and imposes a penalty of a high misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison, a fine up to $1,000 or both.  The ambiguous language of the statute means it may be misused to target youth and minorities.  And the law fails to include community-level intervention and prevention programs that are considered the most successful mechanisms to discourage the growth of gangs and other forms of juvenile violence.

Indigent Civil Legal Services:  One of the last states to finally create a civil legal services program for indigent persons, Wyoming approved HB 61 this session to give 80,000 people access to legal services they were not be able to afford otherwise.  The Supreme Court will adopt rules for the program's operation.  Individuals with household incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level will be eligible for the program, which is intended to operate by July 2011.  Funded services will include child support and visitation orders, when indigent individuals are defendants in a lawsuit, and legal advice for common matters such as wills. In the words of Supreme Court Justice James Burke, "There is a sense of urgency about this [program]." The law is a recognition that access to the courts  is a constitutional right.

Business Subsidies:  HB 44 provides a property tax exemption for property owned by a community development organization for any improvements and land amenities which contribute to the value of the land.  Offering low-cost land to businesseses is one of the main ways nonprofit development agencies in Wyoming subsidize local businesses.  The Wyoming Small Business Investment Credit Act assists small businesses with start-up financial "seed" money when the businesses have difficulty finding traditional funding.

Legislative Defeats:  With a two-thirds vote of the legislature needed to even debate a bill during a budget session year, a few good bills didn't move forward.  Wyoming is currently one of only five states with minimum wages below the federal standards, outlined in the Fair Labor Standards Act, but a bill to match the federal minimum wage rate of $7.25 and provide a minimum $5.00 per hour rate for tipped employees failed to be introduced.  Similarly, HB 87, which would have prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, did not meet the two-thirds threshhold but encouragingly did receive 37 yes votes to only 21 nays.

Resources:
WyomingNews.com - Lawmakers, Gov. Freudenthal Say Budget Session Moved State Ahead
The New York Times - In Wyoming, Debate Swirls on Taxing Wind Industry
Laramieboomerang - Wind Tax Bill Breezes Through Third Reading
Laramieboomerang - Legal Service Funding Survives Senate
Stateline.org - Fresh Air in Wyoming
The Powell-Tribune - Legislature Passes Health Care Bills
ACLU Wyoming Chapter
The Wyoming Tribune - Eagle - Committee Recommends Program for Legal Aid
Wyoming News.com - Senator Should Not Hold Up House Bill 44
Equality States Policy Center - Senate Approves Civil Attorneys to the Poor