Kerry Drake

Kerry Drake

Wyoming columnist

It seems like only yesterday that state lawmakers were at the Capitol in Cheyenne, working their magic the way only they can do.

But what strikes me the most is the enormous amount of inaction — particularly on the most crucial issues facing the state. In many vital areas, Wyoming is in the same dire position it was before the much-anticipated session.

This year, I watched the action from the comfort and clutter of my home office. The Legislature live-streamed all its meetings and archived everything on YouTube.

For those who didn’t watch the hours and days of debate online, I’ve compiled a list of issues tackled and major failures of the session. Sometimes, however, the best outcomes are the bills that failed.

Going into the session, the $300 million shortfall in education funding was at the top of everyone’s priority list. Lawmakers spent countless hours trying to find ways for school districts to survive with less money.

But the Senate went home pouting after rejecting a House bill that included a provisional half-cent sales tax for education that wouldn’t kick in unless the state’s “rainy day fund” falls below $650 million. The bill also diverted some mineral severance tax revenue to the School Foundation Program.

None of that will happen now, as the chambers failed to reach an agreement, effectively killing the bill. Lucky for them and our schools, the federal American Rescue Plan will pony up more than $270 million for Wyoming schools.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Charles Scott (R-Casper) grumbled that the school system would be better off if the state refused the federal money so it could make more budget cuts. How dare those damn feds throw us a lifeline? We’re perfectly capable of bankrupting our education system on our own, thank you very much.

The Senate foolishly said no to Medicaid expansion for the eighth consecutive year, despite potential federal ARP funds that would sweeten the deal.

Wyoming could have provided health insurance to 25,000 low-income residents while pocketing $34 million over the next two years. The money could be used to pay for another three years of Medicaid expansion.

Opponents denigrated that sweetheart deal by calling it socialized medicine, ripping the feds as untrustworthy and lying about Montana’s supposedly rotten expansion experience. The Big Sky State adopted it in 2015 and extended expansion until 2025.

Wyoming desperately needs new revenue sources to help make up for plummeting mineral severance tax revenues, which have historically helped pay for schools, higher education, infrastructure and government services.

But at this critical juncture, the Legislature once again said no to higher taxes on property, fuel and tobacco, or to creating either a personal or corporate income tax. How many years can Wyoming keep ignoring its fiscal needs?

Legislators authorized a $1.2 million fund to file lawsuits against states that won’t open export terminals for Wyoming coal, or won’t force coal-fired power plants to keep operating long past their economic and environmental viability.

State officials preach about states’ rights and free enterprise all the time, but apparently those can be cast aside if it benefits Wyoming’s interests.

Conservative lawmakers and the religious community led a coalition to repeal the death penalty. The movement has been gaining traction in recent years, even with legislators.

This year’s effort started in the Senate, where it failed again. But it wasn’t for lack of trying by supporters, who raised both fiscal and ethical concerns about capital punishment. Wyoming hasn’t executed an inmate since 1992, yet it must budget $750,000 a year for the state public defenders’ office to be ready to handle such cases.

The House killed two bills that would have required school districts to teach an hour of suicide prevention training to students per year. Wyoming has the highest rate of suicide in the nation.

Rep. John Bear (R-Gillette) contended that the reason so many adolescents kill themselves is because schools teach evolution. He claimed this gives them no reason to live because they’re told they’re just here by chance.

“The scientific support for that particular theory [of evolution] weakens every day,” Bear said.

That’s right folks, these are the people we’ve elected to determine, among so much more, our school budget.

The strangest moment was Rep. Jeremy Haroldson (R-Wheatland) interrupting Wyoming Game and Fish Director Brian Nesvik’s update on the potential for zebra mussels to invade state waterways. Haroldson suddenly launched into a minute-long prayer.

“God, I pray that the larvae stage of this zebra mussel will die and that we will be able to look back on this and say that we were truly protected, and you truly took care of us,” Haroldson prayed. An increasingly uncomfortable-looking Nesvik shared the split screen.

I get it: This is an invasive species that poses serious risks to ecosystems and the economy. It’s a grave matter from which we truly need protection. Which is all the more reason for Haroldson and his colleagues to do their damn jobs, instead of crossing the line that separates church and state in the hopes that a God will do it for them.

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and can be reached at kerry.drake33@yahoo.com.

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