CHEYENNE – Even before the coronavirus pandemic swept the planet, killing tens of thousands and causing a global economic shutdown, Wyoming lawmakers had plenty to do in the coming months.
With the Wyoming Legislature preparing for what will likely be its first special session since 2004, lawmakers’ primary immediate objective will be to address the widespread effects of COVID-19 through one or a few pieces of legislation. Yet lawmakers hope to not lose sight of the long list of issues that were already facing the state prior to the pandemic.
Legislative leadership from both parties met in a virtual meeting Thursday to begin issuing those interim topics. Members of the Management Council seemed to agree with Gov. Mark Gordon, who emphasized the need to continue work on interim topics at the start of the meeting.
“The issues that were important to Wyoming citizens in September, October,
November, December and January are still important to them,” Gordon said.
Over the course of the 11-hour meeting, legislative leaders began to work on those issues, establishing a task force focused on improving telehealth and telework capabilities, approving emergency procedures for the Legislature to continue its operations remotely and setting priorities for each committee.
While some of the topics mentioned below were developed in the weeks before the pandemic, committee members realized those issues could look very different as the state emerges from its current COVID-19 reality.
“The reality of COVID-19 is it’s worked its way into all of these topics,” House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper, said during the meeting.
Telehealth, broadband capabilities
In an effort to prepare the state’s health care system for a post-coronavirus world, lawmakers on the Management Council voted to establish a task force to examine the state’s telehealth, telework and overarching broadband capabilities.
The task force will consist of three representatives, three senators and three appointees by the governor’s office.
Telehealth was made a top priority for the Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Interim Committee, which will also examine mental health treatment and high health care costs over the interim.
Lawmakers viewed telehealth – and the broader issue of internet connectivity from home – as especially crucial given the effects of COVID-19. With more people working from home, the pandemic provides a unique opportunity for Wyoming to benefit from the online shift.
“I don’t think you can have everything in every county hospital in Wyoming,” Harshman said. “Telehealth is going to change the world, and it has to change it for Wyoming.”
Telehealth provides unique opportunities for rural communities to access high-quality care, as Sen. Dan Dockstader, R-Afton, has seen play out in the far western region of the state.
“We tap into the cancer specialists in Salt Lake City through telehealth, and our people stay right here at home,” Dockstader said. “If we could open up those opportunities across the state, it changes health care in a rural setting.”
While their initial focus was on telehealth, lawmakers decided to expand the task force to include all topics related to broadband and telework.
“I think it’s a bigger and broader issue than just having telehealth,” said Sen. Liisa Anselmi-Dalton, D-Rock Springs. “I think this (federal) COVID-19 money could be used to fix this problem and make it more affordable to the state.”
Rep. Sue Wilson, R-Cheyenne, who chairs the House Labor, Health and Social Services Committee, said she’s recently learned that not all health care insurers are treating telehealth services equitably, raising additional concerns that might be addressed by the task force.
“I’ve suggested that might be something we could do in a special session to make it really work,” Wilson said. “When we really need it is over the next six months.”
Lawmakers also established a select committee to examine ways to boost the state’s mental health services. The team will consist of members of the Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Committee and the Joint Appropriations Committee.
Rep. Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, supported creating the committee to address the entire continuum of care within the state’s mental health treatment services.
“It’s from the prevention all the way through the potential hospitalization, so if you break down and lose one component … another component will be impacted,” Barlow said.
The formation of the task force comes after a bill failed earlier this year that would’ve created a working group consisting of legislators, mental health care providers and officials from the state Department of Health to study Wyoming’s mental health services.
Even in recent months, efforts to study the possibility of tolling Interstate 80 have failed quickly in the state Legislature. But with the state looking at a $135 million funding shortfall for its road needs in coming years, finding ways to plug that revenue gap was a top priority for the Joint Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Interim Committee.
The issue also seems to be important to many Wyoming residents. Harshman said he heard from more constituents about the condition of I-80 than any other topic over the past year.
In response to a question from the house speaker, Sen. Michael Von Flatern, R-Gillette, said he thought tolling along I-80 could be set up within the next five years.
First, however, it would need to gain approval from the Legislature, which will be no easy feat. In February, a bill to study tolling along I-80 hit an immediate roadblock in the Legislature, as it failed to be introduced in the Senate. The study would have examined ways to exempt people whose cars are registered in Wyoming from having to pay the tolls.
Another potential funding source would be to raise the state’s fuel tax. A proposal last session from the state’s Joint Revenue Committee that would have raised the tax by 3 cents per gallon failed to win introduction in the House of Representatives.
During the meeting Thursday, Harshman was less enthusiastic about a fuel tax increase as a viable funding solution, noting its decreasing returns as cars become more fuel efficient. With nationwide truck traffic projected to double in the next 20 years, the House speaker agreed with the committee chairs that something needs to be done.
“We just got to keep having these conversations,” he said.
During Thursday’s meeting, lawmakers on the Management Council also adopted some emergency policies to allow the Legislature to continue its work remotely.
The most debated of those policies was one that would have cut all legislators’ daily pay by 75% during any potential virtual special session, from $109 per day to $27.25.
However, an amendment to the policy offered by Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, instead gave lawmakers the option to take the pay cut, instead of mandating it. Rothfuss noted the costs of child care are already a burden for himself and other legislators at the current per diem rate.
“The idea that we should pressure legislators to have to request their full per diem, just because they have a need for a full per diem, it seems a bit awkward,” Rothfuss said. “If anybody wants to opt out of their entire per diem, by all means, go ahead. If you don’t need the money, don’t use it.”
In a glimpse at the potential challenges of a virtual special session, technical difficulties caused Rothfuss’ amendment to initially fail on a 6-6 vote. Because of his green screen backdrop, an affirmative vote from Rep. John Freeman, D-Green River, was not visible to be recorded. Upon realizing the mistake, Rothfuss asked the council to revote, and the amendment passed.
“He’s just a detached head floating around,” Rothfuss said of Freeman with a laugh.
More COVID-19 topics to come
Committees will likely take on more work in the coming weeks as details of the federal CARES Act become clear. In the meantime, lawmakers prioritized a long list of issues facing the state during their meeting Thursday, including the following:
Revenue options: The Joint Revenue Interim Committee’s top adopted priority was locating new revenue streams for the state. The committee will consider a wide range of proposals that have recently failed to win approval from the Legislature, including Medicaid expansion, a corporate income tax and others.
Recalibration of K-12 education funding model: State officials are preparing to examine avenues for recalibrating the state’s K-12 education funding model, as required every five years. The Joint Education Interim Committee’s prioritization of the topic will allow committee members to attend all meetings related to those discussions.
Review of statewide courts system: Lawmakers approved the top priority of the Joint Judiciary Interim Committee, which will be to look at the possibility of consolidating the state’s court system. Committee members will also look for ways to allow more judges to enter the state’s judicial districts.
Beyond these topics and others, the committees are likely to receive additional topics related to the coronavirus in the coming weeks. State officials expect to receive additional guidance from the U.S. Department of Treasury within a week, at which point the committees will see their workload increase.
“The Senate president and I will call another meeting of the council as soon as we get more information and guidance ... on the CARES Act,” Harshman said. “In the next week to 10 days, we’ll assign more that’ll get into the nitty-gritty details as we learn more.”