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Lawmakers generally upbeat on governor's spend plan

Dec 3, 2013 - By Ben Neary, The Associated Press

Two top Wyoming lawmakers said Monday that they generally support Gov. Matt Mead's budget blueprint, including his suggestion to fund state employee pay raises and reject Medicaid expansion in the coming legislative session.

Mead on Friday released his proposed $3.3 billion general fund budget for the two-year period running from next July to June 2016. Of that amount, he proposes spending roughly $88 million on pay raises for state employees, many of whom last saw a cost-of-living increase in 2009.

The Republican governor's plan advises against expanding the Medicaid rolls under the federal health law. Democrats support expansion, but the GOP leaders of the House and Senate say the Legislature will likely reject it when the issue is taken up as expected this session.

Bebout chairs panel

Mead will present his budget recommendations to members of the Joint Appropriations Committee in Cheyenne next week. The Legislature is set to convene its budget session in February.

State Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, is co-chairman of that committee.

On Monday, Senate President Tony Ross, R-Cheyenne, said, "My hope is that the Legislature will see fit to move forward with pay raises."

When it comes to the state's coffers, Ross and House Speaker Tom Lubnau, R-Gillette, said they're concerned that federal energy policies are threatening Wyoming's long-term revenue picture. The nation's leading coal-producing state, Wyoming relies heavily on federal coal revenue to fund the school system.

Revenue outlook

Wyoming coal production has slipped from more than 430 million tons in 2011 to an estimated 385 million tons this year, according to an October report from the state's Consensus Revenue Estimating Group.

The report blamed falling national demand brought about both by cheap natural gas and tighter federal emissions standards.

"It's not a rainy day or a rainy season yet, but it's something that we have to be aware of as we go forward with our expenditures," Lubnau said of future coal revenue.

Medicaid expansion

The pair also said they believe the Legislature will support Mead's recommendation to turn down a federal offer to fund Medicaid expansion in Wyoming.

The Legislature earlier this year rejected roughly $50 million in federal money to extend Medicaid health care coverage to an additional 17,600 low-income adults. Many lawmakers said they didn't trust federal promises to continue to pay the expanded program costs.

Expanding Medicaid is a centerpiece of the Affordable Care Act, and the federal government has pledged to initially cover the cost of the optional expansion. As of early this year, Medicaid served over 77,000 people in Wyoming at an annual cost of over $500 million, split evenly between the state and federal governments.

The Wyoming Department of Health has concluded that expanding Medicaid would save the state millions a year by reducing expenses in other programs. Hospitals in the state provide hundreds of millions of dollars a year in uncompensated care to uninsured people.

House Minority Floor Leader Mary Throne, D-Cheyenne, said Monday that she believes it would be fiscally irresponsible for Wyoming not to undertake the Medicaid expansion.

"The arguments against it are political, not practical," Throne said.

Mead said he opposes expansion despite federal promises to foot the bulk of the cost. In addition to longstanding concerns about the federal health law, Mead said he's worried about recent problems with its implementation.

Wyoming is among the majority of states that have elected to have the federal government operate a health insurance exchange, where people can shop for health care coverage and qualify for federal tax credits to help pay for it.

The health exchange has been beset with problems since it launched in early October, but federal officials in recent days have announced that they've made progress in addressing some problems.

Wyoming Insurance Commissioner Tom Hirsig said Monday that he was able to register on the federal site as a customer, which he said he hadn't been able to do previously.

The Senate president noted that he allowed a bill to expand Medicaid to come up for a vote in the Legislature early this year.

"I don't believe that there's the will within the Legislature right now to expand Medicaid given the economic times that we find ourselves in," Ross said.

The House speaker also expressed concerns about the program.

"I'm always concerned about getting a liability where I don't know what it is," Lubnau said. He said he believes the program has serious economic effects that the state hasn't seen yet. "I'm just not sure that we have the data to make a good decision."

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Legislature, Wyoming