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Lawmakers, consider the worker

Feb 11, 2014 - Bruce Palmer

Editor:

This week the Wyoming Legislature convenes for a 20-day budget session to hammer out the budget for the next two years. Fortunately, the state is in a strong financial position, with solid revenues and billions in the bank.

Sadly, though, while our Republican-dominated legislature is stuffing money in the bank, it is ignoring investment in our most valuable asset -- our working people. Every employee should be appropriately compensated and moving forward financially. They should be valued and treated fairly. The Wyoming Legislature, through word and deed, is drastically missing the mark in this area. This state would be best served if our leaders abandoned their ALEC-fueled zealotry and adopted the following worker's agenda:

- First, give our state employees and educators the raise they deserve. After four years without a raise our state employees have seen their buying power go down as the cost of living has gone up and their retirement contribution increases. Governor Mead in his budget proposal recommends a 2.5 percent increase for two years. This does not make up for the four years without a pay increase, but is better than the bank more/invest less 2 percent recommendation coming from our legislators.

Our educators face a similar challenge. Wyoming schools have been without an external cost adjustment (ECA) since 2008. The lack of an ECA, a "cost of living" increase for school districts, leaves districts with a cumulative 14 percent increase in expenses without a corresponding increase in revenue. The squeeze applied by the Legislature means that local school boards are left to decide between buying books and retaining their best staff.

The state has billions in the bank. Why are we nickel-and-diming our state employees?

- Second, raise the state's minimum wage. At $5.15 an hour Wyoming's minimum wage is the lowest in the nation, and it is worse for tipped positions, where the minimum is $2.13 an hour. Fortunately, most minimum-wage workers in Wyoming are making the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, but even this is significantly less that they should be making. The minimum wage of $1.60 an hour in 1968 would be worth $10.56 in today's dollars meaning today's minimum wage earner has lost more than 30 percent in buying power. Raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour by 2016 would directly impact 33,000 of Wyoming's workers, nearly 13 percent of the workers in the state.

- Third, take advantage of the optional Medicaid expansion to cover 17,600 Wyomingites, nearly 90 percent of whom are stuck in low-wage jobs with no benefits.

There is no reason not to accept the expansion. The federal government will pay 100 percent of the cost the first few years, scaling back to 90 percent in 2020. This expansion actually saves the state $47.4 million.

Gov. Matt Mead says he can't support expansion because he hasn't liked the health exchange rollout. This is irrelevant. Medicaid is a well-established program that has been helping people gain health security for decades. State Sen. Eli Bebout says we can't trust the feds. Perhaps. But we count on the Feds for 41 percent of the state budget, and Sen. Bebout's oil and gas business relies on federal oil and gas leases. Republican arguments against Medicaid expansion are lame at best, and they offer no alternative solution. Expanding Medicaid shows compassion and commonsense.

- Finally, repeal Enrolled Act 37, the "vacation theft act" that became law on July 1, 2013. Nearly every Republican voted to pass this bill changing the definition of compensation in the state of Wyoming to no longer include earned, accrued vacation. Not a single Democrat voted for this bill because we believe that workers earn their vacation, and if they leave a job the vacation accrued should be paid out to the employee. The Wyoming Supreme Court believed that too, until Wyoming Republicans changed the rules, further eroding workers rights.

Republicans are good at putting money in the bank, but they are just plain wrong on the issues that effect Wyoming working people. Democrats believe in fiscal responsibility, and we believe that investments in people pay off in both the public and the private sectors. Providing a living wage and sensible benefits, fairly administered, lead to high output. If you are looking for return on investment, people are your best bet.

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Editor's note: Bruce Palmer is the chairman of the Fremont County Democratic Party.

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Legislature, Wyoming