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Lawmakers tackle budget add-ons

Feb 24, 2014 - By Ben Neary, The Associated Press

CHEYENNE -- Both houses of the Wyoming Legislature waded through dozens of proposed amendments to the state's budget bill on Friday, defeating one in the Senate that offered the last chance that the state might have expanded the Medicaid program this year.

When the dust settled on the amendment process Friday evening, leaders in the House and the Senate said bills in both houses called for funding annual 2-percent pay raises for most state employees. The two houses differ on whether state employees should have to pick up the increased cost of their retirement contributions.

Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. He said the Senate kept the total proposed spending on pay raises at the same level recommended by the Joint Appropriations Committee: nearly $42 million.

However, he said the Senate called for putting all the money into employee salaries, while leaving it up to employees to cover a share of their own retirement costs.

"I have a strong feeling about it on retirement, certainly the state has an obligation, but the people, the potential retirees should have some skin in the game," Bebout said.

Both houses call for putting up $175 million for local government funding.

Rep. Steve Harshman, R-Casper, is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. He said after Friday's final vote on the House budget that he was pleased the House hung onto most of its savings.

Wyoming is bracing for the effect of the reduction in coal sales on the state economy, particularly on education.

The Joint Appropriations Committee had recommended setting aside $100 million in the two-year funding cycle that begins July 1 as a hedge against disappearing coal revenues.

The House endorsed a "budget-balancing" bill to cover its proposed spending that called for taking just under $20 million from various pots of savings, including $5 million from the $100-million education savings pool.

The $3.3 billion general funds budget bill will fund state government operations for the two-year period beginning July 1.

The Senate on Friday shot down a budget amendment proposed by Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, to accept federal funds to expand the federal Medicaid program to cover an additional 17,600 people in the state.

Rothfuss the expansion promised to save the state $80 million over four years by relieving pressure on other state health programs while capturing another $400 million in federal funds. Expanding Medicaid is a bedrock principal of the federal Affordable Care Act, opposed by many Republicans.

Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, is chairman of the Senate Health, Labor and Social Services Committee. He spoke against the amendment, saying Medicaid encourages unnecessary treatment.

"That's the last thing we want to do, is to pass something that encourages the very worst features of the American health care system," Scott said. Earlier this week, he refused to allow his committee to vote on a separate Rothfuss bill to expand Medicaid.

Dan Neal, director of the non-partisan Equality State Policy Center, said Friday his group was disappointed in the Legislature's refusal to expand Medicaid this session.

"We think this was an opportunity for the state to gain economically, in several different ways," Neal said.

He said it promised to inject new money into the economy while offering good health insurance to thousands of people. "The way the Senate just dismissed that, I just don't understand it," Neal said.

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Legislature, Wyoming