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Legislature opens Tuesday; Bebout says finances now 'very manageable'
Jan 6, 2013 - By Katie Roenigk, Staff Writer
State Sen. Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) will be especially focused on budget issues during Wyoming's coming legislative session.
After almost 20 years in the Legislature in two separate stints, Bebout has been selected as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee this year as well as Vice President of the Senate.
He is the former Speaker of the Wyoming House of Representatives as well and is in line to be-come one of the few ever to be both House Speaker and President of the Senate if he advances to that post in two years.
"I've taken on some new responsibilities," Bebout said last week. "There's a lot more to do, but I look forward to the challenge."
Bebout said Wyoming is in a better financial position now than in the 1990s, when he served three times on the House Appropriations Commit-tee, but he still plans to keep a conservative eye toward the future when thinking about state revenues this year.
"It's a very manageable position we find ourselves in," he said. "We just have to make good, tough decisions (and) make sure people understand what we're trying to do."
He supports a cut to state spending, especially in light of recent financial losses. The U.S. Senate in 2012 capped Wyoming's share of Abandoned Mine Land funding at $15 million a year -- a fraction of the $150 million annual payment the state was accustomed to receiving.
"As a state we need to (do) a little forward thinking ... about where we need to be," Bebout said. "It may not be politically popular, but we need to do what's right."
One topic that may garner some negative attention has to do with Wyoming's retirement fund for state employees. Bebout said he wants to make sure the fund is actuarily sound, but that goal may require making some changes to the program.
"People may criticize us, but these are decisions we need to debate and talk about," Bebout said. "Down the road the state won't have the money to come in and bail out the retirement plan."
Better news on gas
He found some encouragement this week when he looked at natural gas prices, which are stabilizing, but Bebout said any economic gains Wyoming experiences in the natural gas field are usually paired with hits to the coal industry.
"The reason gas prices are getting better and strengthening is because they're replacing coal," Bebout said. "When that happens, that hurts us in another part of our economy. On the one hand it's good, but on the other hand we're still losing revenues."
He thinks an effort to simplify government processes in Wyoming will help balance the budget on an ongoing basis while also making life less complicated for residents. He specifically mentioned the state's involvement in education and with the Department of Environmental Quality.
Rules and regs
"(There are so many) rules and regulations out there," Bebout said. "Do we need to do all this stuff? Is it necessary?"
He believes the bills he already has sponsored for this session will lead to more "friendly" government practices, especially for businesses in the state. For example, Senate File 2 would make it clear that a registered professional engineer is not required to sign or stamp certain filings with the state's oil and gas conservation commission.
"(That's) a practical matter," Bebout said. "That's the way they operate now."
Senate File 27 would make the permitting process for mining gravel more cost effective, he said, while Senate File 21 outlines a sales tax exemption for the lease of related business entities.
"It doesn't make sense when you lease to yourself that you have to pay sales tax," Bebout said.
Legislators also will spend time talking about the expansion of Medicaid under the national Affordable Care Act. Bebout said the change could cost up to $10 million in Wyoming, and for now he is "not inclined" to buy into it.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states may opt out of the Medicaid expansion.
"I think there's a better way," Bebout said. "How can you trust the federal government with the debt they have and what they've done with our AML money?"
Bebout has never been a fan of the ACA, and for now he and his colleagues at the Legislature have chosen not to establish a Health Insurance Exchange under the law. Bebout said he is open to hearing more about the subject, but he thinks the exchange should be the responsibility of the federal government.
"It's a federal law; let them deal with their own exchange issues," he said. "It's their baby."
He invited his constituents to stay in touch during the 62nd Wyoming Legislature, which convenes at noon Tuesday, Jan. 8. Bebout can be reached via e-mail at Eli.Bebout@wyoleg.gov or by phone at (307) 777-7711.