Interview by Kerry Drake
Earlier this year, Better Wyoming sat down with Rep. Gerald Gay (R-HD36) to discuss prominent issues facing Wyoming. Here is a transcript of that interview:
Do you support or oppose efforts to have the federal government transfer public lands to state management? If so, would you like to see ownership of the land also be given to the state? Can state afford the costs of managing more public lands?
There are two kinds of public lands — state trust lands, which are held by the state for the school fund, and we’ve got federal lands — BLM, Forest Service, National Parks Service. There’s a lot of controversy right now with federal lands being turned over to state management. And there’s some misinterpretation about that, and it comes from people with an agenda. This is coming from the agriculture people. They feel like all federal lands were turned over during the Constitutional Convention, and if you read the Constitution it says the opposite. It says any public lands that shall be in the public hands at the time of the convention shall remain in public hands for perpetuity.
If the federal people controlled that at the time of the convention it’s going to be controlled by the federal people forever, and that’s borne out by what we see happening in Oregon with the breach of protest in the Oregon Wildlife Refuge. The federal people had to finally just assert to the agriculture special interest people, “That’s still our land, it’s not your land.” The federal people said it belongs to the taxpayers all over, not just the state.
So there’s kind of a misunderstanding in Wyoming about that, they think the federal government is in the wrong. As you can see the federal people have now asserted themselves. One person gave his life and it’s something that should have been understood all along by the special interest people.
It’s extremely controversial in Wyoming but it’s being driven by the same special interest group. It’s not widely accepted, but they’ve got a pretty loud mouthpiece. But it’s not going to go, you can’t fight the federal government. It would be nice if we could have Wyoming people in charge of Wyoming’s public lands — it could circumvent a lot of things, like the EPA restrictions on coal leases, but there’s no chance of winning that one, it can’t be done.
[Ranchers] make considerable money off government subsidies. It’s also subsidized access. This is the part the special interest people aren’t admitting — they in effect want to control access to the public domain. It was very clear in the Taylor Grazing Act that there would be public access for multiple use.
Should Wyoming expand Medicaid to include 20,000 people who now don’t qualify for Medicaid or Obamacare subsidies? If not, what do you say to people who believe Wyoming should take the federal funds? Do you think the federal government will renege on its promise to keep paying at least 90 percent of the cost of Medicaid expansion?
I object to it very strongly. I’m living right now in a federally managed Medicaid facility [Poplar Living Center in Casper]. And I’m looking at from the standpoint of people being entitled to things. Most of the residents here — I call them patients — have the attitude this is their place and that it’s their money. Most of the people at this facility are incapable of caring for themselves. You’ve got the mentally handicapped, you’ve got people with physical handicaps, Parkinson’s disease, cystic fibrosis, they’re incapable of functioning for themselves. They come under the umbrella of “indigent care,” which is a constitutional mandate that’s put on us. We will care for our indigent population.
Now expansion of Medicaid is to expand it to put 20,000 more people who are capable of buying insurance but aren’t willing to buy insurance. What it’s come down to is a means-tested program, and that’s my objection to it. These are people who are capable of buying their own insurance but won’t buy it for whatever reason. They either perceive that they don’t have enough income or they won’t allocate their expendable income. But Wyoming can’t — if this stays in our financial [obligation] we can’t support that. That’s 4 extra percent of the population to come on full health coverage immediately and we just don’t have the money to do it, so it’s a moot point.
You’ll hear arguments that the federal government will support the expansion of Medicaid. And that’s kind of a shell game. They’re talking about money on the order of $200 million coming in, but they’ve never answered the question what happens when the federal government gives its portion and now Wyoming has 4 percent of its population who are not indigent, but they’re being covered by indigent care, and we don’t have the money to pick that up again.
There’s zero support in the Legislature for Medicaid expansion. The executive branch is supportive of it, but the whole Legislature is against it. I don’t think it will go anywhere at all.
Should Wyoming increase the state’s minimum wage from $5.15 to the federal $7.25 per hour or a higher level? If so, what amount should it be increased to?
It’s another dog that’s not going to go, especially because our state’s economy is so wrecked we just don’t have a basis for coming out and unilaterally raising the minimum wage. We have no way to make it up or there’s no cushion. Ten years ago we had state money available and we could absorb almost any shock but we just don’t have it now. If we increase the state minimum wage to bring it more into compliance with the federal minimum wage proposals we’d bankrupt the state. Because of our constitutional mandate to balance the budget we can’t do it. We can’t put ourselves in a situation like that.
Do you believe there is a gender wage gap? If not, how do you account for figures that show women make about 70 cents per dollar a man makes in Wyoming? Is there anything the Legislature can do to narrow the gender wage gap?
That’s a fact of life, you know, and it’s the nature of Wyoming’s business and also the nature of gender politics. Men and women have different ways of going about taking time off — moms for maternity leave and that sort of thing. Women are always going to take their full maternity leave, and there’s the dependability issue about whether they’re going to show up for things.
Historically [women] tend to take every sick day that’s available with them, and that’s a gender thing. They look at how many sick days you get in a year. Say you get 12 sick days a year. If they go for two years and they’ve only taken three sick days, they’re going to cash in the remaining 21 sick days. That’s a gender thing and it hurts getting [the gender wage gap] rectified. Some of the misuses and abuses that go on there, and it’s predictable, it’s statistics that are written in stone. As long as you have people who behave differently on it between the two genders, it hurts the chances of getting that gender wage gap shrunk all the way down. We’ll make small progress on it, but they won’t make it [go away].
Would you favor an increase in funding for substance abuse or mental health programs in Wyoming?
Yes. This is where we need to help people who can’t take care of themselves, and these are the truly indigent. People with mental health issues and substance abuse, which is a form of mental illness — I’m living in a facility now where almost everyone I see each day falls victim to those categories. I think by a state that we have missed that by a long shot.
You wouldn’t believe the things people can get addicted to — travel, shopping, cigarettes, alcohol, hair products, methamphetamine, you name it. A human being is capable of becoming so addicted to those things that they can’t function. That brings them into this indigent category where they’re not able to function. There are some potential remedies to the problem. It should start at the family level. Your mom and dad should sit you down and say, “Johnny, don’t smoke cigarettes” or “Johnny, don’t drink booze when you’re 13 because you’re going to get yourself in trouble.” It’s hard for a 15-year-old to extrapolate out their life and see what they’re going to be like in their 60s, 70s and 80s, and see that they’ve made choices that have destroyed their lives.
In our Constitution we say we’re going to take care of the truly indigent. The problem with the Legislature is that we’re been forced to make decisions for people, “who is truly indigent and who is not,” “Who is here by choice or who’s here [because of circumstances]. This is the trade-off — we’ve sadly gotten to the point where everybody has shrugged it off. I talked to a lady the other day who said she never watched the news, she just wanted to be happy. I talked to her and said, “You’re guaranteed the right to pursue happiness but you’re not guaranteed the right to receive happiness.” When you give over to someone the decisions, you’ve got to live with their decision, right, wrong or otherwise. Now people aren’t as involved in their own lives as they need to be. That’s the flip side of the coin. Maybe the Legislature will step up and take care of the problem, but there’s going to be a lot of people unhappy when we do. I wish people would take ownership over their own lives.