Better Wyoming conducted a series of interviews on important state issues throughout 2016. Below is an interview with Dan Neal.
What do you think about the attempt by some Republican legislators who want the federal government to turn over all of its public lands to the state to manage or own?
I absolutely believe public lands should remain in public hands. It’s time for the Legislature to end this mirage that Wyoming is somehow going to take over all of the public lands in Wyoming. The people fear — and history has shown that’s what happens– the state would eventually sell the land off. It might not happen during that first year or two, but over time we’re going to lose these public lands.
People have raised the issue to me about the large land swap that the State Land Board is looking at — the Bolander land swap. It’s a classic case of someone who has the means to be able to go to the state and make an offer on a piece of school trust land, and get pretty far along in the process of actually taking it. What that means is people who like to fish and hunt and hike in the Laramie Range will be deprived of being able to access that school trust land — 3,000 acres of what I presume are either BLM-managed or Forest Service-managed lands.
Some Republican legislators either don’t believe the gender wage gap is real or that if it is, state government shouldn’t do anything about it. What do you think needs to be done?
This is a complicated issue, mostly because some of the reasons for the gender wage gap are cultural as well as sociological. Young women are often directed toward jobs that don’t necessarily pay as much as jobs that young men get directed toward. We don’t see as many young women in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, so some of the correction has to happen at the family level and the neighborhood level and the school level.
But there are some things they can do. The first one that looks like low-hanging fruit is we should raise the tipped minimum wage. There are a lot of single mothers who work in the service industry, and that schedule can make them able to go to school. They can work at a restaurant at night and have a relative or someone take care of their child, so now they are in these jobs, and if we raised the tipped minimum wage it would allow them to keep more money from their tips.
The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour and the tipped minimum wage is only $2.13. They should raise it to at least 5 bucks an hour, and they really should raise it to the equivalent of the federal minimum. That would be a pretty simple policy fix that could go a long way toward improving the prospects for a certain segment of the female population of the state and close that pay gap.
I think it’s important for people to have an idea of what other people in their workplace are doing if they’re being paid for the same kind of jobs. It’s a pretty common-sense way for people to be able to learn if there is discrimination going on.
People have read these controversial comments made by Rep. [Gerald] Gay. When members of his own party in Natrona County come out against what he said, they’re acknowledging there is a gender pay gap and that we ought to be addressing it. We ought to be able to move forward on this. Whether it’s some kind of interim study or task force, if they get it out in front of the public then I’m all for it.
Are there other laws that need to be on the books to protect victims of domestic violence?
I’m curious about a couple of things. I’d like to know if these recent budget cuts affected our victim services, because it seems like we’ve been making headway here and in the current economic climate we need to guard against losing ground on domestic violence and sexual assault — these significant issues that we’ve really worked hard on for the past 15 or 20 years. So I’d like to see what impact these cuts have had on services that help people avoid a domestic violence situation and whether we’re helping them move beyond it.
We need to protect the victims and bring the perpetrators to justice. I’ve made some outreach to the Coalition for Victims of Domestic Violence to look at some particular initiatives on domestic violence this winter. Some of Equal Justice Wyoming — an organization that was funded by the fee on legal filings — we can use those funds to provide civil legal services to low-income people who otherwise may be stuck in a marriage because they can’t afford to get a divorce.
Many Republicans oppose spending state funds on early childhood education. What needs to be done so programs are fully funded?
The Legislature defunded some [programs] for early education this past session. We know that investment in education at a very early stage for things — I’m talking about kids from very low-income families — can make a huge difference. It depends on which study you rely on , but you can see the return on the long-term investment is somewhere between $8 and $16 for every dollar spent.
The Kansas City Fed put out a statement that said if we continue to invest in public resources, this is clearly one of the best places to do it because if kids get a good start on their education, they’re more likely to stay in school and they graduate at a higher rate. We know that income has a lot to do with where people end up in life, where they start. If they start out in a middle-class or upper-class family they get regular meals, there’s an emphasis placed on education, so those kids have a leg up on kids who are in these lower-income families. If we can fund programs like Head Start, it would help early childhood providers around the state to provide a better environment for these kids. We can save a lot of money long-term. It even goes so far as having fewer people in prisons.
The research on this is conclusive, we know early childhood education really has a positive affect during these people’s lives. Still the Legislature made an appropriation of $8 million for better nutrition for UW athletes; and this [early childhood education program] was an appropriation of only a few hundred thousand dollars. What are we thinking about here? We have to invest in our people and invest in early education.
The Legislature hasn’t passed many bills restricting reproductive rights in recent years, but there are GOP lawmakers who have tried to introduce bills mandating ultrasounds and penalties for not reporting abortions. Are you pro-choice?
I believe people have a right to health care, and that means I think women have a right to reproductive health-care services they need. When it comes to those health-care services, I don’t think there’s a role for the state between a doctor and a woman, or really any other patients. I think we need to recognize the privacy of the individual to make those decisions. The right of women to have reproductive health care has been affirmed by the Supreme Court, just as the right to keep and bear arms has been affirmed by the Supreme Court.
I think that as a new mandate, procedures that women must take before they can make their own health-care decisions is the wrong direction. I’m always a little surprised when I see conservative legislators who complain about government involvement in many other aspects of life are willing to get involved in what is the most personal decision a person can make. I have two daughters, and I respect their ability as adult women to make the decisions that are best for them. I think we just have to keep the government out of a place where it should stand back and let people run their own lives.