Wyoming House members who decided the budget fate of two social services programs last Friday described the process as “painful” and “gut-wrenching.” Some supported proposals to fund the initiatives against the wishes of the powerful Joint Appropriations Committee (JAC), while others toed the line and supported keeping in place cuts recommended by legislative leadership.
One program paid for nurses to make home visits to help young mothers and their infants. The second helps provide meals to seniors. The JAC has put forth a budget bill that makes cuts to both programs, and two proposals sought to amend the bill so that each program’s cuts would be re-funded by roughly the same amount.
One way to look at the results: Babies 1; Seniors 0. But that doesn’t tell the whole story, which required listening to House members debate the merits and weaknesses of providing more money to the programs. Since the Legislature essentially refuses to raise new revenues and is radically opposed to tapping the state’s Rainy Day Fund, the question is not whether to cut programs, but what programs will be cut?
Do we cut nursing support for young mothers?
First up as the House tackled its final reading of the state budget bill was an amendment to increase the home nurse visits by $405,000. It was offered by freshman Rep. Jared Olsen (R-Cheyenne).
Rep. Lloyd Larsen (R-Lander) is a member of the Joint Appropriations Committee. The committee, which hears the governor’s proposed state budget in December and then puts together its own recommended budget, is famous for fighting to keep its budget cuts intact. The members gang up in debate on anyone who, God forbid, wants to restore money to programs.
Larsen said he knows he will be accused of not liking babies or mothers, but he has just been through a process in which he was advised to “cut, cut, cut.” Adding money to the Department of Health’s budget, he maintained, was unnecessary.
Rep. Scott Clem (R-Gillette) agreed that if the Legislature were to pump money into the program, it would have to come from the state’s Rainy Day Fund. The account has about $1.3 billion, but it’s been tapped several times in the past year to fund programs and services that were considered essential. To approve the home nursing program, he said, would be spending money without a steady revenue source, and money taken out of the rainy day account will need to be replaced.
Playing off Larsen’s “cut” comments, Clem said the Legislature would just take the Rainy Day Fund and go “down, down, down” if it approved every program people want.
JAC member Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) reminded his colleagues that the Department of Health ranked the program 46th out of 63 in its priority list. He added that there weren’t any federal matching dollars, so the state would have to provide the full $405,000 in Olsen’s amendment.
Then came a steady stream of supporters of the program who said the money is needed, including Rep. Steve Lindholm (R-Sundance), Rep. Charles Pelkey (D-Laramie), Rep. Bo Biteman (R-Sheridan), Rep. Tim Salazar (R-Dubois), and Rep. Nathan Winters (R-Thermopolis).
“If you cut this program now you will pay a heck of a lot more in the future,” Pelkey warned.
But Rep. Landon Brown (R-Cheyenne) rained on the backers’ parade. He reiterated the argument about the program being low on the Health Department’s priority list. Rep. Tom Walters (R-Casper), another JAC member, said the department still has more than $7 million per biennium for such programs and if officials really want it, they will find the money to do it.
Rep. Mike Greear (R-Worland) said he’s concerned about how the money would be distributed, and that it only amounts to about $14,000 per county. “I don’t understand why this is so critical,” he said.
Rep. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle) said she “regretfully” opposed Olsen’s amendment. She said the nursing program for young mothers is “near and dear” to her heart, but noted, “We all have to give a little.” (Steinmetz, by the way, has been a sponsor and vocal supporter of several bills this session that would make getting an abortion in Wyoming even more difficult than it already is, presumably increasing the number of young mothers who need assistance like this program provides.)
Minority Floor Leader Rep. Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie) said she wasn’t buying the idea that low-ranked programs must be cut. “[The department] looked at what programs are statutorily needed,” she said, “but they repeatedly said some programs near the bottom of the priority list are definitely needed.”
Connolly called the nursing visits “incredibly effective” for the health of both young mothers and their babies and said the window of opportunity to maintain the program is small and closing fast. “I want to be able to go back home and say we kept the visiting nurses for young mothers,” she said.
Rep. Mike Madden (R-Buffalo), chairman of the House Revenue Committee, was not impressed by the Democrat’s plea. “We’ve argued 25 minutes now over $14,000 a county, and that this program is going to fall apart if they don’t get the money. If it’s so valuable, they would have found the $14,000 in each one of these counties,” he said. “Fourteen thousand dollars isn’t going to make or break this program.”
The sponsor, Olsen, gave it one more pitch. He said last year this program was cut by $58,000, though the federal government was also paying a share of its budget. A 25 percent cut would be combined with the 8 percent cut ordered by Gov. Matt Mead, and the program is also facing federal reductions.
“We have a duty to stand up and vote in favor of our women and children,” Olsen said. A standing vote determined the amendment passed, and it was confirmed 31-28 by the roll-call vote that is mandated for all action that adds money to the budget. It was a hard-fought victory against the JAC, and it had just enough support from GOP moderates, a few conservatives and the Democrats to build a winning coalition.
Or do we cut food support for the elderly?
Another amendment sponsored by Rep. Bill Pownall (R-Gillette) didn’t fare as well, even though the debate was one of the most emotional of the session so far. It would have added $400,000 to help pay for a portion of the expenses for Meals on Wheels, a program that delivers lunches to senior citizens.
Supporters like Rep. JoAnn Dayton (R-Rock Springs) said for many seniors this is the only balanced, nutritious meal they eat all day. Pownall credited the food program with helping seniors stay at home instead of having to enter an expensive assisted-living center.
Pownall proposed taking money out of the Wyoming Business Council’s budget to pay for the meals program. The WBC’s budget is a favorite target for representatives trying to poach funds for other programs, but they rarely, if ever, succeed.
Rep. John Freeman (D-Green River) said employees at senior centers are raising money for seniors’ meals at the same time some of them are losing their jobs. “Services for seniors are being cut, at least in my county,” he said. “Some programs have waiting lists.”
Pownall said the seniors don’t ask for money for themselves. “These seniors are not going to come out to the [House] lobby and ask for help. … They’ve already paid their dues.”
But Rep. Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne), co-chairman of the JAC, said the Department of Health’s Division of Aging has a biennial budget of more than $62 million. “We are going to keep taking care of the aged and elderly in Wyoming,” he said. “We do a pretty darn good job.”
Larsen, predictably, argued against the increase. He said when the JAC asked the department if it needed additional money for this program, “We didn’t get that response.”
Rep. Aaron Clausen (R-Douglas) said, “We need to take care of our seniors before we build buildings.” (Meanwhile, the renovation of the Capitol building remains behind schedule and over budget.)
Sommers said all of the budget cuts the Legislature has to make are painful. “Everyone in Wyoming will feel these cuts,” he said. “But that’s what we have to do when we don’t have enough revenue to match what we want to do.”
Pownall had the final words. “These seniors have paid their dues. This [amendment] would put 190-some folks back in the food line. We just have to look at our priorities. [Seniors] made this state what it is.”
And with that, the lawmakers looked at their collective priorities and killed the amendment, denying Meals on Wheels the funding. If the House has its say when it goes to joint conference committee and matches its budget up with the one passed by the Senate, some of the seniors who currently wait each day for their meal to arrive could be waiting a long time.