Session recap: The day the ‘Freedom Caucus’ voted for the biggest govt. expenditure in Wyo. history

It was a crisp, cold Monday morning in late January in Cheyenne. 

A small flock of Canada geese shuffled around the lawn of the Wyoming State Capitol, as lobbyists arrived in their long coats and mittens to find early seats for their noon committee meetings.

As it had been for the past three weeks, the Wyoming House of Representatives was hard at work in their chamber. Lawmakers were preparing to cast a vote on a bill’s third and final reading to decide whether it would advance to the Senate. 

But this was no normal bill: It was a proposal that, to its supporters, represented a clear line in the sand in the ongoing fight against federal government overreach. 

“This is a hill to die on,” Rep. Bill Allemand (R-Casper) said. 

House Bill 66 – Prohibiting mask, vaccine and testing discrimination” would forbid private businesses in Wyoming from requiring their employees or patrons to be vaccinated, wear masks, or submit to tests to determine whether they were sick.

With a price tag of $847,854,106 per year, HB-66 would be the largest government expenditure for a single bill in Wyoming history.

House members had spent an hour debating the bill itself, along with several amendments. 

Many arguments for and against the proposal were put forth, but one stood out: By forbidding medical providers in the state from following federal health requirements—masks, vaccines, etc.—Wyoming hospitals and clinics would have to forfeit hundreds of millions of dollars in federal healthcare funding.

Acknowledging this reality, House members voted to add an $850 million annual appropriation to the bill, to backfill federal funding for healthcare providers that would be lost if HB-66 passed.

That way, Wyoming hospitals, clinics, and nursing homes could continue offering services even if the state lost its federal healthcare funding.

With a price tag of $847,854,106 per year, HB-66 would be the largest government expenditure for a single bill in Wyoming history. 

A lesson from the past 

Nearly all members of the traditionally conservative Wyoming House of Representatives bristled at the situation and expressed frustration at the federal mandates. 

But many accepted that Wyoming’s hands were tied. 

Rep. Art Washut

Rep. Art Washut (R-Casper) reminded his colleagues of when the state attempted to defy the federal government increasing the legal drinking age from 18 to 21. 

Wyoming stood strong, posturing for a few years, then relented when the feds prepared to pull millions in highway funding.

Washut noted that prohibiting businesses in Wyoming from enforcing federal healthcare rules would jeopardize many types of federal funding—not just healthcare. 

“I fully sympathize with individuals who are being compelled to wear masks or get vaccinated, I understand that,” Washut said. “But the consequences to our healthcare providers and others—our airports, places that are contracting with federal operations—all potentially could be at risk. We’re gambling with their livelihoods.”

When the time came to vote on HB-66, a bloc of lawmakers who tout themselves as “fiscal conservatives” and who oppose spending public money on virtually anything, said, Yes, this is worth nearly a billion dollars in Wyoming taxpayer money each year.

On January 30, 2023, the entire Wyoming Freedom Caucus, and a couple other hangers-on, cast “aye” votes for the largest government expenditure in Wyoming history. 

Thankfully, it wasn’t quite enough, and the bill—and its $850 million price tag—was defeated, 29 – 32.

A crusade

Why did the supposedly “small government” Freedom Caucus vote to spend a historical amount of money? Simple: It’s part of their crusade.

No cost is too high when it comes to hot-button national issues the coalition depends on to gin up hysteria and mobilize voters. That’s why it supported anti-mask and -vaccine bills, abortion bans cost the state millions to litigate, and other wasteful measures. 

They might consider themselves “fiscally conservative,” but they are also fiscally reckless.

“Small government” does not seem to apply for the Freedom Caucus when it comes to throwing people in jail for cannabis, preventing parents from securing gender-affirming care for their children, or criminalizing librarians and teachers for possessing books they find “immoral.”

For these and any other number of issues, the Freedom Caucus is just fine spending boatloads of public money and using the heavy hand of government to enforce their (often religiously motivated) beliefs.

They might consider themselves “fiscally conservative,” but they are also fiscally reckless.

No healthcare, no freedom

The debate over HB-66 began with discussion about mask and vaccine mandates, which most Wyoming House members agreed were oppressive. 

But once the bill’s true cost to the people of Wyoming came to light, a stark difference became clear between lawmakers who thoughtfully consider the consequences of their actions, and those who will let nothing stand in the way of their ideology.

Ken Pendergraft (R-Sheridan) said that no cost is too high when it comes to Wyoming fighting the federal government, even if it means hospitals closing down.

“I don’t care if they do pull the money, we’ll figure it out,” Pendergraft said. “At some point we have to say individual liberty is more important than federal money.” 

Rep. Sarah Penn

Much of the federal funding that Wyoming would have forfeited if HB-66 had become law were Medicaid and Medicare dollars. Rep. Sarah Penn (R-Lander) accused any clinic, hospital, or nursing home that accepts these forms of payment—i.e. the vast majority in Wyoming—of “making poor business decisions.”

“This is a bailout,” Penn said. “It’s trying to rescue businesses from poor choices in the past.”

But Rep. Lloyd Larsen (R-Lander) reminded her that up to 70 percent of the patients in Wyoming nursing homes are paid for by Medicaid. 

“If they change the business model, where do those people who can’t afford to pay go?” he asked.

Of course, no one from the Freedom Caucus had an answer. Drunk on their own rhetoric about “individual liberty,” they ignored the contradiction of spending nearly a billion dollars in Wyoming taxpayer money each year for a policy that would likely result in people being less free.

Thankfully, others were there to point out the dissonance for them, including Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne).

“You can talk about freedom all you want, but if you don’t have life, you don’t have freedom,” Zwonitzer said. “And if you don’t have healthcare, then you don’t have life.”