- Associated Press - Thursday, March 6, 2014

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - Senior Republican lawmakers and Gov. Matt Mead said the legislative session that wrapped up Thursday leaves Wyoming well-positioned both to meet the state’s needs over the coming two years and to save money against possible hard times to come.

Vocal Democrats, however, said the $3.3-billion budget bill that was the crowning achievement of the legislative session that started Feb. 10 salts away too much money in savings. They hammered on the Republican majority for refusing to accept federal money to expand the Medicaid program to offer health insurance to an additional 17,600 low-income adults.

Both houses of the Legislature sounded the final gavel just before 4:30 p.m. Thursday after hearing from Gov. Matt Mead.

Mead drew applause from members of the House when he told them coal will continue to be a valuable resource for the nation.

Wyoming is the nation’s leading coal-producing state, but it has seen production fall in recent years as the federal government has implemented increasingly tough emissions standards on coal-fired power plants.

“We’re proud that we’re a state that exports more energy than any other state,” Mead said, adding that Wyoming’s energy production helps the entire country.

“We’re not standing still,” Mead said. “We’re not going to have the future of coal decided by regulatory agencies. We’re going to have it defined by our work, our pro-active stance and our belief that coal is a valuable resource and should continue to be a valuable resource.”

The budget bill Mead signed into law this week would allow him to spend up to $500,000 on litigation if he decides it would help the state gain access to deep-water ports in the Northwest for coal exports. Wyoming is eager to export coal from the Powder River Basin to Asia, but it has run into opposition in the Northwest over the prospect of having a steady stream of coal trains accessing ports there.

Lawmakers generally followed Mead’s budget recommendations on the issues of support for local governments and pay raises for state employees.

The budget bill includes $175 million for local government funding and nearly $80 million for employee pay raises, enough to give most workers in the executive branch annual raises of about 2.4 percent over the coming two years. Employees in the state’s K-12 school system would see less, but they’ve generally seen annual raises in recent years while many other state employees have not.

Both the House and the Senate rejected bills this session that would have called on the state to accept money from the federal government to expand Medicaid to about 17,600 low-income adults. Expansion of the program is fundamental to the federal Affordable Care Act.

The Wyoming Legislature last year rejected $50 million in federal funds for the Medicaid expansion.

Mead, in his State of the State address last month, urged lawmakers to continue to resist expanding the federal program. He has said the state can’t trust federal promises to continue to fund the program in years to come.

A study commissioned by the Wyoming Department of Health concluded that expanding Medicaid would save the state millions by relieving pressure on other health programs.

The final budget bill includes language calling on officials with the state health department and other state agencies to negotiate with federal officials during the coming months on Medicaid. The state officials will see if they can come to agreement on a possible expansion of the program that differs from conventional Medicaid expansion. Any final action would require legislative approval.

Speaking at a legislative news conference, House Minority Floor Leader Rep. Mary Throne, D-Cheyenne, said Thursday that language in the budget bill on Medicaid means the state made progress on the issue.

“But again, we have the ability to get health care to people today if we had accepted a full Medicaid expansion, and save millions - millions - of state dollars,” she said.

Throne said she disagrees with the Legislature’s current heavy emphasis on saving, noting that the state currently has about $2 billion in cash in various accounts, not counting permanent savings.

“We owe it to the public to explain to them why we are taking taxpayer money and not providing taxpayer services,” she said.

Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, said at the news conference that he supports the state’s current emphasis on saving. Now chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Bebout had served in the Legislature in the 1990s and said he remembers when lawmakers had to turn to state savings to make ends meet.

“I’ve been through the tough times not only as a businessman in Wyoming, but also as a member of the Legislature when we really were broke,” Bebout said. “To me, if we’re going to err on the side of how we plan for the future, I’m one that says spend less now, save more and build for the future.”

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