- Associated Press - Sunday, February 1, 2015

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - The Wyoming Legislature this week will continue to debate the politically difficult issue of whether the state should move to expand the federal Medicaid program.

The Wyoming Senate started considering a bill to authorize acceptance of federal funds to expand Medicaid on Friday, and it is set to continue the debate Monday.

Senate President Sen. Phil Nicholas, R-Laramie, said Friday that many senators are balancing arguments about the expansion proposal with commitments they made to constituents in last fall’s re-election campaign to oppose the idea.

“To push the bill it is important to really investigate what is the core element of Medicaid expansion that people campaigned against,” Nicholas said. “And is there a way to craft the bill to address those concerns so that people would feel intellectually honest, to vote for a bill that they had campaigned against.”

Expansion supporters - including Republican Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead - say the state can’t afford to turn its back on $120 million a year in federal funds to expand insurance coverage to about 17,600 uninsured adults in the state.

According to figures from the Wyoming Department of Health, the state gave up about $120 million in federal funds last year by choosing not to expand the program. The federal government has committed to pay 100 percent of the cost of expansion through 2016 and then taper off funding to 90 percent, leaving the state to cover 10 percent.

The Senate on Friday amended the expansion bill, sponsored by Sen. Michael Von Flatern, R-Gillette, to specify that no funds from the state’s General Fund will be used to pay for the expansion.

Health Department Director Tom Forslund has said his department can cover Medicaid expansion costs through reprogramming funds from other existing programs where demand is likely to drop as more people get insurance coverage.

Von Flatern said Friday that he agreed many senators will have to consider how to reconcile their campaign promises with the prospect of expanding Medicaid in the state. “That will play into a lot of them, and I don’t blame them,” he said.

A bigger issue for many lawmakers, Von Flatern said, will be concern that the federal government will renege on its funding promises and leave the state responsible for all the costs of an expanded program.

“That is a big fear, and the U.S. government has never quite held their promises,” Von Flatern said, noting that the federal government hasn’t kept its word to Wyoming on issues including funding for abandoned mine lands and federal mineral royalty payments.

Nicholas said he and other legislative leaders want to keep the Medicaid expansion bill moving through the legislative process. He wants to try to push the bill to a condition where he himself would consider voting for it, he said.

The House this week is set to consider for the third time a bill sponsored by Rep. Allen Jaggi, R-Lyman, that would allow people who have concealed-carry permits to carry their guns onto school grounds and into some public buildings. The bill passed its first two votes on Thursday and Friday with no debate or questions in the House.

House Speaker Rep. Kermit Brown, R-Laramie, said he believes the lack of fireworks over the gun bill so far shows that debate in the Legislature has a different tone this session.

The last general session, two years ago, saw passionate debate about a measure that stripped the office of superintendent of public instruction of authority over the Wyoming State Department of Education. The state Supreme Court later reversed the move.

Lawmakers are tired of contentious debate in this session, Brown said. He and Nicholas also are pushing to set a different tone in this session, he said.

Lawmakers in Cheyenne this week also should get their first look at a supplemental budget bill that seeks to address how the state should respond to lower revenues as a result of lower oil prices.

State financial experts earlier this month released a report lowering its projections of state general fund revenues by $217 million for the two-year funding cycle that started last summer. The state’s biennial general fund budget is about $3.5 billion.

The Legislature will consider intercepting state investment income that had been set to go into savings to cover the downturn, Nicholas said.

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