- Associated Press - Thursday, March 5, 2015

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - Democrats and other critics say the Wyoming Legislature turned its back on some of the state’s most disadvantaged people in the session ending this week.

The GOP-dominated Legislature rejected federal funding to expand Medicaid to extend health insurance to 17,600 low-income adults.

It also rejected a proposal to increase fines for employers cited for workplace safety violations in accidents that result in worker fatalities.

And it defeated a bill to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

“I see a lot of missed opportunities, again,” said Rep. James Byrd, D-Cheyenne. “Problems, things that we could have done to help improve peoples’ lives in a general manner that we willfully neglected to address.”

The AFL-CIO, which tracks workplace deaths, said in a report last summer that Wyoming was second highest in the country in 2012, behind only North Dakota.

The Wyoming Senate declined to hear a bill this session that would have hiked penalties for workplace safety violations that result in fatalities from the current limit of $7,000 up to a maximum of $250,000 for larger companies.

“Workers will suffer through this one again,” Kim Floyd, lobbyist for the AFL-CIO, said Thursday. “But I don’t think that’s going to change.”

Senate Majority Floor Leader Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, opted not to bring up the OSHA penalties bill for a vote.

Bebout said Thursday he had heard from employers around the state concerned about the “unfairness and punitive nature of the fines, and the damage it could do to small companies.”

Bebout said he didn’t’ see any pattern in how the Legislature addressed bills affecting the disadvantaged. “I would think each individual bill rises and falls on its own merit,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any connection between them at all.”

Both houses of the Wyoming Legislature voted to reject more than $100 million a year in federal money to expand Medicaid. Many lawmakers said they didn’t trust federal promises to continue funding.

Medicaid expansion is a fundamental element of the federal Affordable Care Act, which has been the target of repeated Republican legal challenges and unsuccessful repeal efforts.

“What an enormous missed opportunity for the state of Wyoming,” House Minority Floor Leader Mary Throne, D-Cheyenne, said Thursday of the votes to reject Medicaid expansion.

Gary Collins is a member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe and former tribal liaison between the tribe and the state. He said roughly 2,000 of the 17,600 who would have received health insurance under the program are Native Americans on the Wind River Indian Reservation.

“It’s a misunderstanding for me, somewhere, that the merits of the program weren’t valid enough for the people of Wyoming,” Collins said.

Bebout said he believes the state made a good decision to reject Medicaid expansion. “It’s not over, it’s not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when,” he said. “And I think we’ve put ourselves in a better position to negotiate on that.”

Jeran Artery, executive director of Wyoming Equality, lobbied for a bill to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation that passed the Senate but died in the House.

“I feel like it kind of gave the state a black eye,” Artery said. “I liked reading all the editorial boards across the state, which were basically, ‘shame on you, Legislature, for not doing this.’”

Speaking at a press conference Thursday, Republican Gov. Matt Mead he didn’t see a common theme in how the Legislature acted on the bills.

“I think that each one of those was taken separately, and people voted how they felt about them - whether it’s worker safety, whether it’s gay and lesbian, or whether it’s the working poor trying to get health care,” Mead said.

Mead had asked lawmakers to approve Medicaid expansion in the session.

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