After Medicaid mess, don’t trust GOP to fund public education

© 2017-Kemmerer Gazette

Wyoming’s Legislature has a bad habit of blowing big decisions. And as with any addiction, denial is a key part of the problem. When it comes time to own up to the consequences of their habits, our legislators instead double down on the next issue, hoping it might divert attention from their failures.

It’s like a Jedi mind trick: “This is not the legislative trainwreck you’re looking for. You can go about your business.”

We simply can’t afford the denial or the magical thinking anymore.

Last week Gov. Matt Mead reminded us that the past is prologue. If the five-year debacle that ended with the defeat of Medicaid expansion was just the lead-in, I’d rather not discover what the authors of Wyoming’s future have in mind for education funding. The Legislature may just make quality schools disappear right before our eyes.

In Mead’s Aug. 27 interview with the Casper Star-Tribune, reporter Seth Klamann described him as “lamenting” how Wyoming trampled Medicaid expansion. “I’m not going back in time, but when you’re turning away $100 million a year as a state because you don’t want to be part of the [Affordable Care Act], I mean, it’s a problem,” Gov. Mead said.

Mead’s numbers are actually low; the state is losing about $118 million per year by being one of 19 states that said ‘no’ to expanding Medicaid. That’s a total of $590 million flushed down the drain since 2013, with much more to follow.

The two-term Republican governor originally opposed Medicaid expansion but eventually came to support it, largely because of the economic benefits. Unfortunately he could never convince members of his own party to vote for it.

But “going back in time” is helpful. If Wyoming is going to learn anything from botching the opportunity to insure nearly 20,000 residents and pad the budget with hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds, we’ll need to commit Mead’s opinion to memory and recite it to voters at every opportunity.

Mead was spot on when he told the Star-Tribune that hospitals will continue to suffer thanks to the Legislature’s Medicaid decision. Thousands of our working poor go without health insurance, seeking care at emergency rooms instead, jacking up premiums for those who can afford to buy insurance and forcing hospitals to eat millions of dollars in uncompensated care.

The first year Wyoming could have expanded Medicaid the Wyoming Department of Health estimated that refusing to do so would cause the premature deaths of 111 people a year.

While they will assuredly try to weasel out of responsibility for this nightmare when they seek re-election, Republicans in the Legislature own it. They were readily willing to sacrifice money, health and even people’s lives, all for the sake of scoring a few political points against “Obamacare.”

Now, Legislative leaders have embarked on a similarly destructive path with education funding. The stakes in this instance are arguably higher and longer-lasting than those of Medicaid expansion — the U.S. may eventually improve healthcare for the working poor at the federal level, but it could take several generations to rebuild a decimated K–12 public school system.

I don’t think most Republican legislators have it in them to do the right things to properly fund education. The legislators who punted on the issue this year will be sitting in the same seats next February. What does anyone expect to change?

This crowd doesn’t have the courage to buck the legislative leaders who’ve been trying for years to wrest control of public education through the pocketbook. Senate Republicans led the fight this year, when they wanted $91 million in unspecified cuts, then compromised with the House on a $34.5 million reduction that was tacked on to $20 million in cuts from last year.

But that’s likely just the beginning. Senate President Eli Bebout (R, SD-26, Riverton) recently told the Star-Tribune he thinks education could absorb another $200 million in budget cuts. He’s fought all proposed tax increases except for a statewide lodging tax and modest tax hikes on booze. Bebout is perfectly aware that restricting new revenue to those worthy but meager mechanisms won’t come anywhere close to raising the state’s estimated $400 million annual shortfall in education.

The Wyoming Education Association recently commissioned Public Opinion Strategies, a top national Republican polling firm, to find out if residents here are willing to pay more in taxes to support quality education. It turns out they are. About 60 percent said they would accept a sales tax increase to support schools. Nearly two-thirds said yes to raising taxes on wind energy and on mining, oil and gas.

Wyoming voters don’t hate all taxes, and they recognize that investing in public education yields enormous returns. Bebout and other GOP leaders need to stop regurgitating old statistics and demonizing new sources of revenue and acknowledge that the unnecessary education cuts they demand are unacceptable to voters today.

Legislators need to listen to the public and look at possible tax increases now, and not rely on unpredictable year-to-year investment income, raiding the state’s rainy day fund, or waiting for the minerals industry to return to its former glory. Wyoming needs a consistent, dependable revenue stream if we’re ever going to escape the brutal cycle of  boom-and-bust.

Lawmakers who support gutting school point fingers at teachers and administrators because the state finally put enough money into education to pay professionals competitive wages.Nevermind that the investment is paying off.

After floundering for years with a lack of financial resources, Wyoming students today generally perform at high levels in standardized U.S. tests. The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) report card for Wyoming found the state’s fourth and eighth grade students outperformed the national average test scores in reading, mathematics and science.

Wyoming also ranked an impressive seventh in last year’s comprehensive “Quality Counts” national ratings. But you wouldn’t know it by listening to legislators yap and whine about the state not getting enough “bang for our bucks”.

We can’t give the Republican legislators who demonstrated they don’t care about recklessly losing so many benefits from Medicaid expansion an opportunity to wreck education spending too. Wyoming’s hope for the future depends on having a well-educated citizenry.

It’s the same thing Republicans did to healthcare when they were afraid the poor were going to get a free ride from expanding Medicaid. We need to rid our Legislature of the bottom-of-the-barrel ideologues with their axes to grind. Tell them to quit sharpening their blades and using them on their own constituents.

If we do that, we shouldn’t need the next governor to apologize for his or her party’s mistakes.

Kerry Drake is a veteran Wyoming journalist, and a contributor to WyoHistory.org. He also moderates the WyPols blog. He has more than 30 years experience at the Wyoming Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune as a reporter, editor and editorial writer. He lives in Casper.

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