Ideological insistence prevents practical solutions for Wyoming

Let’s say you agree with the Wyoming Freedom Caucus on many issues. Let’s say you prefer small government, few regulations and healthy support for religious views in the public sphere.

Even then, you should be worried about the Freedom Caucus’ lack of practical solutions for Wyoming problems. The rest of us, including more traditional conservatives, plus moderates and progressives, should be motivated to keep the caucus from obtaining the relatively few seats it needs to take control of the House.

It sets the stage for a legislative election in 2024 that will pit politicians who want to solve local problems against ideologues who just want power. Voters should elect leaders who will actually govern, not mire the political process in arguments about state government being too big or secessionist crusades to ditch the feds.

The Freedom Caucus has gained power each year by asserting it has both the moral high ground and conservative economic policies for nearly every issue lawmakers face, including taxes, gun rights, education and health care. If there’s a wedge issue that can divide the electorate in its favor, the caucus hammers on it. 

But hold on! Leaders need to do more than repeat a tired anti-tax mantra, while sticking to the futile idea that fossil fuels will make a comeback to provide enough tax revenue to pay for essential services and future needs. That includes a constitutionally mandated quality education for all students.

When ideological differences are so pronounced, as they now are in the Legislature, the ability for compromise and solutions that benefit most residents are greatly diminished.

The Wyoming Republican Party, controlled by a far-right slate of officials, has long made no tax increases or new taxes its top legislative priority. The philosophy has become its fundamental principle, which guarantees any GOP candidate who dares suggest a state personal or corporate income tax will have a primary opponent before even finishing the sentence.

A personal state income tax proposed by Democrats in 2021 would have raised an estimated $337 million a year, enough to wipe out the entire $300 million education shortfall. Low- and middle-income taxpayers would not be impacted, because it would be limited to individuals making more than $200,000 a year.

Now, that’s a practical, should-be populist solution to a massive problem the Legislature has sidestepped. When a state is historically conditioned to believe higher taxes are inherently bad, though, the far right wins every time.

Logic tells us there’s no chance to pass an income tax in a state that has refused to even raise the state’s 2 cents-per-gallon beer tax since Prohibition ended 90 years ago. But if an income tax is shown to be the most effective way to not gut the state government and save Wyoming from financial ruin, ideology should take a back seat to practicality.

One of the most damaging examples of being guided solely by ideology is the state’s decision to reject Medicaid expansion for the past decade. The benefits include providing health insurance to about 19,000 low-income residents over two years, reducing hospitals’ $100 million yearly charity care, adding $1.5 billion to its economic output and nearly 2,000 new jobs.

Even after some of the most conservative opponents changed their minds and now support Medicaid expansion, the Freedom Caucus claims — without evidence — that we can’t trust the feds to honor their commitment to pick up 90% of the tab.

The caucus’ universal defense of “gun rights” ignores common-sense solutions, and demonstrates how Second Amendment absolutists leave many people vulnerable to shooting injuries or losing their lives, either at others’ hands or their own.

Pro-gun stances are so prevalent in the Legislature, even a non-Freedom Caucus member like Senate President Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) claims many people won’t rest until gun ownership is completely eliminated.

“The path they take is toward disarming our population. That’s what it really does long term,” Driskill told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. “I don’t care if it’s registering guns, putting gun locks on — they will not quit.”

At Gov. Mark Gordon’s second Mental Health Summit in Casper, Driskill bemoaned that the Legislature created a Suicide Prevention Trust Fund but refused to put any money in it. The bill would have allocated $46 million to permanently operate two 24/7, “988” suicide call centers in Wyoming.

Wyoming has the nation’s highest suicide rate per capita. Driskill asked anyone who has a solution to contact him, especially to improve access to mental health services. That’s commendable.

But Driskill balked at any solution that includes gun control. He admitted the number of suicides might drop if there are fewer guns, but insisted people who want to kill themselves will use other methods, like car wrecks.

“Because the root of suicide isn’t the gun, that’s the tool they use,” he maintained.

It’s not the gun? Come on. That’s an argument advanced by many legislators, but it ignores that Wyoming leads the nation in the number of suicide deaths by gun. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows 86% of all gun deaths are suicides in Wyoming, while 10% are homicides.

Gun control advocates recommend several policies the Equality State should enact, including ones with strong support even among NRA members, like implementing universal background checks for all firearm purchases. Others include allowing law enforcement to issue extreme risk protection orders, and family members to petition a court to temporarily prevent someone in crisis from accessing guns.

Dr. Emmy Betz, co-founder of the Colorado Firearm Safety Coalition, recently told PBS News Hour that nine out of 10 people who survive a suicide attempt don’t go on to kill themselves later. Because firearms are so lethal, though, “nine in 10 don’t survive that particular method.”

PBS also interviewed a gun shop worker who outlined the danger of firearms in a suicidal situation. “You have got a person under big-time stress, you have got a gun in the same room at the same time,” he said. “That is a recipe for disaster.”

Domestic violence is another huge problem where courts have ruled that Second Amendment rights are not absolute, though they are treated as such in Wyoming.

The Violence Policy Center issues an annual report, “When Men Murder Women.” Last year it ranked Wyoming with the third highest domestic homicide rate in the country. None were killed by strangers; all were wives, common-law wives, ex-wives or girlfriends of the killers. Six of the seven women were shot and killed with guns.

The report noted Wyoming has some of the weakest gun laws in the country, and one of the highest rates of gun ownership. No state permit is required to buy or transfer ownership of a rifle, shotgun or handgun. The state has no laws regulating assault weapons or large capacity magazines.

Domestic violence is five times more likely to escalate to murder when the abuser has access to a firearm. Wyoming law doesn’t authorize, much less require, law enforcement to remove firearms or ammunition at the scene of a domestic violence incident. It should.

Lisa Geller, policy analyst for Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions, poignantly described what’s at stake.

“We fail victims and survivors of domestic violence the moment we choose to protect abusers — and their firearms — over the people being abused,” she wrote. “Ensuring that domestic abusers are prohibited from purchasing firearms and ensuring that firearms are actually removed from abusers is critical to saving lives.”

To solve its problems, Wyoming needs more lawmakers willing to put ideology aside and work toward practical solutions that protect our citizens.

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and can be reached at [email protected].

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