CHEYENNE — Wyoming lawmakers wrapped up their first week of hearings on Gov. Matt Mead's proposed budget Friday, setting the stage for debate on his call for fundamental changes in state fiscal policies when the Legislature convenes next month.
A legislative committee also voted Friday to reject a proposal to expand the Medicaid program, a cornerstone of the federal Affordable Care Act.
Mead has urged lawmakers to reject a proposed $50 million federal Medicaid expansion. He has said the federal government has failed to give the state details about how the proposed expansion would work and whether the federal government can afford to live up to its promises to continue to pay the bulk of the ongoing costs.
Mead earlier this month said his proposed supplemental budget for the fiscal year that starts next July advocates "some fairly big sea changes," in state fiscal policy.
Mead has asked lawmakers to redirect roughly $130 million a year of energy revenues away from permanent savings into the state's "rainy day" fund, where it could be spent on state projects and operations.
Mead also has proposed changing how the state handles the proceeds from the sale of assets held by the state's Permanent Mineral Trust Fund, which holds nearly $6 billion. The fund sells different types of securities when it's necessary to rebalance the distribution of money among different classifications of investments.
Mead proposes to allow some of the proceeds from this "rebalancing" to also go into the rainy day fund, called the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account. And he's pushing to direct millions from federal coal lease bonus money into the same fund, moving it away from school construction.
Mead says his proposals are aimed at increasing the state's ability to access ready cash in case it's necessary to fund operations. State fiscal analysts generally predict flat revenues for coming years due to stagnating energy prices and faltering demand for coal.
Sen. Phil Nicholas, the outgoing chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he opposes Mead's suggestions to reduce the amount of state mineral revenues going into permanent savings and siphon off money from the rebalancing of the fund.
"I don't think the fiscal profile warrants that kind of a transfer," Nicholas, R-Laramie, said of reducing money going into the permanent fund. "In addition, I'm of the strong belief that we see a lot of benefit from increasing the corpus of the trust fund to improve our investment earnings," he said.
Rep. Ken Esquibel, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said he supports Mead's call to redirect the mineral revenues to the state's rainy day account. The Democrat from Cheyenne said he'd rather see the money go into the state's general fund, where the Legislature would spend it with no strings attached.
The Joint Appropriations Committee will reconvene in early January and mark up Mead's budget proposal before sending its own recommendation to the full Legislature. Nicholas said lawmakers are going over Mead's proposed budget and looking at what he identified as more than $60 million in agency spending cuts to see whether they would truly reduce state spending.
Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, chairman of the Senate Labor, Health and Social Services Committee, said Friday that his committee voted against amending a bill to specify that the state would accept the Medicaid expansion. He said he doesn't believe federal promises to pay the bulk of the expanded program costs.
Scott said he expects to see a bill in the coming legislative session that would require Wyoming to accept the proposed federal Medicaid expansion.
Rep. Elaine Harvey, R-Lovell, is labor chairman on the House side and said she voted against the expansion.
"There are many people who just don't have a choice, and I respect that, and I believe that those are the people who belong on Medicaid," she said after the meeting. "But if there are people that are on the tipping point that choose Medicaid, I don't want to incentivize them to stay there."