CHEYENNE — Wyoming lawmakers voted by a wide margin on Wednesday for a bill intended to improve Wyoming’s substance abuse treatment programming.
However, members of the Joint Committee on Labor, Health and Social Services balked when it came time to advance a bill that would have helped pay for it, voting 7-6 to defeat legislation that would have put an estimated $1.9 million into the program by doubling some of the nation’s lowest taxes on beer, wine and liquor over the next four years.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Charlie Scott, R-Casper, had argued that the short-term nature of the tax, its function, and the low impact on consumers would be the keys to the bill’s success.
The funds would have helped buffet funding for a substance abuse program gutted by millions of dollars in budget cuts during the administration of Gov. Matt Mead, who slashed funding across government writ large in response to the last energy downturn in 2015.
The Department of Corrections saw its funding for substance abuse treatment cut nearly $3 million at the time — cuts that ended up costing more than they saved: At the time, the funding decrease resulted in nearly $4.6 million in added expenditures per year and, in the years following the funding cut, both parolee and felony probationer recidivism rose by 5 percent and 7 percent respectively, Department of Corrections Deputy Director Steve Lindley told the Star-Tribune in a phone interview Wednesday.
Lindley chalked rising recidivism numbers to increased drug use, fewer community treatment options that also saw cuts under Mead’s budget, and less access to resources inside the corrections system, with the department still managing 20 fewer male residential beds for intensive treatment than it did prior to the cuts.
“We’re making large assumptions,” Lindley said, speaking about the increase. “But they’re not illogical.”
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The program itself received high praise from a number of health care professionals in attendance, with some noting that the payoffs from decreasing prisoner recidivism rates are oftentimes much higher than the initial cost. Dr. Ryan Jackson, CEO of the Casper-based Wyoming Business Coalition on Health, highlighted a White House report on recidivism rates which estimated that the return of investment on every dollar spent on mental health and substance abuse programs amounted to roughly $5.75 — a potentially huge sum given the large proportion of inmates with both addiction and mental health issues.
The cost of funding the program, others noted, was relatively minor. Rep. Mike Yin, D-Jackson, noted that even a 100 percent increase to the state’s existing tax on beer would allow Wyoming to continue ownership of the lowest alcohol taxes in the nation.
The decision not to fund the proposed program comes amidst an increasingly bleak picture for state revenues and a tax-averse Legislature still looking for space to cut spending. Some lawmakers, like Rep. Clarence Styvar, R-Cheyenne, spoke out against the fairness of taxing a specific demographic. Others in attendance, like the Wyoming Liquor Association’s Mike Moser, noted that there were other sources of funding that could be used to prop up the program, most likely through a footnote in the state’s general fund budget: a difficult proposition in a year where Gov. Mark Gordon intends to slash spending, not increase it.
“[That] simply cannot pass,” said Scott.
The bill had other issues as well. Rep. Sue Wilson, R-Cheyenne – the deciding vote against the tax – noted that the bill left room for revenues raised by the tax to be exploited in future budgets, with money taken away from substance abuse programming to pay for other areas of the budget.
“That is my experience,” she noted.
Star-Tribune staff writer Seth Klamann contributed to this report.