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Wyoming officials warn about child insurance funding falling short

Wyoming health officials warned lawmakers last week that a federally funded program to insure children is running out of money and will end this spring unless Congress acts.

The funding for Child’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, expired Sept. 30 after Congress failed to reauthorize it. The program insures roughly 3,300 children in Wyoming, a Wyoming Department of Health spokeswoman said. The children come from families who fall in a financial gap. They make too much to qualify for Medicaid and too little to afford private insurance.

Nationwide, about 8.9 million children were enrolled in CHIP last year, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation and Medicaid figures.

Both Sen. John Barrasso and Sen. Mike Enzi support reauthorizing the program and both predicted that would happen soon.

Enzi “has been in contact with the state of Wyoming to ensure that the state will not face a funding shortfall in the near future, and children will not lose coverage in the state,” the senator’s spokesman Max D’Onofrio said in an email. “He has also been engaged with those members leading on this issue in the Senate towards extending this program.”

In Wyoming, the federal government provides 88 percent of the funding for CHIP, health department director Tom Forslund told lawmakers last week. The state covers the remaining 12 percent and contracts the program through Blue Cross Blue Shield — essentially the only private insurer in the state and the only one to participate in the Obamacare exchanges.

“The two-year program budget total that is being requested for state fiscal years 19 and 20 is roughly $29.8 million,” department spokeswoman Kim Deti said in a email. “Of that, roughly $26.2 million would be federal funds with remaining general funds (covering the state’s contribution).”

That estimate assumes that the program is reauthorized, she added.

For now, the state is using leftover funds from last year. But they won’t last forever: Forslund estimated funding would run out by April, and if Congress does not reauthorize CHIP, the department will begin informing families this winter that their children are going to lose insurance.

On a national level, the program has bipartisan support and the hang up appears to be how to fund the program going forward. In November, the House passed a reauthorization bill that many Democrats voted against, objecting to provisions that would affect Obamacare, according to the Washington Post. The paper reported that “it’s quite possible a deal will be reached before Christmas.”

Should that not happen and the federal funding is completely cut off, Wyoming will almost certainly have to end the program. While some states have said they’ll continue to fund it 100 percent through their general fund, Wyoming’s current fiscal situation makes that a near certain impossibility, Forslund told lawmakers.

“Obviously Wyoming isn’t in a position to do it,” he said.

Indeed, CHIP is not even the largest shortfall the health department is facing. For the current two-year budget cycle, which ends June 30, the state has a $32 million Medicaid shortfall. The health department has been slashed by $100 million department in recent years as state lawmakers grapple with deficits brought on by the energy downturn.

Deti, the department spokeswoman, said there’s hope, but without funding, the state would have few options. She said some families can pursue insurance through the state’s health care exchanges, which would allow them to enroll despite the fact that open enrollment ended late last week.

Still, Wyoming is relatively fortunate. Other states are already informing families.

“We do have a little more time than some states you’re hearing about nationally,” Deti said.

Wyoming push to charge for public records hits snag at environmental department

Years ago, accessing public records at state agencies was as easy as showing up and asking a secretary for photocopies of what you need, said Dan Heilig, senior conservation advocate at the Wyoming Outdoor Council.

It’s not so simple these days, where a large records requests could involve sifting through thousands of emails that some state agencies say is burdensome on their staff. But a state push to charge for copies of public records, as well as charge hourly rates for the staff time it takes to compile records over $180, has irked environmental groups who say the cost will be a barrier to public access.

“What does the average person do?” said Casey Quinn, a Cheyenne based organizer for the Powder River Basin Resource Council. “If it’s hard for us as a nonprofit, I can’t imagine (the impact on) a single person who wants to look up documents. They won’t be able to.”

Last week, members of an independent board tasked with approving rule changes at the Department of Environmental Quality sided with environmentalists and voted 2 to 1 against implementing the fees.

The five-member board needs its full majority to actually halt the change, and will vote again at an upcoming meeting.

“We respect the process here,” said Keith Guille, a spokesman for the Department of Environmental Quality. “We’ll just bring it before them again.”

Guille was not sure what would happen if the air quality board’s next vote mirrors the first.

It could introduce an administrative stalemate within the Department of Environmental Quality.

The DEQ needs board approval to change rules. But it also argues that it is mandated to implement the fees by the Legislature, which tasked the Department of Administration and Information in 2014 with writing a uniform public records fee policy for all state departments.

The policy would charge groups or individuals for copies and scans of documents such a mining permits and reclamation agreements, as well as put in a threshold for the cost of staff time, when the request includes electronic records like emails or documents that haven’t been scanned and placed on file.

The department does not charge for staff time up until a $180 benchmark. Once the cost of a records request is estimated by the agency to exceed $180, hourly fees kick in. Clerical staff time is worth $15.50 per hour. IT personnel cost $30 an hour and upper level staffers are valued at $40 per hour. The person requesting records would have to pay up front.

Agencies have quietly been complying with the new policy one by one, but the environmental department, where a number of groups in Wyoming regularly seek information on the land, air and water impacts of the state’s various industries, has not had such an easy time.

“This is a huge barrier to democracy,” said Quinn of the resource council. “They are trying to justify it by saying other agencies do it, which regardless if [others] do it, it’s still bad practice.”

Those who oppose the fees say the costs are exorbitant. The Powder River Basin Resource Council recently requested email communications between the department and a coal mine applying for a permit. It returned more than 10,000 pages of documents.

The fees could make those kinds of records out of reach, said Heilig, of the Wyoming outdoor Council.

“I think some agencies, I’m not saying DEQ in particular, have lost sight of the fact that they are working on behalf of the public,” said Heilig, of the Wyoming Outdoor Council. “Providing access to the public, I’d argue, should be a key part of their job.”

Guille, of Environmental Quality, argued that the agency’s documents are still available to the public, as they always have been.

But when it comes to staff time, reviewing emails and considering the information involved can be a significant time burden on employees, he said. The policy will balance that with compensation, he said. Cost of paper copies, meanwhile, just makes sense, he said.

“If someone wants to come in and make copies on our copy machine, yeah, they are going to pay for that,” Guille said. “Those are utilities and resources of the state.”

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune  

A train transports coal across the Powder River Basin in August south of Gillette. A rule change considered by the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality would have created new fees for residents to access public records. 

Barrasso incorrectly listed as a beneficiary of so-called 'Corker kickback' in GOP tax bill

Republicans rallied to GOP Sen. Bob Corker’s defense early this week, rejecting a report that the Tennessee lawmaker stealthily tucked a provision into the massive tax package to benefit himself financially and then reversed course to back the bill.

Democrats were unrelenting as they howled about the “Corker kickback” and argued the tax benefit for real estate developers boosts the wealthy — President Donald Trump, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Corker among them — at the expense of average Americans.

Wyoming U.S. Sen. John Barrasso was listed as one of 14 Republican senators who could benefit from the real estate provision by International Business Times, an online publication that first reported on the change to the tax bill.

Barrasso is part of two real estate partnerships related to local medical firms and also owns a parcel of undeveloped land at the foot of Casper Mountain valued between $100,000 and $250,000, according to his financial disclosure forms filed last spring.

But the land generates no income and spokeswoman Laura Mengelkamp said that the real estate partnerships were 10-year buyout agreements that end this year.

“Sen. Barrasso will receive no income from those agreements in the future,” Mengelkamp wrote in an email.

Controversial clause

House and Senate negotiators finalized the tax bill last week and included a version of the provision to benefit the real estate industry in the form of pass-through companies, which are businesses in which the profits double as the owners’ personal income.

These types of companies can reduce their taxable income by 20 percent, but the Senate bill had only permitted them to do so if they paid wages to workers. The final bill enables the deduction for owners of certain kinds of property as well, a tax break that would presumably help Trump, Kushner and other officials and policymakers with real estate holdings.

Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyoming, was on the committee that sought to reconcile the Senate and House versions of the bill. Spokesman Max D’Onofrio did not say whether Enzi supported the real estate provision but noted that determining how to tax pass-through companies is difficult.

“There has been a lot of debate over the years about how to fairly tax these companies, and the House and Senate had different approaches,” D’Onofrio said in an email. “During the conference committee ... they negotiated those approaches and came to an agreement that the members think would benefit small businesses across the country.”

D’Onofrio added that 60 percent of workers in Wyoming are employed by pass-through companies.

Mengelkamp said that the real estate provision was not in the version of the Senate bill that Barrasso voted for earlier this month and that Barrasso had no input on it because he was not part of the committee that sought to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the bill. Barrasso is the fourth-ranking Senate Republican.

Hatch speaks out

In a letter on Monday, the GOP chairman of the Senate Finance Committee said that he — not Corker — was the author of the provision and that it was hardly a brand-new creation dropped into the final version of the bill. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, outlined the legislative path for the provision, starting with its unveiling Nov. 2 by his House counterpart, Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady, R-Texas.

Calling himself “disgusted,” Hatch said it was “categorically false” that the provision was “airdropped” into the bill and Corker was responsible.

“It takes a great deal of imagination — and likely no small amount of partisanship — to argue that a provision that has been public for over a month,” debated on the House floor and included in a House-passed bill “is somehow a covert and last-minute addition to the conference report,” Hatch said.

Corker said in a statement late Sunday that “he is not a member of the tax-writing committee and had no involvement in crafting the legislation.” Corker said he requested no specific tax provisions throughout the monthslong debate and had no knowledge of the real estate provision in question. He pressed Hatch for details on the process, prompting the chairman’s letter hours later.

Corker owns real estate and development companies. His estimated net worth was more than $69 million in 2015, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which analyzes campaign and financial data. Corker’s most recent financial disclosure form listed a building in Chattanooga, Tennessee, worth $5 million to $25 million.

He opposed the original Senate bill, complaining it would add to the nation’s debt and “deepen the debt burden on future generations.”

But Corker said Friday that while the final version of the bill negotiated by House and Senate Republicans “is far from perfect,” it represents “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make U.S. businesses domestically more productive and internationally more competitive.”

Barrasso’s assets

Barrasso stated in his disclosure form that he earned $19,625 from partnership distributions related to Wyoming Surgical Center.

One of those agreements is a real estate partnership, but the disclosure does not specify which of the two partnerships Barrasso’s income came from or whether it came from a combination of both. Mengelkamp did not answer questions about which partnership the income had come from.

The empty plot of land that Barrasso owns is not depreciable unless it is developed, according to the Internal Revenue Service standards, meaning that Barrasso would not be able to deduct any of its value under the tax bill provision.

Barrasso ranks around the top-fifth of all members of Congress with a net worth of $1.9 million, according to Congressional Quarterly’s annual ranking. Wyoming’s other U.S. Senator, Mike Enzi, sits almost exactly in the middle with a net worth of $390,000.

Wyoming’s lone U.S. House Rep. Liz Cheney, who was elected last year, is not yet ranked by CQ but she disclosed assets of between $2.75 million and $8.8 million in her most recent financial disclosure form.

Members of Congress earn $174,000 per year.

The Associated Press contributed to this report