CHEYENNE — The two Democrats on the state Legislature's 12-member Joint Appropriations Committee questioned on Monday Gov. Matt Mead's recommendation against expanding the Medicaid program to cover about 16,000 uninsured residents.
The governor, a Republican nearing the last year of his first term in office, said his decision was not political, but was instead pragmatic.
Mead made the comment during an explanation to the committee of his recommended $3.3 billion budget for the two-year budget period that begins July 1.
He said he is convinced the Affordable Care Act -- often known as Obamacare -- is not the solution to the state's problem of uninsured citizens.
Mead noted the state joined other states in unsuccessfully challenging the constitutionality of the health care reform law. The U.S. Supreme Court largely upheld the law.
Sen. John Hastert, D-Rock Springs, said a state Department of Health report said the Medicaid expansion could save the state money.
Hastert said that he also was disappointed with the rollout of the bulky health care exchanges created under the new law, but pointed out the exchanges are separate from Medicaid.
Mead said there is a performance issue with government delays of pieces of the program without legislation or debate.
The program is based on the premise that young, healthy people will sign up, but that's not happening, he said.
He also questioned whether the federal government will follow through with its financial promises.
Hastert said Wyoming gets millions of dollars a year in federal money.
Mead countered by pointing out the reduction to the state of federal AML money and sequestration that delayed the opening of Yellowstone National Park to tourists.
Rep. Ken Esquibel, D-Cheyenne, said that during a recent national legislative meeting lawmakers from other states said they are having success with the health care law.
Esquibel said he hoped Mead would work with the governors of other states to find a solution.
Mead said he agrees there is a need and promised to keep an open mind. The governors of Wisconsin and Arkansas are looking at hybrid plans, he said.
Also on Monday, the governor told the lawmakers his top budget priorities are aid to local governments and pay raises for state employees.
Mead presented his proposed $3.33 billion general fund budget for the coming two-year biennium beginning July 1, 2014.
He said the budget is conservative and represents an increase over the $3.31 billion current budget partly because it includes pay raises for state government, University of Wyoming and community college employees.
He is asking for $50 million for a 5 percent pay raise for state government and University of Wyoming employees for the two-year budget period.
His recommendation for the community colleges is a 2 percent-per-year pay raise for the two-year budget period. The amount is less than for state employees because some community colleges have granted pay raises in recent years.
The state employees, though, have not had a general pay raise for four years and their base pay is down slightly; their numbers have decreased by 225 and turnover is up.
"We are asking fewer people to do more," Mead said.
Some committee members talked of placing a cap on the amount or raises allowed for the highest paid employees, for example those earning $100,000 or more.
Mead said he would like some of the pay raise money tied to employee performance.
He is asking for $175 million for cities, towns and counties, up from $135 million in the current two-year budget period.
Mead said the locals spent the $135 million wisely.
If every community in the state is strong, the state of Wyoming is also strong, he said.
"Local government is where hard decisions are made, what potholes to fill, how to take care of businesses, how to make the machinery run and I think they have done an extraordinary job," Mead said.
The governor is recommending that 40 percent of the money be spent for infrastructure and 60 percent for operations. But he told the committee members he would not object to reversing the percentage so that 60 percent would go to infrastructure.
The governor and at least one JAC member disagree somewhat on the spending-versus-savings question.
Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, the committee co-chairman, said the state needs to save more money in the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund to boost interest income.
Mead said the state is playing world markets with those investments. Those markets nose-dived a few years ago.
Mead noted that the Legislative Stabilization and Reserve Account had a balance of about $900 million when he took office in 2011. The fund balance now totals $1.7 billion, he said.
He said that while the state needs to continue to save money, one way is to invest in the state's infrastructure needs.