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BRETT FRENCH, Billings Gazette 

Bozeman skier Stuart Jennings leaves the Davis cabin at the B Bar Ranch in Tom Miner Basin after an overnight stay. The cabin rents for $50 a night for two and the price includes access to the ranch's groomed ski trails for two days.

As Senate leaders push study, Jackson lawmaker proposes bill to expand Medicaid with attached work requirement

A small group of Wyoming lawmakers — led by a Jackson Democrat — have again revived an effort to expand Medicaid in Wyoming, an effort that, though likely doomed, would bring care to as many as 27,000 people in the Equality State within a few years.

The proposal, House Bill 244, is relatively straightforward: It would authorize the state to expand Wyoming’s Medicaid program to those making 133 percent of the federal poverty line. It contains language that would roll back the effort if the federal government provided less than 90 percent of funding for the program or if the language in the Affordable Care Act allowing for expansion is repealed or found unconstitutional.

Essentially, it follows what the ACA allows for and covers Wyoming should something happen to the federal health law or the Medicaid expansion provision specifically. But the bill — sponsored by Jackson Democratic Rep. Andy Schwartz — also includes another important piece: the potential for a work requirement.

State leaders, when working with the federal government to expand Medicaid, could negotiate for a “community engagement requirement consisting of work, education, training or volunteer obligations, with specified exceptions, as a condition of eligibility or continuing eligibility for Medicaid,” according to the bill. In other words, state leaders could mandate that certain people receiving Medicaid under expansion would have to train, look for or maintain a job in order to keep their coverage.

Such work requirements were essentially a nonstarter under the Obama administration as far as expansion was concerned. But in January 2018, the Trump administration indicated it would be open to considering them.

Last year, Baggs Republican Sen. Larry Hicks sponsored a bill to add a work requirement to the state’s current Medicaid system, which would’ve affected a relatively small number of the state’s already trim Medicaid enrollees — the majority of whom are chronically ill or underage. He said at the time that Wyoming lawmakers may be more open to discussing expansion if a work requirement were included.

Hicks’ bill passed the Senate but died in the House in 2018. During that debate, Sen. Chris Rothfuss — a Laramie Democrat who’s supported expansion for years — spoke against the requirement. But he said that it would make more sense in the context of expansion.

“I have no idea why this chamber would want any of them to go out and get a job,” Rothfuss said last February of Wyoming’s Medicaid recipients. “If we had expanded Medicaid and we had able-bodied individuals part of the program, some of these provisions would make sense.”

Rothfuss is a co-sponsor of Schwartz’s bill. Neither he nor the Jackson lawmaker returned multiple requests for comment Thursday or Friday.

Their bill was referred to the House’s Labor, Health and Social Services Committee. Last year, Rothfuss’ attempt at passing expansion was part of a sweeping health care bill that was swiftly killed by the Senate. The year before, his bill died in committee.

The legislation comes the same week that Sen. Charlie Scott, a Natrona County Republican, sponsored a bill to study what Medicaid expansion would mean for Wyoming — primarily in terms of dollars and projected enrollment.

Scott told the Star-Tribune that his request for the study — which has the backing of key Senate leaders — does not mean the Legislature is on the brink of supporting expansion. He characterized it as an effort to obtain updated numbers that could inform a push — by voters or lawmakers — to expand the program.

There has been near ubiquitous opposition to expansion among Wyoming lawmakers, even after former Gov. Matt Mead reversed course and threw his support behind the proposal after his 2014 re-election. Though neighboring states like Colorado, Utah, Montana, Idaho and Nebraska have all expanded the program in recent years, Wyoming has remained steadfastly disinterested.

According to the state Department of Health, expansion would cost the state $33 million for the first two years, while bringing care to as many as 27,000 people. The federal government would pay $246 million and would cover 90 percent of the new costs going forward.

Some in Wyoming want to force utilities to sell coal plants instead of closing them

The trend of retiring coal plants has unsettled Wyoming — the largest provider of coal in the country — and now a handful of lawmakers are trying to stabilize one small corner of that industry by pressuring Wyoming utilities that may want out of the coal business.

Senate File 159 would require utilities to search for buyers before retiring a coal-fired plant. Failing to do so would result in the state restricting a utility’s ability to make a financial return on whatever it replaces the coal plant with, such as a wind farm or natural gas plant, the bill states.

Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, didn’t name names, but said the bill was inspired by a Wyoming utility that appears uncertain about keeping Wyoming coal plants burning.

“We have concerns about that, the impact to Wyoming, the jobs, all of those things that are huge and very critical,” he said.

The utility is Rocky Mountain Power, and it’s in a bind in regard to its coal fleet. It gets 60 percent of its power from coal, but its new investments, like billions spent on new wind in Wyoming, are not focused on coal. As the company takes a closer look at the economics of its coal fleet this year, some wonder if Rocky Mountain Power’s shift away from the rock is coming sooner than expected.

That’s what caught Bebout and other lawmakers’ attention. The bill would shift the needle back, if not for Rocky Mountain Power, for coal plants that are often key employment drivers in small Wyoming towns.

“It’s a good idea,” Bebout said of trying to sell plants to a third party instead of letting utilities close them.

The bill’s other sponsors are Sens. Dan Dockstader, R-Afton, and Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower. Dockstader’s county is currently facing the uncertainty of the Westmoreland Coal Company bankruptcy and lingering doubts about the economics of a nearby coal power plant owned by Rocky Mountain Power. He did not respond to an email requesting comment.

To keep coal burning

SF 159 questions some foundational principles about how regulated utilities operate. A company like Rocky Mountain Power is limited in how it can make its profit. It makes money from a return on its investments — its assets like power plants or new wind farms — by slowly billing customers for the cost of building new infrastructure to serve its customers.

Chris Petrie, attorney for the Wyoming Public Service Commission, said staff is still looking at the bill as proposed.

The commission is tasked with deciding what are just and reasonable rates, in accordance with case law determining the scope of company rights to collect that return. The commission is also tasked with carrying out state policy that comes from lawmakers.

“This is a fairly important concept being expressed here, and we’re certainly reviewing it,” Petrie said. “But we have not reached a point where we are taking a position on this. It’s very new.”

When asked if Wyoming had the authority to enact this legislation, Bebout said the legislature has the right to discuss and enact policy. There will be valid concerns raised by different people involved, he said.

“At the end of the day, if we can find something to keep Wyoming coal plants going, that burn Wyoming coal and employ Wyoming people, it’s a great idea all the way around,” he said.

Coal questions

Natural gas is the main reason that coal is suffering today, experts agree. But renewables are increasingly stealing a share of the power pie in the country. Rocky Mountain Power is indicative of this. The company last spent money expanding its power fleet ahead of the recession. It built new gas plants and new wind. More recently, the company began rapidly expanding its wind footprint in Wyoming with two new wind farms, new transmission and a repowering effort — replacing existing wind infrastructure with larger blades and upgraded nacelles. The utility is under pressure to get this done by 2020 to keep federal tax credits that are sunsetting.

But while Rocky Mountain Power digs in on Wyoming wind, it’s less certain about coal. The utility has recently admitted that some of its 22 coal-fired units may be more expensive to run than to replace. The company’s Jim Bridger plant in Wyoming — fed by a company-owned coal plant nearby — provides some of the most expensive power in the company fleet, according to a company study last year.

The firm — a subsidiary of PacifiCorp — has maintained for some time that the coal plants in Wyoming and other states serve an important role in reliability across the entire PacifiCorp system. But it’s unclear if that stance will change. This week, Rocky Mountain Power announced that its annual plan would be delayed from March to August as it digs into its coal questions.

In any case, the utility and Wyoming are in a tight spot. Oregon is paying out of its responsibility in the existing coal fleet. Other states served by PacifiCorp have signaled their desire to do the same, leaving states like Wyoming potentially holding the bag to keep coal burning in the Rocky Mountain Power system — according to utility officials who presented this information to Wyoming lawmakers in May.

Coal’s value

National attempts to save coal have been hit-and-miss in the last few years since a coal-friendly administration entered the White House. Deregulation, such as the Clean Power Plan repeal, has alleviated some worries in the coal sector. However, the economics have not changed for coal.

The Energy Information Administration released its Annual Energy Outlook last week, forecasting that coal could make up just 17 percent of the country’s energy mix by 2050, given a flat regulatory and economic background. Meanwhile, the Department of Energy announced it would grant millions in funding for research and development into technology to save the current coal fleet from further erosion.

SF 159 does not answer the bigger questions about a changing energy landscape right now. It may serve its purpose, however, said Bryce Freeman, administrator of the Office of Consumer Advocate.

Freeman said it doesn’t look like the measure would be detrimental to customers, which is what his office looks out for. Presuming there are buyers for coal plants, which remains to be seen, it could be good for customer rates, Freeman said.

“The biggest problem with some of the plants we’ve got is if they retire before the end of their useful lives then there is going to be some investment associated with those plants that is yet to be recovered,” he said.

A sale could, potentially, alleviate that cost on the utilities customers, he said.

Others see the bill differently, arguing that its intent is not just to find buyers but to dissuade companies from retiring coal plants early. In turn, that places the cost of keeping a coal plant on customer shoulders.

Connie Wilbert, director of the Wyoming Sierra Club chapter, said the measure is misguided. Wyoming will lose out with this attitude while customers in places across PacifiCorp’s system reap the benefit of cheaper power sources, she said.

Sierra Club spent much of last year pressing PacifiCorp to publish its coal economics, believing that the company is effectively subsidizing those coal plants when cheaper options are available. It commissioned a study that confirmed there were cheaper options than many of the company’s coal units, which PacifiCorp criticized as being narrow in perspective and scope.

Wilbert said that though Wyoming depends on the coal industry and local communities do as well, coal is rapidly being replaced.

“I think we have to figure out how to help communities and work through this,” she said. “The reality is that we can’t turn back the clock. This is something that is happening. It is bigger than Wyoming.”

For Freeman, the big question in the background of these energy debates across the West isn’t about the economics of coal versus other energy sources but a comparison of values. What no one really knows yet is how to operate without coal on the grid. That’s what Rocky Mountain Power is looking into now, he said.

“There is some value to these large coal plants associated with keeping the lights on,” he said.

Trump sets odds of reaching deal on wall at less than 50-50

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Sunday that the odds congressional negotiators will craft a deal to end his border wall standoff with Congress are "less than 50-50."

As hundreds of thousands of furloughed federal workers prepared to return to work, Trump told The Wall Street Journal that he doesn't think the negotiators will strike a deal that he'd accept. He pledged to build a wall anyway using his executive powers to declare a national emergency if necessary.

"I personally think it's less than 50-50, but you have a lot of very good people on that board," Trump said in an interview with the newspaper.

The president was referring to a bipartisan committee of House and Senate lawmakers that will consider border spending as part of the legislative process.

The president's standoff with Democrats on Capitol Hill is far from over and the clock is ticking. The spending bill Trump signed on Friday to temporarily end the partial government shutdown funds the shuttered agencies only until Feb. 15.

It's unclear if the Democrats will budge. Trump seemed girded for battle over the weekend, sending out a series of online messages that foreshadowed the upcoming fight with lawmakers. "BUILD A WALL & CRIME WILL FALL!" he tweeted.

Is Trump prepared to shut down the government again in three weeks?

"Yeah, I think he actually is," acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said. "He doesn't want to shut the government down, let's make that very clear. He doesn't want to declare a national emergency."

But Mulvaney said that at "the end of the day, the president's commitment is to defend the nation and he will do it with or without Congress."

The linchpin in the standoff is Trump's demand for $5.7 billion for his prized wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, a project Democrats consider an ineffective, wasteful monument to a ridiculous Trump campaign promise.

Asked if he'd willing to accept less than $5.7 billion to build a barrier on the southern border, Trump replied: "I doubt it." He added: "I have to do it right."

He also said he'd be wary of any proposed deal that exchanged funds for a wall for broad immigration reform. And when asked if he would agree to citizenship for immigrants who were illegally brought into the U.S. as children, he again replied, "I doubt it."

California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the leading Republican in the House, said Democrats have funded border barriers in the past and are refusing this time simply because Trump is asking for it.

"The president is the only one who has been reasonable in these negotiations," he said.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, a member of the Democratic leadership in the House, said his colleagues are looking for "evidence-based" legislation.

"Shutdowns are not legitimate negotiating tactics when there's a public policy disagreement between two branches of government," he said.

Jeffries said Democrats are willing to invest in additional infrastructure, especially at legal ports of entry where the majority of drugs come into the country.

"We're willing to invest in personnel. We're willing to invest in additional technology. ... In the past, we have supported enhanced fencing and I think that's something that's reasonable that should be on the table," he said.

Trump has asserted there is a "crisis" at the southern border requiring a wall, blaming previous presidents and Congress for failing to overhaul an immigration system that has allowed millions of people to live in the U.S. illegally.

Last month, he put that number at 35 million, while on Sunday he pegged it at 25.7 million-plus — figures offered without evidence. "I'm not exactly sure where the president got that number this morning," Mulvaney said.

Both are higher than government and private estimates.

His homeland security chief cited "somewhere" between 11 million and 22 million last month. In November, the nonpartisan Pew Research Center reported 10.7 million in 2016 — the lowest in a decade.

The president also tweeted Sunday that the cost of illegal immigration so far this year was nearly $19 billion; he didn't cite a source.

Compare that with research in 2017 from a conservative group, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates for less immigration: $135 billion a year or about $11.25 billion a month — a figure that included health care and education, plus money spent on immigration enforcement.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. said that he thinks a compromise is possible.

"The president went from talking about a wall along the entire southern border at one point during the campaign ... to let's have barriers where they work and let's have something else where barriers wouldn't work as well," Blunt said.

The partial federal shutdown ended Friday when Trump gave in to mounting pressure, retreating from his demand that Congress commit to the border wall funding before federal agencies could resume work. The bill he signed did not provide the money Trump wanted for a barrier, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called "immoral" and has insisted Congress will not finance.

Mulvaney said Trump agreed to temporarily end the shutdown because some Democrats have stepped forward, publicly and privately, to say they agree with Trump's plan to better secure the border.

Mulvaney said they told Trump they couldn't split with Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer or work with the White House if the government remained closed.

"Everybody wants to look at this and say the president lost," Mulvaney said. "We're still in the middle of negotiations."