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Budget bills pass with amendments blocking use of University of Wyoming funds for abortion coverage
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ABORTION

Budget bills pass with amendments blocking use of University of Wyoming funds for abortion coverage

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House of Representatives

Rep. Tim Salazar watches proceedings on the House floor from the back of the room Feb. 11 at the Capitol in Cheyenne. Salazar opposed Casper Rep. Pat Sweeney's proposal to remove the words "other funds" from a provision targeting the use of University of Wyoming-related funds on abortions.

Framed as a vote on lawmakers’ stance on abortion, both the Wyoming House and Senate approved budget bills last week that banned the use of any University of Wyoming funds for elective procedures.

The amendment bars any expense of “general funds, federal funds or other funds” under the control of the university for the purpose of “elective abortions for students” or “group health insurance that provides coverage of election abortions for students.” The House approved the amendment earlier last week, and the Senate, in a narrow vote, approved it Friday. Both budgets were then shipped across the Capitol to the other chamber.

Both amendments allow for medically necessary abortions or for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. The university’s current health plan for students covers the procedures.

In the House on Friday, opponents criticized the amendments as legislative overreach, accusing the provisions’ backers of trying to control the fees students pay for their university-provided health insurance.

“It’s private individual dollars purchasing an individual health plan, but the university being the conduit to pay that at once,” said Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, a Cheyenne Republican. “We’re getting into such a weird place right now that the Legislature of Wyoming shouldn’t. It just makes no sense.”

On Friday, as the budget bill neared completion in the House, Casper Republican Rep. Pat Sweeney introduced a proposal to strip out the “other funds” from the provision, essentially limiting it to federal and state funding and largely carving out the concern about student fees.

“What I’m asking you to vote on is the word ‘other,’” Sweeney said Friday afternoon. “I believe we are covered if we take ‘other’ out. There’s still the general portion part, the general fund portion part, and the federal, and the university has heard the message loud and clear on this stance. I’m asking you to not erode our block grant system and not overreach on the ‘other funds’ portion.”

But supporters, including Casper Republican Rep. Chuck Gray, hammered opposition of the prohibition as tantamount to support of taxpayer-funded abortions.

“Should student fees buy abortion coverage?” Riverton Republican Rep. Tim Salazar during debate on Sweeney’s amendment. “And you can answer that question for yourself on this vote. I oppose (Sweeney’s) amendment.”

“What we’re saying with this is we’re not going to subsidize abortion,” said Gray, who proposed the amendment in the House and opposed Sweeney’s proposed change. “This is an inappropriate use of the university’s $400 million, to allow that to subsidize abortion.”

Opponents said that $400 million-odd block grant that goes to UW and comes from the state didn’t fund the students’ plans; the students themselves paid for it, with UW being the middle man. And besides, they said, nothing was forcing the students to enroll in the plan. But Gray and Rep. Joe MacGuire, another Casper Republican, said some students — international students, for one — were required to join it.

UW spokesman Chad Baldwin said that only the international students who didn’t have insurance already are on the plan. He said the school’s scholarship program didn’t include health insurance.

Supporters of the abortion limit called for the votes to be roll call, meaning each legislator name would be called aloud and his or her specific vote recorded. Typically, the votes are taken by a voice vote, with supporters and opponents calling out first yea and then nay, which each bloc voting in unison.

Baldwin said that the university was still looking at the amendments closely and assessing them. He said he didn’t know yet if there were any legal issues specific to the limitation on student fees. If the prohibitions make it into statute as written, they would force the university to renegotiate its student health plan with its provider, United Healthcare.

Jason Wilkins, the president of UW’s student body, said in an email Monday that the Associated Students of the University of Wyoming “as a body has not taken any immediate action.” He said he and other student leaders had conversations with administrators, including UW’s lobbyist Meredith Asay.

He stressed the Legislature’s role in UW’s funding and, by extension, its success.

“With that being said, I’m not sure that the UW appropriations are the proper avenue to pursue something as contentious as women’s reproductive rights,” Wilkins wrote. “We often stress the importance of building strong relationships with the UW community and our partners in the State Legislature, but I can assure you that we at ASUW were not engaged in the process of making changes to something as substantial as student health insurance.”

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Education and Health Reporter

Seth Klamann joined the Star-Tribune in 2016 and covers education and health. A 2015 graduate of the University of Missouri and proud Kansas City native, Seth worked for newspapers in Milwaukee and Omaha before coming to Casper.

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