CHEYENNE — Democratic leaders in the Wyoming Legislature plan to re-introduce a Medicaid expansion and call for the passage of an income tax on high earners.
Senate Minority Leader Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, said he was bringing forward an omnibus health bill that would include an expansion of the state Medicaid system as allowed under the federal Affordable Care Act.
Rothfuss said the failure of Congress to address health care reform made it incumbent on states to find a solution for people who do not have access to affordable health care.
“There was a lot of discussion obviously in Washington, D.C., about ‘repeal and replace’ but no action was taken, so it’s up to us to try to find a solution for those individuals,” he said at an afternoon press conference.
Rothfuss said his goal was to see the Medicaid expansion passed as part of a budget bill. He made the announcement on the first day of a four-week budget session.
House Minority Leader Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, said at the same press conference that she would be bringing a bill co-sponsored by Rothfuss to raise or create several taxes, including a personal income tax. The tax would only apply to individuals who earned at least $300,000.
“For mom and pop on main street, you and your neighbor, that income tax would be zero,” she said.
Connolly said the bill would also raise all severance taxes to the same rate as coal. Rothfuss said he would be sponsoring an apparently separate bill to comprehensively study Wyoming’s tax base, similar to the Tax Reform 2000 study that came out nearly two decades ago.
Wyoming receives about 70 percent of its public revenue from the energy industry and, given the current bust, the Legislature is facing an $850 million budget deficit for the next two years. While Democrats hold few seats in the Legislature and Rothfuss’ and Connolly’s tax measures appear unlikely to pass, even the normally tax skeptical Senate President Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, acknowledged the need to diversify the tax base.
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“I’ve been a no tax guy since before the last session,” Bebout said. “But if we’re going to have taxes, we’ve got to broaden that tax base.”
After months of discussion, the Joint Revenue Committee killed all its major tax proposals weeks before the session began, making the approval of any measures other than a statewide lodging tax and a cigarette tax increase unlikely. Two jumps in projected revenue, in October and again in January, damped the appetite for new revenue streams in an already conservative Legislature.
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House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper, suggested the income tax measure was unlikely to pass.
“Oh,” Harshman said when asked. “No.”
Medicaid previously rejected
Harshman said he had not heard of the planned Medicaid expansion bill until Rothfuss spoke at the press conference.
State lawmakers have rejected Medicaid expansion for years despite the move having support from Gov. Matt Mead, a Republican, and a coalition of business, medical and other advocacy groups.
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“The whole Medicaid program, which is for folks with disabilities and kids and those kind of things, is really under a lot of pressure under expansion,” Harshman said in an interview shortly after President Donald Trump’s election. “When you open it up to able-bodied adults, it’s a whole lot of pressure on the system.”
A 2016 poll found that roughly 52 percent of Wyoming residents would have supported the Legislature expanding Medicaid by accepting $268 million in federal dollars to provide care to 20,000 more individuals.
Rothfuss said that while some health care reform measures would take longer study, Medicaid expansion was relatively straightforward from a technical perspective.
“We can get that passed through the budget if we have the political will,” he said.