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Marla Troutman

Marla Troutman, 56, said she started her first job at age 13 but now lives on $958 a month from Social Security after becoming disabled. Troutman's medications, which cost well over $1,000 a month, are largely paid for by Medicaid and Medicare.

Marla Troutman’s medications each month cost more than she receives in Social Security disability benefits and food stamps.

Troutman, a 56-year-old Casper resident, worked for decades before leaving Albertson's when she became disabled. Now, she sits in a blue easy chair with four pillows propped up to support her back and neck, which give her constant pain. On a coffee table next to her is medicine for COPD.

The government assistance that helps her survive -- Medicaid, Social Security disability and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- are on the chopping block in President Donald Trump’s budget proposal, which was formally delivered to Congress last week.

The president wants Congress to cut the programs by $800 billion, $70 billion and $191 billion, respectively, in coming years. Trump’s plan calls for significant cuts to social welfare and domestic programs, while boosting spending for defense and veterans.

Gov. Matt Mead, in a recent interview, said he was still reviewing the budget to understand potential impacts on Wyoming.

“I will say in a rural state where health care is a challenge, we’re going to be watching it closely to see how the budget is as it’s presented and how it winds up through Congress,” he said.

Seven in 10 Wyomingites voted for Trump in the 2016 election -- the highest margin in the country. Some of Trump’s budget proposals would benefit Wyomingites, such as a paid paternity leave benefit. And curbing social spending will likely appeal to residents of one of the nation’s reddest states.

Sen. Mike Enzi, the Wyoming Republican who is chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, praised Trump’s effort at curbing government spending.

“We all know that our current situation is unsustainable,” Enzi said in a statement. “We must do better. I look forward to hearing more about how the president’s budget will help improve the accountability of the federal government and will strongly support efforts to improve and eliminate government programs not delivering results.”

Others worry that cuts hurt programs that are important to rural Americans.

Education reforms proposed in the budget could mean less money for Wyoming since they tend to favor charter schools, which work better in urban settings. The budget cuts could also hit arts and humanities programs that boost cultural events in small towns.

“I think we’re in a conversation about the nature of the United States of America,” said Shannon Smith, executive director of the Wyoming Humanities Council, which would be closed down if Trump’s budget prevails. “What are our priorities? Is it coastlines? Is it Medicaid and the safety net?”

Arts and humanities

The Wyoming Humanities Council gives grants to cultural organizations throughout the state, partners with Casper College for the Casper Humanities Festival each year and even helps libraries with reading groups, said Smith, the council’s executive director.

Trump is proposing a $40 million cut to the National Endowment for the Humanities, the organization that provides about $600,000, or nearly 70 percent, of the Wyoming Humanities Council’s budget.

Trump’s proposed NEH reduction would keep staff on to close the federal entity and allow them to award remaining grant money.

Wyoming is not a New York or Chicago, with large foundations and pools of donors to compensate for declines in federal money, Smith said.

“My board and I know for certain we do not have the capacity to raise that from the small population in the state of Wyoming,” she said. “So for us that would be essentially shutting us down.”

Paternity leave

Trump’s budget plan calls for six weeks of paid paternity leave – including mothers and fathers of adoptive children. The idea comes from the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, who recently wrote a book about working mothers and has advocated family-friendly work policies.

Money for the program would come from state unemployment insurance programs.

Natasha Adams of Casper likes the idea of paid leave for new parents.

However, she feels societal judgement will limit how many people use it.

“We dog on people who accept a handout, whatsoever,” she said. “Is that going to be the new welfare thing, where, ‘Oh, you took your six weeks.’”

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Adams said she was on welfare as a single mother. She went to school and became a registered nurse. She said she’s paid back more in taxes than the amount of assistance she once received. But she heard plenty of criticism from people when she took advantage of the government's help.

“I think most men don’t take their paternity leave -- even if it's offered to them, -- because they have that pressure to get off to work,” she said.

Education

Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow said she supports school choice and fiscal conservatism. But she said the school choice component of the president’s budget proposal -- in which charter schools would be encouraged -- takes away from programs that currently benefit Wyoming schools.

Balow said charter schools don't work in most parts of rural Wyoming, where many towns have enough students to support only one school. She used Thermopolis, with one elementary school, as an example.

“Our students in Thermopolis don’t have other options in town,” she said. “They don’t have a charter school option. It doesn’t make sense. It makes a lot of sense in an urban area, but it just doesn’t in Wyoming.”

The Wyoming Department of Education anticipates a nearly 14 percent cut in federal funds under Trump’s proposed budget, said Balow, a Republican.

“It would be pretty devastating if we had to deal with a 13.6 percent cut on top of our decreases in state funds,” Balow said.

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State money for operations of Wyoming’s public schools is drying up, due to the downturn in coal, oil and gas, to the tune of $400 million annually in coming years.

In the 2015-2016 school year, districts received $124 million in federal money, a little over 6 percent of their receipts when considering total budgets that contain local, state and county revenues.

Trump’s proposed budget would eliminate a program known as 21st Century Learning Centers, which pay for after-school and summer education in 21 of Wyoming’s 23 counties.

About 8,000 Wyoming children receive services in the program, which provides academic support, socialization, a safe environment and structured activities for kids who tend to be at risk, she said.

“It provides academic support to our students,” Balow said. “Some of the students who participate in these programs are what we historically called latchkey kids.”

A total of 20 education programs are slated for reductions or elimination, she said.

Interestingly, the size of the U.S. Department of Education would expand, with about $7 million in new funds requested in the budget.

If Congress accepts the budget, the cuts would go into effect in the 2018-2019 school year, Balow said.

Congressional prospects

Balow said that Congress frequently rejects presidential budget proposals. Most recently it didn’t implement proposals by President Barack Obama, she said.

Other times, Congress adopts portions of a president’s budget plan and disregards others.

While Enzi felt positive about Trump's plan, other congressmen criticized Trump’s budget from the get-go. For example, The Hill reported Thursday that Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said during an Appropriations subcommittee meeting: "The budget proposed by the president doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell of passing." 

Troutman, the Casper resident on disability, remains concerned. She said she needs well over $1,000 a month in medications, paid for by Medicaid and Medicare and the co-payments she makes. Social Security provides her $958 a month to live. She receives $85 a month in food stamps, she said.

If her benefits are cut, she said she can’t afford her medicine, her living expenses or food. That would throw her in a spiral that could cost her health. She has an 18-month granddaughter whom she adores and would like to see her grow up.

“I’m trying to live until 69,” she said. “That’s my goal.”

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Follow political reporter Laura Hancock on Twitter @laurahancock

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Star-Tribune reporter Laura Hancock covers politics and the Wyoming Legislature.

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