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Stories, Stats, Impacts: Wyoming Public Media is here to keep you current on the news surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

Wyoming House Minority leader chats on COVID-19 vaccine mandates and a range of other topics

Cathy Connolly
Wyoming Legislature
Cathy Connolly

It's that time of year when the legislature starts heading into the home stretch as it prepares for the upcoming budget session in February. In the meantime, a number of legislators and the governor are discussing a special legislative session to pass bills to protect Wyoming businesses and health care facilities from federal COVID-19 mandates. All Democrats are voting no on the proposal. House Minority Leader Cathy Connolly joined us to talk about that and issues from education to juvenile justice.

Cathy Connolly: We in the Democratic caucus released a letter saying that we'll vote no on the special session, as well on a change to the rules for the special session. (Which would allow them to speed up passage of legislation.) I truly believe that a special session is the wrong direction that we should be taking right now. There is so much else that we should be doing in the state in order to protect our constituents and our communities.

Bob Beck: Is this a disagreement over vaccines? What do you think is going on here?

CC: That is a good question for you to ask them, to tell you the truth. But what we hear is it's over the potential for vaccine mandates coming out of CMS and OSHA. To start with why a special session makes no sense right now, no sense at all, is those regulations aren't out yet. So what would a special session do? What would the bills that would be introduced do other than attempt to anticipate what those rules and regulations would say?

BB: I do know that there are people that want to go after Banner Health and those folks that have already implemented some things in the state. And I anticipate that's going to be part of it, which I find very interesting because they didn't like it when Governor Gordon and Dr. Harrist implemented some requirements for businesses last year and suddenly it seems like telling private businesses what to do seems to be okay. Again...my head is spinning on all sides of this issue.

CC: My number one priority is protecting the health and safety of our citizens. That's our number one. And when we look at the data, the information coming out of our hospitals right now about who's being hospitalized in relation to vaccine status, we understand that our ICU beds are overwhelmingly filled by those who have not been vaccinated. The state is uploading information daily to the CDC and over 50 percent of the Wyoming adult population has been vaccinated. Over three-quarters of our seniors, 65 and older have been vaccinated. Who's speaking for them? Right? What we're looking at right now is the majority of adults in Wyoming and our seniors have chosen to be fully vaccinated in order to protect themselves, their families, their communities. And we're not hearing from them.

BB: So I want to talk about a couple of other things. You're sitting on the Education Committee. One of the major issues that did not get resolved at the end of the legislative session is where we are going with funding. And at the end of the day, everybody just kind of laughed and was mad at each other and went home. First off, are you having much more productive conversations this time? And do you see a compromise or something that could pass this year?

CC: I don't think that we will revisit what's called the recalibration of the school funding model this year. With it being a budget session, which is basically we're talking about the general fund rather than the school foundation fund, as well as our obligated ten-year redistricting, we will probably not go back to recalibration. That being said, we have an obligation every year to take a look at what's called the ECA or the external cost adjustment. That we need to evaluate in relation to salaries of professional staff, nonprofessional staff, educational materials, and utilities. So those four components we took a look at earlier this week and made a recommendation that we should fully fund those ECA's that have been recommended based on inflation. And some of those increases were based on the recalibration efforts of last year. So there is recognition that those increases make sense.

BB: The Appropriations Committee gets the next crack at it and generally they have approved these things over the years. And so if it goes to the full legislature, it seems like this is going to be house against the senate again?

CC: Which is regrettable, right, which is regrettable chambers should not be kind of butting heads. I mean, honestly, we should be coming together on what is the best policy for the state.

BB: So I want to ask you about another issue that I know a lot of people are very excited about. Medicaid expansion got through the house, Senators have generally opposed it. Do you think we can have a debate on Medicaid expansion? And is there any hope for it passing?

CC: I have been an advocate of Medicaid expansion since it was introduced. It gives opportunities for our state in terms of bolstering our entire healthcare system. And of particular importance to me, real attention to the need for increasing availability of mental health services. We have one of the highest suicide rates in the nation, we need to be addressing mental health better. We have some who want to call it a fixed pot when it comes to money that is spent on health care. We could expand that pot by accepting Medicaid expansion, it just makes dollar sense to do so. That being said, we also have about 18,000 people... 18,000 of our neighbors who would absolutely benefit if we expanded Medicaid, that they would have health care, they would have health insurance. When I hear from folks that are spending every last dime, they are spending every last minute of the day, making decisions about health care, whether or not they should get it. Whether or not they should minimize it? Rather than do what's necessary? That's just wrong. Medicaid expansion would help those people and help all of us.

BB: The narrative has been that well that this is just too much of a free lunch for people.

CC: Bob, it just drives me crazy when you know virtually all of our transportation money, roads and bridges, we accept federal money for that and have forever, right? We have Title One education services in our schools. We are grateful for that...right? We should be doing similarly for healthcare.

BB: Another issue I know you've worked on is juvenile justice. A legislative committee is going very slow. They're going to focus on the data, which apparently we've never really gathered correctly in the state. This is only an issue that I think we started talking about in 1995. What do we need to do to finally get this resolved?

CC: I think it's only a couple of things. I've been very interested in this issue, as we're one of the only states that does not participate in, I think it's called the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which would allow for some resources and services coming into the state. And in part, it was because we weren't meeting some of the federal regulations in order to be eligible. And they're as simple as we shouldn't be housing juveniles with adults. Well, in some of our communities, you have very small law enforcement buildings, how do you bring in a 15-year-old or a 16-year-old who's committed a crime through the same door as a 22-year-old? Right? The requirement is that you need to have different kinds of facilities. That was a big hurdle. But it's my understanding now that there's waivers, there's waivers for rural communities. And what we did was just threw up our hands and said no. We have plenty of money, we're going to deal with juvenile justice issues the way that we want. We don't have plenty of money right now. There are waiver possibilities for some of the reasons that we weren't participating. So let's reconsider it. But more importantly, we don't need or want our kids being arrested, right? We want prevention programs in our communities ahead of time. To me, that goes back to some of the mental health issues that we have and that we have very little when it comes to effective systemic prevention. We don't want people getting into a mental health crisis. We don't want kids getting arrested. Instead, we want the programs and resources available to prevent those things from happening. and you know that takes political will, and it takes investment.

BB: You had a big turnover in the legislature during the last election where you added some more conservative people. Here's the thing, though, the conservative folks tend to be on the side of judicial reform, they tend to be on the side of prison reform. Is this a situation and I've seen you do this before, where the democrats and the conservative folks actually work together? Is this one where you might finally get this done?

CC: Yes, right, you know, absolutely. And, again, this can be a bipartisan issue, that's for sure. And I see that happening. Last session we needed a tweak in a bill. And without getting into too much detail, that would have allowed for juveniles to have a serious charge against them for sexting. The sending or showing of naked pictures, right? I don't want that. I don't want kids who made a very, very bad choice to be a sex offender. I don't want that to happen. And I remember arguing it or going to the microphone on the floor. And coming back to my seat and a couple of those incredibly conservative members, the newly elected ones are giving me big thumbs up. That's the kind of collaboration across the aisle that we can definitely have in this issue.

BB: The budget session, as you alluded to earlier, is coming up this year, we have a revenue projection report that's coming out here momentarily. It should be pretty good and we have a bunch of federal money. Are we going to restore any of these cuts we made last year?

CC: I'll fight tooth and nail for that Bob, we absolutely should. We have made cuts over the past year that have gone beneath the bone, we have cut programs, we have cut services. And we will start to see the negative impacts of those, we need to restore them. And that we also need to be innovative and thinking about the future. We don't just sock this away and say not for us. We have opportunities and we should take advantage of them.

BB: The governor has said that one of the things they're working on is just that, looking at what's the next economy. Are you confident they are doing the right things there?

CC: I don't know. Because in my mind, too much of it has been done behind closed doors. I wish we had to have a little bit more transparency being brought into that discussion. One of my concerns is the kind of continual rhetoric of no expansion of programs. We often think of one-time money being used for buildings, for example, right? Again, I've never bought into this because even once you have a building, you have maintenance on that building. But the way I would really like to think about this money, even if it's one-time, is think of it as the ability to experiment. That's important. So you know, for example, could we invest in our kids who are aging out of the foster care system, in better ways than we are right now? Without saying, 'Oh, no, that would be a new program. And it would take additional money.' But what if we could establish a couple of programs and see if they work, see if training some of our state workers in a particular way would work. I heard of a really interesting idea of training our child welfare workers and ways that could help with the outcomes with some of these families and kids that are in our DFS system. Right? What if we experiment with early childhood education? That to me is an important way to think about this money as a way to invest in our future.

Bob Beck retired from Wyoming Public Media after serving as News Director of Wyoming Public Radio for 34 years. During his time as News Director WPR has won over 100 national, regional and state news awards.
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