CHEYENNE — Over the next seven to eight weeks Wyoming lawmakers will consider cutting state agency budgets, increasing fuel taxes, determining health care availability and holding schools accountable.
Those are just a few of the critical issues lawmakers face in the 40-day session that began today for the 62nd Legislature.
"There is so much to learn, and it is all so important," said Lynn Hutchings, a new lawmaker.
Hutchings is representing rural Cheyenne, and the first African-American Republican woman in the Wyoming House of Representatives.
"So far it's been awesome," Hutchings said this morning.
Her first committee meeting this morning brought home the focus required, she said. Lawmakers need to understand the details of each proposed law thoroughly.
"I just want to make proper decisions so that I can sleep at night," Hutchings said.
Leaders in the Senate and the House agreed that lawmakers face some weighty issues.
Sen. Tony Ross, a Republican from Cheyenne, was elected president of the Senate. "These are serious times. We face serious issues," Ross said. He warned against the rising tide of partisanship, ideological extremism and most of all cynicism that makes citizens refrain from participating in government.
Gillette Republican Rep. Tom Lubnau was elected Speaker of the House.
"In terms of specific policy issues, we find ourselves in times of discomfort," Lubnau said.
Gov. Matt Mead presents his state-of-the-state speech at 10 a.m. Wednesday, and the session will be in full swing.
Wyoming is in good financial shape compared to most states.
The state has billions in savings and one of the largest sovereign wealth funds in the world, but the revenue does not flow like it did at the turn of the century when energy prices were high.
So lawmakers will be looking at budget cuts and perhaps some redirecting of revenue.
Mead has proposed an average of 6.5 percent cut across the agencies funded in the $3.2 billion, two-year budget the Legislature approved in 2011.
The governor is also asking lawmakers to redirect a $130 million annual stream of state energy revenues that's currently going into permanent, untouchable savings. Mead wants the legislature to put the money into a fund that could be tapped if necessary.
Mead supports a 10-cent a gallon increase in fuel taxes as well. That would raise about $70 million annually for roads.
Some lawmakers say the state is not providing an education commensurate with the $1.5 billion it invests in public schools.
The legislature has been trying to implement an accountability system to measure student outcomes. That has created conflict between lawmakers and the Wyoming Department of Education. Lawmakers are expected to try to resolve the issues.
Mead has also recommended that the legislature reject $50 million from the federal government to expand Medicaid eligibility. Rejection of expansion under the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is estimated to prevent 30,000 Wyoming citizens from receiving health-care coverage that they currently cannot afford.
Tentatively the session is scheduled to adjourn Feb. 28, but it could go longer if needed.
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