Watching the Legislature deliberate measures to provide relief for Wyoming’s poorest citizens was a lot like watching Lucy hold the football for Charlie Brown. And like Charlie Brown, I managed to convince myself that this time would be different than all the others, this time it wouldn’t end in painful disappointment.
Good grief! I should have known better.
But it really did look promising at the outset.
The House restored $2.5 million in funding for the Tax Refund for the Elderly and Disabled program in House Bill 127. Lawmakers stripped the program’s entire $4.2 million budget in 2017 when state coffers tanked with falling mineral production and prices.
The House also added $500,000 for food banks to the supplemental budget bill to help cope with emergencies like the recent government shutdown. Many federal employees temporarily out of work relied on such services to feed their families.
My blind optimism that lawmakers would come through for the poor was again shattered. It shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did.
The Tax Refund for the Elderly and Disabled isn’t a fly-by-night program that legislators added on a whim. It had been funded by the Legislature for 41 consecutive years until 2016.
The program helped about 6,000 seniors and disabled residents that year, sending them tax refund checks for between $200 and $900, depending upon income. The average refund was $625.
The program wasn’t breaking the state’s back, but still it fell victim to budget cuts then-Gov. Matt Mead and lawmakers decided were necessary. It should have been one of the first cuts restored when the economy rebounded.
The $2.5 million proposed this session would have been about 60 percent of the 2016 funding, and the Department of Revenue would have had to change its income guidelines and likely help fewer people. But the sponsor of HB127, Rep. Tim Hallinan (R-Gillette), said that he recognized the state’s economy hasn’t fully recovered so he asked for less money.
The measure seemed to have a great chance of passing. Hallinan is a fiscal conservative, but he told the Revenue Committee that adding $2.5 million to a $2 billion state budget wasn’t much to help the poorest of the poor.
“I’ve talked to many seniors who said they will be able to buy groceries and buy propane to heat their homes,” said co-sponsor Rep. Tim Salazar (R-Dubois). “Now they’re skipping meals and turning off the heat for two or three hours a day. I don’t know how they do it.”
The House passed the measure 47-13, and the Senate Revenue Committee approved it 4-0. Then it ran into a buzz saw in the full Senate, the current iteration of which seems to have never seen a poverty-relief program that it likes.
HB-245 would have revived the state’s property tax refund for seniors but died when it wasn’t even considered by the entire House. The Senate put $625,000 for the program directly into their version of the supplementary budget bill. The move did nothing for the Tax Refund for the Elderly and Disabled but House Appropriations signed off on the action, knowing that HB-127 was still active in the Senate.
The body defeated HB127 by a vote of 10-16, with no one mentioning that the program they killed would have covered the disabled population. Nor did they point out that the property tax relief they ballyhooed does absolutely nothing for low-income elderly residents who do not own their homes.
Rep. Sarah Burlingame (D-Cheyenne) successfully sponsored an amendment to add a half-million dollars from the state’s General Fund to provide more money to food pantries.
Food pantries throughout the state operate on shoestring budgets and are largely staffed by volunteers. The money they raise goes almost entirely to provide food for the needy. When natural disasters and other emergencies hit, their thin budgets are stretched past the breaking point.
But the extra funding was quickly jettisoned during House-Senate budget negotiations. That’s a travesty.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) said it is time for more cuts to public education and programs for mental health and substance abuse treatment.
Bebout cited the Legislature’s failure to tax residents to pay for schools and other programs as the reason to cut more from the budget. To his credit he did support a lodging tax increase and a corporate income tax that would have provided more money for education. Both still failed.
But it’s unconscionable to target programs that help the poor, students and the mentally ill.
If current revenue projections are met, state government will sock away an estimated $237 million into its rainy-day account. Yet it could not find $3 million to fund two programs that help the impoverished.
Can we find enough compassion and commonsense next year to not balance the budget on the backs of our most vulnerable friends and neighbors?
I already feel the football being yanked into the air again, and I know the answer is likely no. But it’s up to all of us to ask the question and for the Legislature to do the right thing.
Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Casper and can be reached at email@example.com. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.