Sunday, January 18, 2009

Workers' Comp changes sent to House floor

House Labor backs Workers Comp measure

Amendments to Wyoming’s workers’ compensation program that would improve benefits to injured workers and give employers big premium credits were approved Friday afternoon.

We’ve talked about the measure before. One key element is including Cost of Living Adjustments on payments received by people who are permanently totally disabled. The bill, hammered out by the Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Committee over the past seven months, offers a COLA of up to 3% to those injured people.

But Rep. Lisa Shepperson of Casper, who was just appointed to the committee and thus missed all those deliberations, tried to cut the COLA to just 2%. The average recipient of such benefits gets only about $30,000 per year, according to division administrators. With the cost of living going up for everyone around them, it seemed a hard-hearted message to send to the just 184 people who get such permanent benefits.

Fortunately, the committee refused to go along with the Casper representative. We’ll have to watch the coming floor action, however, for similar efforts to reduce the proposed COLA.

ESPC joins in creation of new freedom of information organization

The Equality State Policy Center and other groups Thursday announced the creation of the Wyoming Coalition for Open Government (WyCOG), an organization designed to promote open, accountable government in Wyoming.

The ESPC joined the Wyoming League of Women Voters, venerable press institutions like the Casper Star-Tribune,the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, and The Associated Press, and interested individuals to form WyCOG, which will educate the public about the importance of government transparency to the function of our democratic institutions.

WyCOG also intends to hold government institutions accountable for keeping their meetings and records open to the public. As part of that effort, the group plans to hand out awards each year to those individuals or organizations most dedicated to open government. And it will shine a light on public institutions that shut the public out of their deliberations.

On Thursday, WyCOG declared Casper attorney Mike Krampner its “First Amendment Hero” for his many years of work with the Freedom of Information Hotline, established in 1986 by Sigma Delta Chi, the society of professional journalists. Krampner has helped many reporters fighting to gain access to public meetings and documents.

ON the flip side, WyCOG gave its “Black Hole Award” to the Building Code Board of Appeals for the City of Cheyenne. The board has shut the public out of deliberations that led to the demolition of historic homes in Cheyenne.

Senate measure more than doubles campaign contribution limits

Individual contributions to political campaigns would more than double under legislation backed Thursday by the Senate Corporations Committee.

The bill, SF-12, is sponsored by Sen. Bruce Burns and Reps. Kermit Brown of Laramie and House Corporations Committee Chairman Pete Illoway of Cheyenne. It will hike the state’s limits on individual campaign contributions from $1,000 per election to $2,300. A well-heeled donor could give a candidate a total of $4,600 during an election cycle: $2,300 for a primary election and another $2,300 for a general election.

The bill maintains existing law that restrict a single individual’s total campaign contributions to $25,000 during a two-year election cycle.

The ESPC and the League of Women Voters oppose the hike. Contested Wyoming legislative races rarely exceed $15,500 for a Senate seat or $7,500 - $9,500 for a House seat. With the proposed limits, one couple basically could fund a House race. The ESPC believes candidates should have to appeal to many residents of their districts.

Statewide races, especially gubernatorial campaigns, do see contributors “limit out.” Marguerite Herman of the League suggested the state could consider creating tiers of contribution limits. In South Dakota and a number of others states, a higher limit is mandated for statewide offices. Lower limits are imposed on legislative races.

The committee did not discuss the possibility of considering tiers of limits before it backed the measure on a 4-1 vote. You can read the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle story here. The Casper Star-Tribune story is here.

A political flashpoint?

There was an interesting exchange during Thursday’s Senate Corporations Committee meeting between Chairman Cale Case of Lander and Deputy Secretary of State Pat Arp. Under pointed questioning from Sen. Case, Ms. Arp revealed that the state attorney general ruled last year that donors can give a candidate $2,000 prior to the primary election so long as they do not contribute again during the general election campaign.

That’s a big change from past practice. Typically, campaigns presumed they could not accept more than $1,000 during any single election from a contributor.

A peeved Sen. Case believes the AG’s decision is contrary to legislative intent. “The legislature writes $1,000 and the AG doubles that,” he said. Ms. Arp did not disagree.

The $2,000 checks apparently were written to Democratic Party legislative candidates. Watch for the Wyoming GOP to make a big stink about this, assuming it can be certain that no Republican candidates accepted similar $2,000 contributions in either the 2008 primary or general elections.

Sen. Jennings misses hearing of own bill

Sen. Kit Jennings failed to appear before the Senate Revenue Committee Thursday to explain and advocate for his property tax deferral bill, SF-53. I’m sorry I wasn’t there to see the committee’s reaction myself. It is poor form for a legislator not to show up when a committee hears his or her bill. The Revenue Committee did not vote on Sen. Jennings bill.

(Editor's note, (Jan. 20): Sen. Jennings says he arranged to be called to this hearing, but was not contacted for the committee meeting. Read Dan Neal's note on this here.)