Monday, February 2, 2009


Anti-discrimination bill clears House Judiciary committee

The House Judiciary Committee Monday passed a bill described as “simple and profound” that will prohibit discrimination based on “sexual orientation” when people use public facilities, apply for employment or engage in many other ordinary activities.

House Bill 203 – Discrimination will amend numerous points in Wyoming state statutes where discrimination is prohibited on the basis of race, gender, national origin, creed, religion, ancestry, or other criteria. The bill added “sexual orientation” to these lists.

Newly-elected Rep. Cathy Connolly (D-H13, Laramie) sponsored the bill, with co-sponsors Joe Barbuto (D-H48, Rock Spring), Dave Bonner (R-H25, Powell), Jim Byrd (D-H44, Cheyenne), Pat Childers (R-H50, Cody), Ken Esquibel (D-H41, Cheyenne), Lisa Shepperson (R-H58, Casper), Mary Throne (D-H11, Cheyenne), Sue Wallis (R-H52, Recluse), Dan Zwonitzer (R-H43, Cheyenne), and Sens. Bruce Burns (R-S21, Sheridan) and Mike Massie (D-S9, Laramie).

The measure has a “Goldilocks” quality, Rep. Connolly said, because it takes a “just right” approach and simply adds the words “sexual orientation.” It does not try to standardize the discrimination provisions scattered through state law.

“It was not the intention of this bill to tidy up those statues,” she said. Neither does it add anti-discrimination clauses where they presently do not exist, Rep. Connolly added.

People should not be denied basic rights simply because of their sexual orientation, she said. She noted a candidate forum in Laramie during the recent election yielded a consensus among candidates that “discrimination has no place in Wyoming.”

The bill sends a message that Wyoming’s gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered citizens that they are valued and protected here.

Testimony at the committee hearing supported the bill. University of Wyoming Provost Myron Allen urged passage of the measure. He noted that UW long has included sexual orientation in its own anti-discrimination clauses that govern its operations.

The university hires faculty in searches that are international in scope, competing with other universities for the best available people. In order to do so, it excludes candidates only for reasons related to their field of study. It has not always been that way. He noted that school records show that UW in the 1920s asked candidates to declare their religion, a question later determined to be unfortunate and irrelevant. He noted the university no longer asks candidates about their marital status.

The anti-discrimination clause sends a message to all candidates at the outset of a search that UW’s hiring decisions rely solely on a person’s qualifications in the field in question, Provost Allen said.

Committee members asked for evidence that discrimination based on sexual orientation is a problem in Wyoming. Linda Burt of the ACLU and representatives of the state Department of Employment noted that it is a serious problem. Burt said her organization gets many calls alleging discrimination and harassment against gays and lesbians.

Cherie Doak of the Department of Employment said the agency knows of a number of assaults, including sexual assaults, in industrial mancamps against people who “presented” as gay or who somehow did not project the image of masculinity many people hold of oil patch workers.

“There is some egregious discrimination that is taking place out there,” she said.

Cheyenne resident Sarah Burlingame said that friends of hers living far from Wyoming view the state as “unfriendly and hostile” to gays, largely because of the perception of the state generated by the murder of one of its gay students, Matthew Shepard, ten years ago. Wyoming Education Association lobbyist Matt Kruse declared that the teachers' association, a member of the ESPC coalition, supports the bill.

Cheyenne Stephen Melcher opposed HB 203, declaring that the country is engaged in a "cultural war." When he suggested the state is heading toward creating a "protected class" of citizens with greater rights than others, he mirrored in part arguments that the individuals and groups promoting the proposed constitutional amendment to prohibit recognition of gay marriages in other states. The proposed constitutional amendment will be heard in the same committee Tuesday morning. (See note about protesters, below.)

Judiciary Committee member Rep. Frank Peasley of Douglas questioned the reach of the HB 203. “I didn’ realize how complicated this is,” he said. But Rep. Mary Throne of Cheyenne disagreed and pointed to the evidence of discrimination reported by the Department of Employment as plenty of justification for approving the measure.

“We should not be fearful of the reach,” she said.

Readers can see the committee vote on HB 203 on the LSO website.

The bill now moves to General File, the list of bills waiting to be debated on the floor of the House. Supporters of the bill will have to watch that list to make certain the bill is brought up by House floor managers for debate in Committee of the Whole.

Tort “reform” goes down again

It was a busy day for House Judiciary Committee members; since the anti-discrimination bill took up their morning meeting time, they met again at noon and on adjournment to consider HJ 6, Noneconomic damages – constitutional amendment – 2, often called tort reform by proponents and “tort deform” by opponents.

The proposed constitutional amendment would have allowed the legislature to set a limit on non-economic damages that could be awarded in personal injury cases.

It was nearly identical to the proposed constitutional amendment defeated by Wyoming voters in 2004 (Amendment D), with the addition of language saying the legislature could not set the limit below a cap of $250,000.

The broad coalition of groups working together in the ESPC took a strong stand against the 2004 ballot measure because it was widely perceived as the beginning of a broader campaign to limit liability for faulty or negligent products or services. The ESPC believes the jury system can be relied upon to decide damages appropriate to individual cases. And although proponents of the 2004 measure predicted doctors would leave Wyoming “in droves” if the ballot measure failed, the exodus did not occur.

Monday’s discussion rehashed many of the same arguments heard in 2004 with proponents claiming passage would make it easier to recruit physicians, especially primary care doctors, to the state. Support for HJ 6, sponsored by Dr. Timothy Hallinan (R-H32, Gillette) came from the Wyoming Medical Society, the Wyoming Hospital Association and Gov. Dave Freudenthal.

Opponents included the ESPC, and the Wyoming State AFL-CIO and the Wyoming Trial Lawyers Association, both members of the ESPC coalition.

The committee split 4-5 to defeat the bill. Those supporting HJ 6 were Reps. Erin Mercer (R-H53, Gillette), John Patton (R-H29, Sheridan), Frank Peasley (R-H3, Douglas), and Lorraine Quarberg (R-H28, Thermopolis).

Voting against HJ 6 were committee chairman Keith Gingery (R-H23, Jackson) and Reps. George Bagby (D-H15, Rawlins), Joe Barbuto (D-H48, Rock Springs), Richard Cannady (R-H6, Glenrock), and Mary Throne (D-H11, Cheyenne).

Homes ….. or Wal-Mart?

Members of the House today debated two property tax reduction bills.

The first, HB 68, embodied Governor Freudenthal’s proposal for a homestead exemption and was sponsored by the Joint Revenue Interim Committee.

The second, HB 87, was sponsored by House Speaker Colin Simpson (R-H24, Cody) and co-sponsored by Reps. Ed Buchanan (R-H4, Torrington), Keith Gingery (R-H23, Jackson), David Miller (R-H55, Riverton) and Sens. Eli Bebout (R-S26, Riverton), Hank Coe (R-S18, Cody) and Grant Larson (R-S17, Jackson). This bill proposed a reduction in the assessment ratio (the percentage of value upon which tax is levied) for “all other property” from 9.5% to 8.25%.

The ESPC’s analysis of the relative impacts of HB 68 and HB 87 is available here.

The homestead exemption reduces property taxes only for homeowners who have lived in Wyoming for at least three years. Lowering the assessment ratio reduces property taxes not only for homeowners but also for agricultural and commercial properties, including big box and telecommunications companies.

The reduction in both bills was limited to one tax year only.

Further, the homestead exemption provides a greater reduction in taxes for owners of lower-value homes, whereas lowering the assessment ratio reduces taxes across the board by the same percentage.

Debate on the two bills focused mainly on these two points. Speaker Simpson characterized the homestead exemption as “discriminatory,” although he pledged his support to any property tax reduction measure that would pass the House. Members favoring HB 68 objected to reducing property taxes for high-end homeowners who do not need the help. Yet other members opposed any further property tax reductions beyond the existing property tax refund and deferral programs.

The House passed HB 68 but voted down HB 87. An action to kill a bill requires a roll call vote, which can be seen on the LSO digest of action on the HB 87.

In addition, a bill expanding eligibility for the existing tax refund program for the elderly and disabled (HB 238) passed the House Revenue Committee this morning on a 5-4 vote. The tax refund program is not limited to property taxes, but those are a principal component of taxes paid by Wyoming residents.

Rep. Pat Childers (R-H50, Cody) sponsored HB 238, co-sponsored by Reps. Roy Cohee (R-H35, Casper), Kathy Davison (R-H20, Kemmerer), Saundra Meyer (D-H49, Evanston), Mary Throne (D-H11, Cheyenne), and Sens. Bruce Burns (R-S21, Sheridan), Hank Coe (R-S18, Cody), Tony Ross (R-S4, Cheyenne), and Kathy Sessions (D-S7, Cheyenne).

Oh, those kids

About 30 people (see photo above) from Casper drove to Cheyenne to protest HR 17 - Defense of Marriage. The bill calls for a constitutional amendment that would direct the state not to honor valid marriage contracts made in other states or countries if those marriages are of two people of the same gender.

The group, mostly made up of young men and women under 30, sang songs calling for tolerance and picketed in front of the Capitol late in the afternoon. Students from UW have organized another rally scheduled Tuesday afternoon at 1 p.m. at the Capitol. All are invited to attend.

Last but not least, health care

A bill giving the Wyoming Healthcare Commission (WHCC) a slightly longer life cleared the House Labor, Health and Social Services Committee Monday evening. While the ESPC has not been a huge fan of the WHCC, a decision not to extend its existence would leave valuable studies and data in limbo and leave a power vacuum likely to be filled primarily by insurance company lobbyists.

The bill, HB 253 - Health care commission, was sponsored by House Labor, Health and Social Services Committee chairman Jack Landon (R-H30, Sheridan) and co-sponsored by Reps. Mike Madden (R-H40, Buffalo), Lori Millin (D-H8, Cheyenne), Jeb Steward (R-H47, Saratoga), Dan Zwonitzer (R-H43, Cheyenne) and Sens. Wayne Johnson (R-S6, Cheyenne) and John Schiffer (R-S22, Kaycee).

The ESPC testified in favor of the bill.

Committee members approved the amended HB 253 on an 8-1 vote with Chairman Landon and Reps. Dave Bonner (R-H25, Powell), Ken Esquibel (D-H41, Cheyenne), Patrick Goggles (D-H33, Ethete), Timothy Hallinan (R-H32, Gillette), Elaine Harvey (R-H26, Lovell) and Lisa Shepperson (R-H58, Casper) voting yes. Rep. Kathy Davison (R-H20, Kemmerer) was the sole no vote.

The Senate Appropriations Committee heard SF 39, Child Health Insurance Program, over the noon recess today. The bill is sponsored by Sen. Mike Massie (D-S9, Laramie) and co-sponsored by Sens. Ken Decaria (D-S15, Evanston), John Hastert (D-S13, Rock Springs), Tony Ross (R-S4, Cheyenne), and Reps. Kathy Davison (R-H20, Kemmerer), Debbie Hammons (D-H27, Worland), Pete Jorgensen (D-H16, Jackson) and Lori Millin (D-H8, Cheyenne).

The CHIP bill expands the existing program to include children in working families with incomes up to 300% of poverty. With Congressional passage of the federal CHIP expansion last Friday, federal money will be available to pay for 65% of the cost of the broader program. The additional state appropriation is about $650,000.

The Senate Appropriations Committee members are Chairman Phil Nicholas (R-S10, Laramie), SF 39 sponsor Sen. Massie, and Sens. Curt Meier (R-S3, LaGrange), Ray Peterson (R-S19, Cowley), and Chuck Townsend (R-S1, Newcastle). Despite testimony from an elementary school principal, the Wyoming Nurses Association, the ESPC, and the Wyoming Children’s Action Alliance – all favoring the bill – all the committee members except Massie expressed a desire to have families contribute more toward the cost of their coverage.

With Massie’s agreement, the bill was held over until Wednesday to allow time for the KidCare CHIP program director to bring more information to the committee.

Thanks to ESPC researcher Sarah Gorin and volunteer lobbyist Terry Jones for contributing to this report.