Thursday, February 5, 2009

Nervous time

House ready to debate anti-gay bill

The legislature’s schedule hits one of the narrowest points of the general session this week as people race to get bills through committee and heard in Committee of the Whole by the end of the day Monday.

Any bill that has not made it out of committee by the end of the day Friday, Feb. 6, will not be passed this session. Any bill not approved in Committee of the Whole by Monday will fail.

Friday, (Feb. 6) the House probably will consider HR 17 – Defense of marriage in Committee of the Whole. The bill discriminates against gays and lesbians by amending the state constitution to declare that “A marriage between a man and a woman shall be the only legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state.”

The ESPC is working hard to defeat this measure. We believe it has no place in our state constitution, a document that proudly declares, “In their inherent right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, all members of the human race are equal.” (Article 1, Section 2).
That said, we’ve got some good news to ponder and worries over the next few days.

Exploited, er, tipped workers

On Friday's lunch recess, the ESPC will advocate for passage of HB 30 - Minimum wage, a measure that will raise the slave-wage minimum now required for the state's tipped employees - mostly servers and bartenders. This wage is $2.13 an hour. Everyone should say that together - two dollar and thirteen cents an hour.

Most people think they're tipping servers to reward them for good service. Not so. It's supposed to take the worker to at least the federal minimum wage. If a combination of pay and tips does not raise the worker's pay to the federal minimum, employers are required by law to make up the difference. Not all of them do so.

The bill would raised the minimum to $5 an hour, still not enough but at least off a floor that should make the restaurant and hospitality industry blush red, red, red.

The bill is sponsored by Reps. George Bagby of Rawlins, Kathy Davison of Kemmerer, Mike Gilmore of Casper and Mary Throne of Cheyenne. and others. It would raise the minimum wage for all other workers to $7.25 an hour.

If tipped workers come to testify before the House Labor, Health and Social Services Committee and tell them what's really happening in the industry, perhaps the rest of the state will demand action. The hearing is in committee room H 17 about noon.

Workers’ compensation

The biggest is that the bill improving workers’ compensation benefits for injured Wyoming workers passed the House on third and final reading Thursday morning. Among other improvements, HB 54 Workers compensation amendments, includes increased benefits, better transition between temporary and permanent total disability benefits, and includes a cost of living adjustment to settlements for permanently disabled workers.

The ESPC and its allies had feared an effort would be made to pare down the COLA but it never materialized. In fact, the way largely was cleared for the bill after Chairman Jack Landon of Sheridan explained the bill for its Committee of the Whole hearing on Tuesday. Speaker Colin Simpson sparked a standing ovation in the House when he thanked the past and present members of the House Labor Committee and its chairman for all their work on the bill.

(Some members of the committee who worked the bill over the past year moved to new committees when the 60th Legislature was organized in December. They include Rep. Mary Hales of Casper, Tom Lubnau of Gillette, and Jeb Steward of Saratoga.)

It was obvious everyone has learned that the program’s benefits are in a sorry state and must be updated. The Senate will take up the bill next week, where it will be sent to the Senate Labor Health and Social Services Committee.

KidCare CHIP

Wednesday, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved SF 39, Child Health Insurance Program on a 4-1 vote. Committee Chair Phil Nicholas (R-S10, Laramie) voted yes, along with Senators Mike Massie (D-S9, Laramie, the bill sponsor), Ray Peterson (R-S19, Cowley) and Chuck Townsend (R-S1, Newcastle). Senator Curt Meier (R-S3, LaGrange) voted no.

With more federal funding coming from passage of the CHIP bill in Congress, the state's share of funding to expand the program to families with incomes from 200% to 300% of the federal poverty level will be less than $100,000 for the next year.

Most of the Appropriations Committee wanted to have working families pay a part of the premium for the policies covering their children and amended the bill to require payments of $40/child/month (to a maximum of $80) for families with incomes above 200% of the federal poverty level. (Federal law allows families to be charged a share of premiums or to make co-pays up to an amount equal to 5% of their annual gross income. Under the current program, families make co-pays up to $200/year.)

Sen. Massie has the following co-sponsors on the CHIP bill: Sens. Ken Decaria (D-S15, Evanston), John Hastert (D-H13, Rock Springs), and Tony Ross (R-S4, Cheyenne) and Reps. Kathy Davison (R-H20, Kemmerer), Debbie Hammons (R-H27, Worland), Pete Jorgensen (D-H16, Jackson) and Lori Millin (D-H8, Cheyenne).

Thursday, Feb. 5, SF 39 passed Committee of the Whole (the first opportunity for floor debate) in the Senate.

Worker safety issues spotlighted

Rep. Tim Stubson of Casper filed a bill to block workers’ access to the courts when a supervisor knowingly sends them into a dangerous situation and they are injured. Stubson’s House Bill 64 – Co-employee immunity was defeated on a close 4-5 vote in the House Judiciary Committee late Wednesday night.

Really late – the Judiciary Committee also considered a bill focused on the carnage in Wyoming’s oil fields, HB 273 – Duty owed to employees of independent contractors. In the course of discussing the two bills, the hearing evolved into a seminar on tort law featuring Rep. Mary Throne of Cheyenne, Rep. Frank Peasley of Douglas, Chairman Keith Gingery of Jackson, defense attorneys Pat Murphy and Richard Mincer, and trial attorneys John Vincent and Tom Jubin. Vincent and Jubin kept the discussion focused on the devastating effects workplace fatalities and injuries have on families.

The committee killed HB 273, but Rep. Throne, who voted against the bill, noted that oil and mining industry representatives had argued strongly that Wyoming needs a better occupational safety program to reduce Wyoming’s fatality rate, which ranks first in the nation. (A record 48 Wyoming workers were killed on the job in 2007. From 2003-2007, 81,010 Workers’ Compensation injured were reported in the state.)

Looking ahead

The Wyoming Education Association's daily bill report noted Thursday night that the legislature will begin tackling the Joint Appropriation Committee’s (JAC) $165.4 million supplemental budget bill early next week. The bill is now available to the public and can be viewed on the Legislature’s Web site.

The House and Senate will each receive identical "mirror" copies of the budget bill, HB 1 and SF 1, to debate beginning with Committee of the Whole reading on Tuesday. Second reading of the bill is expected on Wednesday, followed by third reading on Feb. 13.

ESPC researcher Sarah Gorin contributed to this post.