Monday, February 9, 2009

Child health insurance program reinstated

Senate goes for broader KidCare

Chances for gaining needed expansion of Wyoming’s KidCare CHIP program improved Monday when the Senate approved a bill enabling children in families earning up to 300% of poverty-level income to enroll in the program.

Senate File 39, Child health insurance program, was amended last Friday to hold the expansion to children in families earning incomes up to 250% of poverty-level income. Sen. Eli Bebout, who offered the amendment, said the 300% level would encourage people to drop private insurance for their children in favor of the state program.

On Monday, prime sponsor Sen. Mike Massie, photo at left, brought an amendment to address those concerns. He noted that expanding to 300% will provide coverage to about 1,700 children who currently lack health insurance.

His amendment excludes families whose children are eligible for employer-provided insurance, even if the family hasn’t taken it.

Sen. Bebout liked the amendment, but still argued that employees would choose coverage only for themselves and not their children on the assumption they could get KidCare CHIP. He said $45,000/year is a good income for a family of three in Wyoming. People earning that amount can afford their own insurance if they keep their priorities straight, he suggested.

But Sen. Michael Von Flatern of Gillette noted that many families earning $45,000 per year do so through part-time jobs with employers who don’t offer health insurance benefits to part-time workers.

The debate sparked a tart comment from Sen. Curt Meier of Torrington. He said employers will not offer insurance for employees’ dependents if they know the employees can turn to the state. “Enough socialism is enough socialism,” he said.

But Sen. Massie said family insurance is just not affordable for many families at this income level. He presented statistics showing that the average health care policy in Wyoming covering families costs $12,800 per year. State employees pay over $15,000 per year for family coverage. Buying insurance on the open market would take 20% of the gross income (before taxes) of families at 300% of the poverty level, he pointed out - an option these families could not choose and still pay for other family needs.

The amendment passed 16-11 and the bill itself was approved by a wide margin (26-3 with one excused).

Property taxes on helium

Ad valorem (property) taxes will be assessed on all helium extracted in Wyoming under HB 287 Helium property tax, approved in House Committee of the Whole on Monday.

House Speaker Pro Tempore Frank Philp of Shoshoni said that some helium currently escapes property taxation because it is extracted through a contractual arrangement rather than a lease, and is the only valuable mineral extracted in Wyoming that is not taxed. He noted that last year the Legislature approved imposing severance taxes on helium.

The helium property tax bill resulted from a Wyoming Supreme Court decision saying that Wyoming’s property tax statutes define a taxpayer as a “lessee” or “lessee’s assignee,” but not a contractor. If the Legislature wants to tax helium extracted under a contractual arrangement, the Court said, then legislators need to put that in the law – hence HB 287. (Helium extracted from private and state lands and from federal lands under a lease arrangement already is taxed.)

Revenue Committee Chairman Rodney “Pete” Anderson of Pine Bluffs pointed out that property taxes were paid on helium until the Wyoming Supreme Court decision, when the state’s major extractor of helium suddenly declined to pay.

Chairman Anderson did not name the company, since naming companies, individuals and organizations during debate is against House rules. But the company is ExxonMobil, which has a long history of aggressively testing Wyoming’s mineral tax system.

Rep. Mike Madden of Buffalo argued there is no substantive difference between a contract and a lease, so legislators should not get hung up on the “oddity” of the arrangement and approve taxing helium like any other mineral.

Rep. Tom Lubnau of Gillette brought some humor into the debate when he advised his colleagues that if “it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then we should tax it like a duck.”

Opponents argued that the bill was “changing the rules in midstream” and would disrupt investments made by companies extracting or planning to extract helium. Speaker Pro Tem Philp noted the companies were paying the tax prior to the Wyoming Supreme Court decision, and surely are watching what is going on in the industry, they could hardly be surprised at the re-imposition of property taxes.

The measure passed Committee of the Whole overwhelmingly on voice vote and will move to second and third readings on Tuesday and Wednesday.

De-regulating child care

House Bill 313 Licensing of employer day care facilities passed on general file by a vote of 29 for 28 against Monday evening. The bill’s title is a bit misleading, since it allows employers to open a daycare center on site without meeting state licensing requirements.

Speaking in favor of the bill were Reps. Lorraine Quarberg, Thermopolis, Jack Landon, Sheridan, Bob Brechtel, Casper, Erin Mercer, Gillette, Mike Madden, Buffalo, Del McComie, Lander, David Miller, Riverton, and Tom Lockhart.

Reps. Cathy Connolly, Mike Gilmore, Casper, Elaine Harvey, Lovell, Tom Lubnau, Gillette, Saundra Meyer, Evanston, and Lori Millin, Cheyenne, opposed the bill.

The speakers fell into two distinct camps on this bill:
* Why wouldn't a company want to license their child care? Licensing provides for the basic health and safety needs of children.
* Licensing is not necessary because parents know what is best for their children.

The ESPC and the Wyoming Children’s Action Alliance oppose the bill. (Since the bill passed Committee of the Whole, there is no roll call vote.) It will be up for second reading Tuesday.

ESPC researcher Sarah Gorin contributed to this report. Thanks also to Deanna Frey of the Wyoming Children's Action Alliance