Sunday, November 7, 2010

What's next for Wyoming?

GOP landslide brings questions about future course

The GOP landslide on election day leaves observers wondering how major issues facing the state will be addressed. Wyoming Republicans pushed Democrats to the lowest point in years in the state legislature and swept all five statewide offices, including, as expected, the governorship.

Governor-elect Matt Mead, the former U.S. attorney for Wyoming under President George W. Bush, won the open seat with 72% of the vote.

Mead has promised to join the states suing to overturn the Affordable Care Act. On the campaign trail, he referred to a state pilot program as Wyoming’s answer to questions about covering the uninsured and holding down costs – even though the pilot (which is a health care plan, not health insurance) has yet to be implemented, much less evaluated. Wyoming residents will be looking for Mead’s ideas on keeping community hospitals and nursing homes solvent, meeting the state’s need for primary care providers and addressing rising premiums for Wyomingites fortunate enough to have insurance.

Mead has said he will resist increases in the state’s minimum wage, which stands now at just $5.15 per hour for workers not covered by the federal minimum wage. He has expressed support for sealing the border to stop illegal immigration, while also stating that legal immigration makes our country better. At the state budget level, it is unclear how Mead’s administration will address funding for infrastructure needs in communities around the state, or deal with fluctuations in state revenues.

Republicans captured 50 of 60 seats in the Wyoming House, taking nine seats that had been held by Democrats the past two years. In the Wyoming Senate, the GOP won 13 of 15 seats, reducing the number of Democrats to four out of 30 members. Senate Minority Leader Katherine Sessions was defeated by Leslie Nutting, an opponent of health care reform and reproductive rights. Nutting will be the only woman in the Senate. The small number of Democrats raises questions about committee assignments.

Although Wyoming legislators perennially campaign against over-regulation, past efforts to overhaul or “streamline” regulations have resulted in only minor tweaks as lawmakers and citizens come to realize how regulations protect the state’s communities and natural resource base as the mineral industries boom and bust. With new developments such as the near-disappearance of the mule deer herd on the Pinedale Anticline and possible contamination of groundwater near Pavillion by fracking, Wyoming residents probably will be cautious about giving energy extractors a freer hand.

Historically, Wyomingites also have been reticent to intrude into each other’s private lives, as evidenced by the defeat of a ballot initiative banning abortions and, more recently, the defeat of efforts to amend the Wyoming Constitution to prohibit gay marriage or civil unions. Bills on these topics may be offered in the 2011 session, even though they seem at odds with conservative views on keeping government out of private decisions.

The election results point toward opportunities to test reality against rhetoric. Just as support for the Affordable Care Act has gone up as people begin to experience its benefits, it may well be that support for budget cuts or intrusive legislation will go down as people see such proposals play out.