The rush is on: looking at the special session

By: 
NLJ Staff

G

overnor Gordon has called the legislature into a special two-day session starting at 8 a.m. Friday, May 15 to begin distributing $1.25 billion in federal CARES Act funding in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite ongoing coronavirus concerns, members of the legislature will be allowed into the new capitol building to participate in the session, but they have also been given the choice to take part in discussions and vote on the proposed bills
electronically.

The public— and to some extent, the press— are only being given that option. Citizens will not be allowed in the capitol at all, and will be limited to participating in the session electronically while it has now been determined that select members of the press will be allowed in the building, but restricted to very limited areas. The situation leaves individual lawmakers with unprecedented ability to avoid the eyes and ears of the public or its watchdog.

These are unprecedented times, indeed, but the media outlets in Wyoming have stepped up to keep the eyes and ears of the public on local, state and federal government decisions and actions throughout this pandemic ordeal.

Residents of the Cowboy State have benefitted from the fact that Wyoming’s press has served the role the Founders intended— particularly in time of uncertainty and crisis— and with $1.25 billion at stake, citizens will rely more than ever on the press to keep the people informed about how and where this money— their taxpayer dollars— will be spent. 

We are counting on Governor Gordon and our state legislators to use common sense and apply conservative principles to distributing these funds in a manner that will benefit the most citizens in our state. Unfortunately, elected officials are often guilty of “having too much fun spending other people’s money” and we fear some lawmakers may view the staggering amount of federal dollars they have been entrusted with as some kind of windfall.

Given the gravity of the current economic situation in Wyoming, and the fact that the state is likely to struggle to pay its bills for years to come, we urge our elected officials to instead spend this money as if it came directly from their wallet. The state was already faced with revenue shortfalls before coronavirus crept into our lives and a price war on the other side of the world actually drove the (futures) price of oil
below zero.

It is going to be impossible for the state to pay its bills (including the cost of education) for at least the next few years without raiding reserves, and every effort should be made to ensure that these new dollars from the federal government— which will instantly be added to the absurdly gargantuan national debt— are spent responsibly.

We have grown concerned over the past few weeks as the Sundance Times has been reporting that Rep. Tyler Lindholm and Sen. Ogden Driskill are proposing that a sizable portion of this funding, $45 million, should be distributed to Crook County to pay for a new hospital, a new clinic in Hulett, a new clinic in Upton, and the purchase of two
new ambulances. 

While it is certainly appropriate for CARES Act funding to be used to address and improve health care for Wyoming residents, we don’t believe the creation of brand new infrastructure in Sundance— or elsewhere in our state— is an appropriate use of those dollars.

We know that funding and maintaining a rural hospital in a small community is not easy, and this newspaper has long chronicled the tough decisions and sacrifices that have been made to ensure the existence of a hospital here.
(see Sidebar)

It has literally taken blood, sweat and tears to keep a functioning hospital in good operating condition in Weston County, but it is something citizens of our community are committed to — to the point we have been willing to tax ourselves to build and upgrade hospitals. Through conscious decisions to make sacrifices— financial and otherwise— Weston County residents have avoided being in a position where they are confronted by the costs and shortcomings of a 50 year old hospital.

Should Wyoming legislators hand Crook County a $45 million check from the CARES Act to build a new hospital and a few other things when so many Wyoming people are already faced with astronomical health care costs and limited health care options?

It is unlikely that it can be justified to use such a staggering amount of federal dollars to address a localized need in this manner, and that’s probably why it is being proposed in a two-day session in which the public and press will have only limited access. That doesn’t make it right, and we hope lawmakers will step up to the challenge of finding ways to use that money to produce the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people in
our state.

Along those lines, we strongly remind legislators that the state’s ability to address a rapidly growing mental health crisis in this state was already woeful. Perhaps they should consider the possibility that, while the east and west coasts had to worry about respirator shortages due to the coronavirus, the sector of healthcare that is most likely to become overwhelmed as a result of coronavirus in Wyoming— and the long-term effects on jobs, families and the economy— is a mental health system that already lacked consistency and availability, particularly in the state’s most rural counties.

We’re pretty sure $45 million could do more good there.

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