By Coy Knobel, Cowboy State Daily
No Republican voices were heard in League of Women Voters forums held Thursday night for Wyoming House Districts 11, 41 and 44. Each district encompasses part of Cheyenne.
Democrat Sara Burlingame, who wants to take back the seat she once held in House District 44, challenged her opponent and other candidates to “show up” and be reviewed, “because that’s what an election is.”
Burlingame’s opponent, Republican Tamara Trujillo, in a statement apologized for not participating. She said in the statement she was fighting a cough that left her without a voice.
House District 11 incumbent Jared Olsen declined to participate in the League’s forum as did Republican House District 41 incumbent Bill Henderson.
Olsen said he told the League of Women Voters he would be unable to attend because he had family commitments that evening.
“I was attending parent observation night for my 11 year old daughter’s dance program, followed by an evening with my sons so that my wife could go and coach youth volleyball,” Olsen said. “I will never apologize for being a father first, and I hope the voters find that my commitment to my family, makes me a better Legislator.”
Henderson said he was not able to attend because he was attending the Global Technology Summit in Jackson.
“As Vice Chairman of House Revenue Committee I’m working to keep informed about key economic developments for our state and communities. Registration and payment were made before the LWV gave me the short email notice about the forum,” Henderson said.
Olsen’s opponent is Democrat Marguerite Herman, a lobbyist for the League of Women Voters, 42-year resident of District 11 and a local school board member.
Herman said her experience on the nonpartisan school board and with more than a dozen other local organizations and charities gives her the knowhow needed to represent District 11, which she called “the heart of Cheyenne.”
On Abortion, ‘Absolute Truth’
Cheyenne Democrat Jen Solis received enough write-in votes in the primary for House District 41 to qualify as a candidate for the general election, as there was no Democrat officially running in the primary.
She criticized Wyoming lawmakers for passing “legislation prohibiting women from making their own health care decisions.”
“Abortion has historically been a wedge issue, but it’s an important and nuanced conversation that we need to be having,” she said. “The law is not about preserving life. It’s about inviting the state of Wyoming into some of the toughest medical decisions that half of our population, and the majority of our legislators, have never had to make.”
Matt Freeman, a Constitution Party candidate, also would like to be Wyoming House District 41’s representative. He wants people to take their civic duty seriously and participate in the election process future.
He believes in an “absolute truth” that all should hold dear, and that the U.S. and Wyoming constitutions do a good job of spelling out what that truth is for us.
“My goal is to return us to the values that made us great to begin with,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll be a light to surrounding states.”
Freeman was the only candidate participating in the forums who did not favor expanding Medicaid coverage in the state. He said health care costs have gone “through the roof,” but he doesn’t see how making more government health programs larger is going to bring costs down.
“We need a different solution than the nationalized health care scenarios that have been being pushed for two decades now,” he said.
Burlingame, on the other hand, is “passionate” about getting Medicaid expansion passed.
“My constituents, the state of Wyoming, all the polling is crystal clear,” she said. “There is no disagreement about what the people of Wyoming want. They know that health care is an essential right. The only thing that is missing from the equation (in passing the expansion) is the political will of our Legislature.”
Herman is affiliated with Healthy Wyoming, a coalition of groups dedicated to expanding Medicaid in Wyoming.
“Our state Medicaid program is one of the best in the nation. The administrative cost is extremely low,” Herman said. “We have a great network of providers and what (expansion) would simply do is make our state stronger. It’s good for business. It’s good for families.”
Solis said expanding Medicaid is long overdue. She believes if legislators who oppose expansion would listen to the related stories of veterans, seniors, business owners and taxpayers, they would change their minds and support it.
Solis, Burlingame and Herman would support an increase in cigarette taxes, saying Wyoming’s taxes are low compared to other states. Raising the tax would discourage smoking, which causes increased health-related expenses.
“If you want to smoke, you get to smoke all day long. You’re an American, it is your right. And we’re not going to pretend that there aren’t consequences to it,” Burlingame said. “Other places may struggle with that dichotomy, but we’re Wyoming.
“We’re a very Libertarian, live and let live state, so we can acknowledge the reality that nicotine has really bad consequences and our taxes are going to keep up with where they should be.”
Freeman said Wyoming doesn’t have a revenue problem as much as a spending problem. He said the state should first look at areas where it’s spending money “outside the Constitution” before raising taxes.
The outcome of a pending lawsuit may require Wyoming to increase K-12 education funding.
Herman is not convinced the state should create a new tax or raise existing taxes to fund education. Instead, she said the state should fix its current funding structure by looking at redirecting revenue streams. Using money from the 1% statutory severance tax and better use of the permanent school land fund and trust lands also are possibilities.
“We have to do things smarter with the funds we have,” she said.
Burlingame believes the state should be spending budget surpluses on education.
Freeman said the Wyoming Constitution requires the state to fund education, but he is not sure that that isn’t already being done. He suggested looking at cutting administrative costs if more money is needed.
Solis said legislators have been talking about the need to diversify education funding beyond energy revenue for 30 years. We should not continue to kick the can down the road, she said, but to accomplish that will take innovative solutions. She mentioned increased federal funding and a broadened tax base to include renewable energy, property, sales and excise taxes.
The League of Women Voters asked the candidates about their positions on the Legislature’s Joint Revenue Committee residential property tax relief bill that would prevent taxing the first $50,000 of assessed value of a home.
Burlingame favors the bill and is watching other property tax relief proposals such as deferring some taxes until the owner sells a home. She also said how the state Constitution deals with property taxes might need “a little tweaking.”
“Some things that are equal are not equitable,” she said.
Solis said rising property taxes are a big problem for seniors but thinks the bill could have the unintended consequence of giving tax relief to those who don’t need it. She said an across-the-board exclusion could put too much strain on county budgets.
She said the state already has targeted relief programs that are underutilized. Making sure her constituents have access to these programs would be one of her priorities if elected.
Herman said property tax relief is a “thorny issue” and so many parts of government are funded through property taxes that it is hard to come up with something sustainable.
Herman said she watched the committee deliberate on the bill and doesn’t think the bill is ready. She favors a temporary tax relief fund that residents with certain qualifications could apply for while the search for a better solution continues.
Freeman said he would have to study the bill more before taking a position on it, but maybe it needs to be more robust. Property tax issues are complex, and he looks forward to diving in and working on them.
Herman said runoff elections in Wyoming would take too much time and are not feasible. She said there are downsides to open primary voting, but she would consider it and ranked choice voting.
Freeman said there are problems with a two-party system and he’s for open primaries, but ranked choice voting and runoff elections sound too complicated to work well.
Burlingame doesn’t believe open primaries, in practice, and favors ranked choice and other ideas that are not “winner take all.”
Solis believes talk about election changes is an example of a solution in search of a problem. Her focus is on increasing the numbers of eligible voters who actually participate in elections.
In the statement Trujillo sent to forum organizers, she said she would support not taxing the first $50,000 of a home’s assessed value and other possible property tax relief options. She doesn’t think changes are needed to the state’s election process and she’s researching Medicaid expansion.