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Man freed from prison says life in prison preferable sentence for killer

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By Cowboy State Daily

The death penalty is not the best way to punish a killer for his crimes, according to a man whose murder conviction and death penalty were overturned in 2004.

Randy Steidl, who was wrongfully convicted of murder in the 1986 death of a couple, was at the Legislature this week to lobby in favor of SF 145, which would repeal the state’s death penalty and make life without the possibility of parole the state’s harshest criminal penalty.

Steidl said a lifetime of incarceration is a preferable punishment for a convicted murderer.“If you really want to punish a vicious killer, you put them in a cage for the rest of their life to think about the crimes they committed,” he said. “If they don’t repent to their God, then when they die, they burn in Hell. That’s justice.”

The House Labor, Health and Social Services Committee voted 5-4 last week to send the bill to the House floor for debate by the full body. It is on the House’s “General File,” a list of bills waiting for their first full review.

Health care study bill heads for final Senate reading

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A final Senate vote is scheduled for Tuesday on a bill that would launch a study into the cost of health care in Wyoming.

SF 67 was approved in its second Senate reading on Monday. The bill calls for  study to determine why Wyoming’s health care costs are higher than the national average.

According to bill sponsors, Wyoming’s hospitals charge patients about $4,000 per day, compared to the national average of $3,000 per day. The bill identifies about a dozen possible reasons for the disparity to be examined.

Community Colleges could offer four-year degrees under bill

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Wyoming’s community colleges may be offering 4-year degrees in the future under legislation approved in its second reading in Wyoming’s Senate on Monday.

SF 111 would allow all seven of Wyoming’s community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees in applied science. 

Bill sponsor Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, said the program would give vocational and technical students a higher level of training.

“What that looks like on the ground is really … an individual who may have an associate’s degree in welding or some other vocational education like electricians to get an additional next-level step of educational opportunity, by understanding legal principals that may apply or owning their own shops or businesses, that kind of degree programming,” she said.

The University of Wyoming is opposing the bill, largely because of concerns it would encroach on the university’s mission of higher education and research.

The bill is to be read a third time Tuesday. If approved, it will be sent to the House for its review.

Representative seeks cut in coal taxes

in News/Taxes
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By Cowboy State Daily

A state representative is trying to bring coal taxes more in line with those assessed against oil and gas.

Rep. Tim Hallinan, R-Gillette, is proposing a cut in coal severance taxes from 7 percent to 6.5 percent, a reduction he said was warranted given the fact the coal industry has paid the state almost $1.2 billion in taxes in the last five years.

Hallinan said a 6.5 percent tax rate would bring coal closer to the 6 percent severance tax assessed on oil and gas.

“I saw this a an equity issue and a way we could strengthen the coal industry in my community,” he said.

The reduction would cut Wyoming’s severance tax income by an estimated $13.5 million per year, according to Legislative Service Office estimates.

Hallinan’s bill, HB 167, is awaiting a review from the House Revenue Committee.

Tobacco tax dies in House committee

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A measure that would have boosted taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products was killed in a House committee on Monday.

The House Revenue Committee voted 5-4 to keep HB 218 from reaching the House floor The bill would have increased cigarette taxes by $1 per pack, from 60 cents to $1.60.

The measure was one of a number of bills introduced this session aimed at raising tax revenues. 

Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, chairman of the House Revenue Committee, said the bills represent ways legislators are looking at avoiding a state budget deficit moving forward.

“Three years ago after the financial crisis hit Wyoming, we were still in crisis mode, tryng to see how far down we were going to go,” he said. “Now that we’ve stabilized, it’s time to say ‘How are we going to fix this decrease.’ We’re $350 million still in deficit and so that’s why you’re seeing a lot of tax bills this session. It’s to say long-term moving forward, how do we make sure we have a balanced budget?”

Bipartisan legislation introduced to delay health insurance tax hike

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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming’s costly health insurance premiums can make it difficult for independent businesses to provide policies for employees, a National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) spokesperson said.

“Premiums are not decreasing — they’re increasing, and they have been for years,” said Tony Gagliardi, the NFIB state director for Wyoming and Colorado. “It makes it harder and harder for small employers to continue to provide the benefits for their employees.”

As a result, Gagliardi is welcoming a move proposed by U.S. Sen. John Barrasso and some of his colleagues to delay implementation of a tax on health care premiums created by the Affordable Care Act.

Wyoming Department of Insurance Senior Health Policy Analyst Denise Burke said the majority of Wyoming residents rely on health benefits provided by employers.

“We have a very high percentage of Wyoming residents who receive their insurance from their employer,” Burke said. “It’s about 59 percent. That’s above the national average.”

If the federal Health Insurance Tax takes effect as planned in 2020, anyone paying insurance premiums, including Wyoming’s employers, will see a jump in premium costs.

On Wednesday, Barrasso joined a bipartisan group of legislators trying to ensure health insurance premiums don’t jump up in 2020.Barrasso and Sens. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire, Doug Jones, D-Alabama, Tim Scott, R-South Carolina, and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona, introduced the Health Insurance Tax Relief Act to provide a two-year delay of the Health Insurance Tax (HIT) created by the Affordable Care Act, a news release from Barrasso’s office says.

If the delay fails, the tax could increase premiums by about 2 percent or $196 per person in the individual market, $479 per family in the small-group market, $458 per family in the large-group market and $157 for Medicaid premiums on average nationwide, the news release says.

“We’re very pleased and thanked Sen. Barrasso for pushing against HIT,” Gagliardi said. “Should that tax be implemented, it will be passed on to the policy holders.”

The NFIB is a non-profit organization, which represents small businesses in Washington, D.C., and each of the 50 state capitols. It was created 75 years ago and boasts approximately 325,000 members across the U.S. Gagliardi said the organization has been active in Wyoming for decades and represents about 2,300 small business owners throughout the state.

“Increased health insurance premiums themselves may not affect a business opening or closing,” he said. “It does have a workforce effect. Oftentimes, the inability of an employer to offer good health insurance affects their ability to attract good employees.”

Burke said Wyoming’s health insurance premiums are the second costliest in the nation, with only Iowa ranking more costly. 

“Across the board, rural health insurance is more expensive,” she explained. “Wyoming has higher than the national average smoking rate and a higher than average elder population, and all of those contribute.”

Currently, tax on premiums offered within the state is set at 3 percent, Burke added. Estimates within her department place the rate of Wyoming’s uninsured residents between 13-18 percent, and she said the national average was about 13 percent.

“Anecdotally, we are thinking the people who are leaving the market are the young and the healthy,” Burke said. “The way insurance works is balancing the cost pool between the healthy and the unhealthy, so without healthy people in the pool, the cost will go up.”

If the HIT takes effect in 2020, Gagliardi said the potential 2 percent increase to premiums could have serious ramifications for Wyoming’s workforce.

“The HIT tax could be the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he said.

Weekly wrap: Corporate income tax moves ahead, party switch bill dead

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By Cowboy State Daily

A thumbs up for income taxes on large companies and putting Wyoming permanently on daylight savings time, a thumbs down for a personal income tax in the Legislature this week.

Lawmakers wrapped up their third week of action Friday after having taken care of a number of bills, including HB 233, which would have imposed a 4 percent income tax on people making more than $200,000 a year. The bill died in the House Revenue Committee, but another, imposing a 4 percent income tax on large retailers with headquarters outside of Wyoming, won final approval in the House. HB 220, also called the National Retail Fairness act, now heads to the Senate for review.

A bill that would have put restrictions on when voters can change their party affiliation was also killed this week, dying in the Senate Corporations Committee. SF 32 would have required people changing party affiliation to do so before candiates begin filing for office in May. Two similar bills are awaiting review in the House and Senate.

Also killed this week was a bill aimed at exempting some senior citizens from property taxes. HB 128 would have granted an exemption to seniors who have owned their homes for at least three years.

Meanwhile, a bill to declare Dec. 10 2019 as “Wyoming Women’s Suffrage Day” cleared the Senate with no opposition. SJ 3 now moves to the House for its review.

In addition, a bill keeping Wyoming on daylight savings time year-round won approval in its second House vote.

Drunken boating bill passes first Senate reading

in News/Recreation
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By Cowboy State Daily

A measure that would make the limits for boating while intoxicated the same as those for driving while intoxicated won initial approve in the Senate on Friday.

SF 40 would reduce the blood-alcohol limit for operating a motorboat from 0.1 percent to 0.08 percent, the same limit in place for driving a vehicle.

Sponsor Sen. Cheri Steinmetz, R-Lingle, said her intent was to put some consistency into state law.

“I think it’s just a consistency issue as well as a safety issue for the citizens in the state,” she said.

 The bill will receive its second Senate review on Monday.

Personal income tax dies, corporate tax moves ahead

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By Cowboy State Daily

Two bills proposing Wyoming’s first income taxes met with different fates on Friday in Wyoming’s House.

One bill proposing an income tax on individuals died in the House Revenue Committee, while another proposing a 7 percent tax on large out-of-state retailers doing business in Wyoming won approval in its final House review.

The individual tax bill, HB 233, would have imposed a 4 percent income tax on those making more than $200,000 per year.

Sponsor Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, said she suggested the measure as a way to begin a discussion on a possible statewide income tax, especially given recommendations to remove the state’s sales tax exemption on food.

“Who should be paying that extra amount?” she said. “Is it the most vulnerable among us? Or is it those with the means to do so? So I want that conversation out there.”

Connolly said the bill would have raised $200 million a year for education.

The corporate tax bill, HB220, was moved out of the House on a vote of 44-14.

Also called the “National Retail Fairness Act,” the measure would impose a 7 percent income tax on large businesses whose headquarters are in other states.

Sponsors of the bill argue that large retailers, such as WalMart, charge the same for their products in Wyoming as they do in states with income taxes, such as Nebraska. Since the price of the income tax is built into the price of the product, that means Wyoming residents are helping to pay the income taxes charged in other states, backers argued.

Wyoming Senate Update: Meat labeling, health cost study, drunken boating bills win approval

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Wyoming’s Senate wrapped up its week with a flurry of activity Friday, approving bills addressing meat labeling, a statewide study of health care costs and drunken boating.

SF 68 would require that only meat from livestock or poultry could be labeled as meat. The measure would also require that any meat not made from a harvested animal — such as a vegetable-based product — would have to be labeled as “imitation food.” The bill won final approval from the Senate on a vote of 25-3 and was sent to the House for its review.

Backers of SF 67 are seeking a study of Wyoming’s health care costs because national figures show the average cost to treat a patient in Wyoming is $4,000, compared to the national average of $3,000. The bill was approved in its first review by the full body on Friday and will be heard in its second reading Monday.

Finally, a measure that would impose the same standards on boating while drunk as are in place for driving while intoxicated was also approved in its first reading. SF 40 would set the blood-alcohol limit for operating a boat at 0.08 percent — the same limit in place for driving a car. For years, the boating standard has been set at 0.1 percent.

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