Bill to extend health insurance to legislators advances

The Legislature’s Management Council introduced a bill Thursday that would allow lawmakers and their dependents to enroll in the state employees’ group health insurance plan.

The council also drafted a bill to create an independent commission that would review compensation for lawmakers, but it killed legislation that would have boosted legislative salaries.

The proposed bills come amid increasing workloads for lawmakers, and concerns that insufficient compensation is preventing people from serving in the Legislature.

Some lawmakers see the health insurance component as the biggest game changer in terms of compensation and benefits that would encourage a wider range of people to serve.

Stacker ranked the most lucrative states for politicians in ascending order based on each state’s governor’s salary and state representative salary, using 2019 data from the Council of State Governments for gubernatorial salaries and 2020 data from the National Conference of State Legislatures for state representative salaries.

Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, shared with members during an October subcommittee meeting on legislative compensation that he knows a number of former lawmakers who have left because of health insurance, and that he himself had to forgo health insurance for 10 of the 18 years he is in the Legislature.

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“I think we have a very deeply self-selected group of legislators who can afford to be in the Legislature, for one reason or another,” Sen. Rep. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, said Thursday in favor of the bill.

“If we were to pass this legislation, I think we would open the door for a lot of people in Wyoming who previously couldn’t serve, wouldn’t serve, wouldn’t even run for office.”

If the bill – sponsored by Speaker of the House Sen. Eric Barlow, R-Gillette – makes it through the Legislature as written, it would take effect on July 1.

Another very similar bill to the one the council presented would have required lawmakers to pay the full cost of their premiums. No one moved to act on that bill after the other passed.

Wyoming is committed to a “citizen legislature.” But the format can limit who can participate.

While the legislature’s health insurance bill cleared the board on a 5-3 vote (Sen. Mike Greear, R-Worland, and Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs were excused), another that would have bumped legislative salaries, not moving forward.

Legislator salaries have not increased since 2005, according to the Legislative Services Office. Right now, lawmakers get $150 for each day of the legislative session, including weekends, as well as days they work during the interim session.

One of the bills the Governing Council considered Thursday would have increased that amount to $230 a day starting Jan. 12, 2027. The council killed the legislation on a 3-3 vote. Greear and Hicks were excused from the vote, and Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, abstained.

Legislators who spoke against the bill said raising legislative salaries was already taken care of with another bill the Governing Council passed in October.

That bill would increase lawmakers’ per diem allowance, or the daily allowance that covers their expenses related to ministry, from $109 to $155 a day. Wyoming has not increased that allowance since 2008, according to the Legislative Services Office.

(The Board of Governors introduced another bill at its October meeting that would increase lawmakers’ constituent allowance from $750 to $1,000 per quarter, rates that have also remained the same since 2008.)

Panel recommends raising legislators’ pay for first time since ’05

Laramie Democrat Rep. Cathy Connolly, who is retiring this year, argued that the per diem rate increase “is not a pay raise,” and that the bill to increase legislative salaries would compensate for inflation.

“We’ve talked extensively about the desire to increase the possibility of a broader spectrum of individuals being able to participate in the Legislature, and this is one way to do that,” Connolly said of the bill.

Passing legislation to increase salaries for lawmakers can be a challenge on the optical side of things, as lawmakers themselves review the bills that will change how much lawmakers are paid. (However, these increases only impact future legislators.)

As a result, the Governing Council also put together a bill Thursday that would create an independent commission to review legislative compensation, an idea rejected by Rep. Mike Yin, D-Jackson, was introduced at the October subcommittee meeting on legislative compensation.

The commission will also make salary recommendations for Wyoming’s five statewide officials, supreme court justices, district and circuit court judges and district attorneys.

There would be seven members on the commission, jointly appointed by the governor, Senate president, speaker of the House and chief justice of the Supreme Court. Members on the commission shall serve six-year terms for no more than two consecutive terms. They would meet at least twice during each term of the Legislature.

Follow Maya Shimizu Harris on Twitter @M_ShimizuHarris

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