Historic emergency legislative session targets $1.25B CARES money for Wyoming

JACKSON, Wyo. — Lawmakers earmarked some $450 million of $1.25 billion in federal CARES Act monies headed to Wyoming during a historic emergency meeting of the Legislature last weekend.

Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Teton, called the unique session, “a true citizen legislature with two-thirds of us meeting from home using technology to try to address important state issues. It was absolutely incredible.”

It was a peculiar session to be sure, filled with oddities that have become the norm for new age Zoomers.

“You need to unmute yourself, Senator Perkins,” alerted a fellow senator in the opening minutes of day one of the special two-day session last weekend.

“Thanks, well, of course how fitting—a politician’s mouth is moving but he isn’t saying anything,” Perkins responded.

Before settling into the session, Sen. Larry Hicks warned his colleagues about spending the $1.25B life-preserver from DC.

Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Teton. Photo: Courtesy Wyoming Legislature

“I’ve never seen a gift from the federal government and I would caution anyone who thinks they’ve been offered one,” Hicks said.

Sen. Cole Case agreed, suggesting an amendment of some kind that would indicate acceptance of CARES money by Wyoming would be a one-time deal and in no way would signal a precedent of accepting federal money.

Speed is of the essence at the state capital. CARES Act money needs to be spent by December. It’s not the way government typically works, but the House and Senate were able to quickly agree on what they termed “First Things First” in order to get the first installment of money out the door and headed for towns, cities, and counties across the state.

Hard dollar amounts were mostly left out for now as legislators agreed to assist hospitals—including the state hospital in Evanston and the resource center in Lander—as well as American Indian tribes and reservations hard hit by the pandemic.

Renter’s insurance and mortgage protection were also addressed with allocations from the Legislature.

The business community, particularly small businesses, should also see relief quickly (as early as June 1) from SF 1004, passed over the weekend and awaiting the governor’s signature. Qualifying small businesses can get $20,000 and $2,000 per employee. Medium-sized businesses can receive up to $300,000 in compensation for losses due to COVID-19.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing, however, during the special session. Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, proposed a last-minute bill that would give businesses wide-ranging immunity to lawsuits over COVID should an employee become ill with the virus. The majority of the Senate didn’t like it and the House wouldn’t hear it, as a matter of procedure, mostly.

A bill to use Wyoming’s Worker Comp plan for COVID cases did pass both houses.

“We will now be able to use our very healthy Workers Comp program in the state of Wyoming—that our business partners have been paying into for years—for COVID-19. We are now saying if your employee gets the coronavirus, that will be a Workers Comp claim,” Gierau said.

The Legislature will meet again in late June to dispense another round of relief ($400 million) assigned for July 15. Gierau said secondary concerns will be addressed then. Things like funding for tourism telehealth services, and mental health programs. An expansion of Medicaid may also find a way forward in Wyoming, according to Gierau.

Small businesses like Teton Mountaineering could get up to $20,000 in relief and $2,000 per employee. CARES money will also pay for any supplies needed in relation to COVID including hand sanitizer, masks, and cleaning equipment. Photo: Nick Sulzer // Buckrail

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