Legislative leaders begin crafting two bills in response to COVID-19 pandemic

CHEYENNE – Legislative leaders began crafting two bills Friday morning that grant some abilities to Gov. Mark Gordon and state agencies to respond to Wyoming’s numerous needs that have emerged in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Legislature’s Management Council, which consists of leaders from both chambers and parties, met virtually Friday in preparation for a special session that could come as soon as late next month.

The council did not vote on the two pieces of legislation, which touch on everything from hospital funding to low-income housing. Instead, legislators prepared the bills for a final vote at their next meeting Friday, May 1.

The first bill worked by lawmakers would set up a COVID-19 relief fund for a preliminary, partial distribution of the $1.25 billion Wyoming has received through the federal coronavirus relief bill.

Gov. Mark Gordon has the ultimate authority on how to use those funds, but through the legislation, the pot would be divided into a few separate sections to address various needs. Federal rules also prohibit the relief funds from being used to replace lost state revenues, forcing state officials to get slightly more creative with how they use the money.

Renny Mackay, policy director for the governor’s office, told lawmakers that the executive branch supports working through some of the coronavirus-related issues during legislative committee meetings next month, so long as it doesn’t excessively slow the state’s response.

“The maximum flexibility is what we think is best, but of course, we want to work together,” Mackay said. “If we’re not on the right page, none of this is going to be effective.”

The team of lawmakers decided to move forward with an initial $238 million appropriation for the COVID-19 relief fund, with $70 million of that going to municipalities, counties and political subdivisions. During the meeting, Jerimiah Rieman, executive director of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association, told lawmakers that the state’s local governments are bracing for a hit ranging from $109 million to $451 million in the coming year, and those figures could grow.

The WCCA has been closely working with the Wyoming Association of Municipalities to develop a collaborative approach between the two levels of local government. Despite the federal restriction on replacing lost revenues with the funding, Rieman noted a few areas, including government support to payroll programs, that could still be reimbursed.

“While we’re all disappointed with the U.S. Treasury Department’s guidance to date, we cannot overlook the fact that this clearly allows the use of CARES Act funds on the largest expense that governments or any company would experience, and that’s their payroll,” Rieman said.

The relief fund also includes $200 million for Wyoming public hospitals, which are facing serious revenue hits brought on by the virus. The legislation originally allocated up to $50 million in aid to the facilities to address expenses related to COVID-19, but it was amended by Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, to the higher figure.

“This would be not only to address those expenses (related to COVID-19), but it also would be to build some new hospitals and clinics,” Driskill said. “We’ve had guidance now that appears that can be done.”

No specific programs would be established through the funding in the first bill. Instead, lawmakers decided to have standing committees work out the specifics during their interim meetings that will begin next month.

After laying back the first bill until their meeting next week, lawmakers on the council worked through a second bill that addresses a handful of specific issues brought up by the governor during the council’s initial meeting earlier this month.

One program set up though the bill would allow the Wyoming Community Development Authority to assist landlords who hold off on evicting tenants unable to pay rent due to the pandemic. The money would be available to landlords who have lost at least 25% of their rental income and have tenants who have lost pay due to the pandemic.

The legislation comes a few weeks after a coalition of nonprofits sent a letter to Gordon requesting a suspension of evictions and foreclosures amid the economic uncertainty brought on by the virus. If approved, landlords who have lost income in the 90 days following the governor’s March 13 emergency declaration would be eligible for the program.

Another section of the second bill would expand the state’s workers’ compensation program to allow employees to make claims if they contract COVID-19. Additionally, the legislation would allow the state Department of Workforce Services to set up a work-share program that allows employees to more easily make up any loss in pay due to cut hours.

“This is the provision that would allow for our employers to keep a workforce going and have a reduction in hours covered by unemployment,” Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, said during the meeting. “It’s a great program that I think 27 states already have.”

Like with the first bill, members of the Management Council took no action on the second piece of legislation. Instead, they will wait until their meeting, set for 8 a.m. next Friday, May 1, to finalize the bills for a potential special session.

“People are going to have a lot of ideas, and a public format that the Legislature provides is going to be really vital for $1.25 billion,” House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper, said. “We’re going to have a lot of feedback on this over the (next) week.”