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Governor Gordon Joins AARP Wyoming For TeleTown Hall

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Becky Farrell/AARP Wyoming

On January 7, Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon joined AARP Wyoming members for a TeleTown Hall, in which AARP dialed out to over 13,000 members in Wyoming to connect them with their Governor. Here is a summary of that call.

Governor’s Welcome

Last year this evening was when the inauguration took place. Before we get started, I wanted to thank those who had patience, we had a little difficulty last time trying to get online. I thank you for dialing back in.

It was an interesting year in a lot of ways. None of us expected at the beginning of the year that we would have three coal bankruptcies and the issues in energy transition, the Goshen Irrigation District was another big surprise. What I reflect on is the fact that Wyoming is filled with people that have a can-do attitude, they are resilient, they are problem solvers. It has been a true honor to look at ways the state will move forward and the challenges of how we are going to do things like fund education and have quality access to healthcare.

I think there are some real opportunities on the energy horizons we have looked at, I think generally it was a good year. I would love to have had an easier time but it made me feel good about being a part of Wyoming.

From health insurance, we have had a couple of conversations. Last year Senator Scott set us up with a study we released this fall. It brought to focus some of the issues that we were wrestling with and gives us a better perspective solving problems going forward.

On the question of Medicaid Expansion

It is a good question. When I ran for office, and I still feel this way, I think it is important that we understand exactly what Medicaid expansion might mean and might burden the state with. I haven’t said a firm no. The legislature this year is thinking about whether they would like us to try to negotiate a good deal for Wyoming, we will see if that piece of legislation comes through in this session. In conversations I have had with Charlie Scott, it is quite clear that we have to do something. I think there are some other things we could look at.

I’ve talked a lot about this population and what the opportunity set is for Wyoming. We are 588K people, that is the size of a large corporation. Maybe there is a way to provide a state solution that works. We’ve talked a lot about the Idaho plan and what Idaho has done has helped bring down some of the cost of healthcare. Telemedicine plays a role. My concern with telehealth is we also have a human dimension. My dad was 96 when he passed away and for the last several years of his life he would do things with his cell phone that my sister and I didn’t understand. It was a technology that was new and different and we want to make sure we have a comfortable solution.

On Prescription Drug costs

We have looked in our office, Jenn Davis is our policy advisor has been looking at various solutions. Whether there is an option where the state can help defray some of those costs around a wholesale operation, similar to what the liquor commission does, that is a possibility. We are looking at what the challenges might be for the Trump’s administration's initiative and seeing if there is a possibility there. It is quite clear those costs have to come down. I come from Northern Wyoming and my local pharmacy is Buffalo Prescription Shop. My Pharmacist, Tom, is not part of a big chain. Are there things we can do in the way we prescribe drugs that allow for a generic solution, otherwise there are prescriptions that Tom might need to get in a volume that is very expensive and only one patient needs. This is a key area this coming year.

On the costs of Elder care to the State of Wyoming

It is an enormous issue for Wyoming, the population is growing older. We need to develop some workforce solutions. I look at in the form of three things: Infrastructure in terms of housing and facilities, access to facilities, and the human care. One of the initiatives I’ve really tried to push at our junior colleges and at the university is workforce development, with getting more CNA’s out there. We tend to focus in work force development on skills like welders, plumbers, and electricians when in fact we need more CNAs, RNs and LPNs. We are lacking lab techs. No matter how good your doctor is, if they don’t have a good lab program behind them, they will struggle. We’ve entered into conversations with neighboring states for recruitment of CNAs.

Wyoming has a Home Health Services program, we want to make sure that people can stay in their homes and have appropriate care as much as they possibly can.

Housing is the last thing and it depends on the communities on how they handle it. Our family helped to put together the Mieke bunkhouse with WCDA. It was a solution for those who didn’t even want to move even to Buffalo from the smaller outside communities. In the smaller communities, people take care of each other. If you look at Senior care situations, the greenhouse model is very much organized around a community.

On a Potential Cost of Living Adjustment for Retired State Employees

Like most people in state government, virtually everyone I have ever dealt with in state government works longer hours than they are expected to and for less pay.

The cost increase on health insurance was really something that we were trying to catch up with an inflation rate that has taken over over the last couple years. It was something Governor Mead mentioned in his letters to the legislator last year. What we are trying to do is make up some lost ground and make sure that we are financially solid going forward. There is no danger, I want to stress that, but it necessitated an increase in the price people had to pay.

As far as the cost of living is concerned, one of the biggest bugaboos with pension funds has been when they implement cost of living increases on a regular or automatic basis, that runs them into very difficult circumstances. Wyoming is not one of those states. We probably need to look at a cost of living adjustment for retirement, but it is something that that board needs to look at for its financial solvency and its obligations to meet the needs of retirees going forward.

AARP has offered some ideas about pension reform that are valuable and we should be thinking about those. It is very important that our high schoolers in their junior year start their own Roth IRAs because retirement is one of those issues that does to catch up with you.

On Property Tax Relief for Seniors

For seniors, that are living off of fixed incomes, these are challenging times. They aren’t getting better any time soon. One of the things that you suggested about property tax relief is something that is up to the revenue committee, because the governor can’t fix that. I can bring that conversation up to the revenue committee. You live in a community affected by the coal industry, Wyoming is trying to figure out how to adjust its expectations on revenue and expenses. The was a challenge that we didn’t want to take all in one gulp, we wanted to think about it over a few years, so we can find an equilibrium that makes sense for all.

On Healthcare and Health Insurance for State Employees and Retirees

There are legislators looking seriously at changing deductibles and changing benefits. It was a little bit of a surprise to see that we had the challenge we did. We really tried to mitigate what the raise was going to be and do it over several years so it wasn’t quite a shock. It is still a big shock. I think there is a combination of what people are going to be paying and what the state will be paying and what are the benefits to be received, I don’t think we are unique in that respect.

On the impacts of LGBT workers feeling safe and how that impacts recruiting business to the state

I think that the caller is referring to the Matthew Shepard case and certainly it is “one of the darker moments in Wyoming history”. Our constitution has one of the most compelling statements on equality and human respect. It is something our constitution speaks to. It is something our legislature should speak to carefully. It is a difficult issue both for particular pieces of legislation that call out hate crimes and those who don’t. That is probably part of the legislators task to review those things. I have tried to take a leadership position to make sure people feel welcome in the state. At the risk of sounding a little bit protective of our state, I remember selecting a minister for our congregational church in Buffalo, but he said he couldn’t live in a state where Matthew Shepard was murdered. I don’t find the people of Wyoming to be anything other than good people as a general principle. As Wyoming moves forward, it's going to be important for us to convey a sense of safety and a sense of opportunity, that is something our administration has really pushed for.

On Education Funding

I support ways to constantly improve education. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to cut or increase spending. I put it in my budget request that it is a constitutional issue and we have to increase that spending. We also have to think about what is happening to education generally and how we can provide the kind of quality education that is going to make sure students leave school well equipped for life. More and more, students are wanting to get out, find a job and do something other than do school for a while, and then go back to school. We need to provide that opportunity for people to continue their education. We need to instill a lifelong love of learning.

There are some questions out there that haven’t been well answered. How many districts do we need to have. How many supervisors do we need to have. Are there some opportunities to be able to share resources that can be better for saving.

On how to determine the number of School Districts and construction needed for Wyoming’s Education

School construction is a slightly different regimen than school finance. It has its own funding source that has dried up which was coal lease bonus money. It makes sense for the state to figure out exactly how many districts we need and there are some efficiencies we can have. In Buffalo, we tore down a school built in the mid-70s and built a brand new school.

His Conclusion

We’ve got a lot of challenges ahead of us, I can’t imagine a better state to address those challenges. We’re going to work hard over the next couple of years to set Wyoming up on a sustainable path, get things cleaned up like health care costs. I am committed to making sure that we make the right choices, even if there are tough. To get that done, I think education is going to be absolutely critical.

I keep saying that the thing I love about Wyoming is that I would rather raise my kids in Wyoming than anywhere else. I think one of our greatest strongest points is the ability to attract young parents to come to our communities and make them more robust and build a Wyoming that we really always wanted to have.

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