Wyoming Legislature this week faces bill action deadline, start of budget review



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CHEYENNE, Wyoming — The Wyoming Legislature will start hearings this week on a supplemental budget bill that would take for general use money that had been pegged for deposit in the state's rainy day fund this summer.

And legislation that would sharply increase employer penalties for fatal workplace-safety violations appears to be one of a number of bills that will die as a Monday deadline nears for bills to clear their first floor votes in their chamber of origin.

House Speaker Rep. Kermit Brown, R-Laramie, and Senate President Sen. Phil Nicholas, R-Laramie, said the Legislature will likely hear the budget bill for the first time on Wednesday and Thursday. Lawmakers will continue hearings on the bill following a planned four-day weekend at the end of this week.

Lower energy prices are forcing state lawmakers to consider taking for general use nearly $200 million that had been on track for deposit into the state's Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account this summer. The move would leave the balance in the state's so-called rainy day fund at roughly $1.8 billion at the end of the current fiscal year this summer, rather than $2 billion as the state had forecast.

The budget bill also calls for making contingent appropriations over the next two years of nearly $280 million from investment returns that the state hasn't booked yet.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Sen Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, controls which bills will come up for a vote in the full Senate and which will miss Monday's action deadline and die.

Wyoming long has been a leader in workplace fatalities. The Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Interim Committee voted in December to endorse the pending bill to increase penalties for workplace safety violations substantially.

The AFL-CIO, which tracks workplace deaths, said in a report this summer that Wyoming was second only to North Dakota, based on 2012 figures. The numbers show Wyoming had 12.2 fatalities per 100,000 workers, while North Dakota had 17.7.

Wyoming doesn't have a separate penalty for workplace fatalities and caps the fine for serious violations at $7,000, regardless of whether they result in a fatality.

The proposed bill would allow penalties of up to $12,000 for serious violations. The bill proposes hiking the penalty for violations that contribute to fatalities as high as possibly $50,000 for companies that employ fewer than 250 people and $250,000 for larger companies.

Bebout wouldn't commit in advance whether he will let the bill die without a vote, but he said he has serious reservations about it. Although it was a committee bill, he said it was not authorized by the Legislature's governing Management Council as a primary topic.

"I don't think a lot of people had opportunities to really understand and know what the bill did and how it did it," said Bebout, who works in the oil industry. "And I've heard from a lot of different entities, primary employers, who didn't feel like they had an opportunity to present their case and understand what the bill did."

Bebout also emphasized that Wyoming employers feel strongly that they don't want to see fatalities or injured workers.

Nicholas and Brown said they would favor considering the issue in the interim.

Brown said the bill has serious consequences for employers. "They ought to have a fair chance to look at it, and if it's going to be enacted, they ought to have a fair chance to accommodate their policies and finances to accommodate it," he said.

The issue of increasing fines for workplace safety violations has come up before in Wyoming. The Legislature in 2010 shot down an earlier proposal to hike the fines for workplace safety violations even after both labor and industry groups said they supported it.

Mary Jane Collins of Sheridan in December urged the joint Labor committee to pass the bill. Her grandson, Brett Collins, died in a construction accident in 2012. The Collins family pushed for reform at several committee meetings last year.

House Minority Floor Leader Rep. Mary Throne, D-Cheyenne, sponsored the bill before the committee last year.

"I just think it's unfortunate that we can't talk about how to protect workers," Throne said. "We had a family that came to three of our committee meetings over the interim. We spent quite a bit of time on this subject over the interim. I think the full body should have the opportunity to consider the issue."

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