I’ve been caught in the mad whirl of the Wyoming legislative session for less than two weeks so I’m still catching my breath – literally and figuratively. Just trying to make sense of things. Budget sessions are like that. Each legislature has its own methods, vocabulary and traditions, which can leave a newcomer wondering ‘why do they do it this way?’ My last legislative budget was in New Hampshire, where the thrifty Yankee natives spend 6 months scrutinizing each line three times at a minimum. Now in my past, they seem like the cautious banking gnomes of Zurich compared to the hypercharged Wyoming budget and general bill process. I’ve wondered ‘where is the time to think here?’
But for a time on Wednesday afternoon in the Senate chamber, I got an answer. During afternoon session, I witnessed the heartfelt essence of citizen lawmakers. It came during a simple but eloquent debate that captured the ongoing tensions between human compassion and limits to resources.
The subject was a proposed skilled nursing center for Wyoming veterans. It would be the first in the state to meet the standards set for certification by the U.S. Veterans Administration – the VA. It would provide 24 beds for the men and women who have sacrificed so much in service of their nation. There would even be room for spouses. It would be a statement that the plight of homeless veterans is an intolerable stain on all of us. The resident veterans would know a caring hand in their sunset years. Get this – there would even be a no-cost fishing license. And when that day came, the Veteran’s home would “provide a place for burial and bury or cremate deceased residents.” Senator John Schiffer detailed all the health and social benefits to his fellow Senators and concluded by saying “I would also suggest that it’s the right thing to do.” The chamber was silent.
By the way, there’s one last detail. The Veterans Skilled Nursing Center would also cost roughly $4.7 million. Senator Cale Case observed that figure would mean each bed cost about $200,000 before the first pillows were fluffed. Roughly the price of the average Wyoming home. Not to mention another $100,000 per bed to run the place. Each year.
Still, quality personal care is costly as anyone scouting out private retirement homes understands. You could sense the reluctance to impose fiscal discipline in the Senate chamber. Kind of like opting for the least costly medicine – or the cheapest coffin for a penniless family member you didn’t know that well.
The debate continued under the beautiful stained glass ceiling of the Senate chamber. Just outside the glass could be heard the relentless winds of the Cheyenne winter. Winds that can shake the Capitol building, and rattle the bones of those who may have survived the sands of Iraq and Afghanistan, only to succumb to the post-traumatic tests of a society that just moves on from its conflicts.
The time came for placing the dollars where the words are. The Senate vote was close, with two narrow rounds. When it was done, the Nays outnumbered the Yeas by 15-14. It was over for now. The legislative whirligig of other bills needing resolution spun up again with talk of nuclear and hybrid energy and the definition of spice. Left for another day, another cold winter budget day, would be the few dozen who could have had a new home that wasn’t to be.