Focus on worker safety

New bill promises help to employers

Budget bill will hit floor Tuesday in House, Senate

The Wyoming Legislature’s rapidly-moving budget session will focus attention Monday on workplace safety and the state’s appalling job fatality rate. Wyoming had the nation’s highest or second highest workplace fatality rate in the country for eight of the nine years between 2001 and 2009. In 2010 there were 34 workplace fatalities in Wyoming, a 78% increase from 2009. A bill proposed by House Majority Leader Tom Lubnau offers state aid to Wyoming businesses willing to work to improve the safety of their job sites. House Bill 89 – Workplace safety-employer assistance creates a $250,000 fund to finance grants to businesses that need help to implement safety programs and to buy necessary safety equipment. The bill also adds inspectors to the Occupation Safety and Health Division. The bill is on the House Minerals Committee’s Monday (Feb. 20) schedule for consideration. The committee meets at 8 a.m. in Room H-18 at the Capitol. The Equality State Policy Center, the Wyoming State AFL-CIO, the Spence Association for Employee Rights (SAFER), and the Wyoming Trial Lawyers Association have called for sweeping changes in the state’s job safety programs. House Bill 89 is at least a first step needed to end the killing and maiming of Wyoming workers. Rep. Lubnau’s bill authorizes five new positions in the state’s Occupational Safety and Health division – generally referred to as “OSHA” – for courtesy inspectors and directs the Department of Workforce Services to shift three other positions in the department to OSHA to provide three more courtesy inspectors – a total of eight. Courtesy inspections enable companies to have a state inspector visit their job sites to identify safety hazards and OSHA violations without fear of penalty. These moves come in the wake of a December report to Gov. Matt Mead from former state epidemiologist Dr. Tim Ryan that documented 622 on the job deaths since 1992 in Wyoming. Ryan noted the state’s industries have failed to develop a culture of safety. Ryan’s report offered only mild recommendations, however, calling for continued data collection and analysis, promotion of courtesy inspections, and support of “efforts by industry to develop, monitor and enforce safety standards and practices.” Few companies have availed themselves of the courtesy inspections despite all the hand-wringing over safety and the state’s fatality rate. If companies do not take advantage of the assistance offered in HB 89, the ESPC believes that the state will have to back an active enforcement program that includes surprise inspections and penalties for violations of the law to see broader compliance, especially in the oil & gas industry.

Budget bills

The House and Senate will take up the budget bills, HB 1 and SF 1, on Tuesday. The bills will be presented in Committee of the Whole for a section-by-section explanation. The House is expected to take two days to handle its Committee of the Whole debate. One Appropriations Committee member said he expects the House to go through the bill until it reaches the Department of Health budget proposal. It will pick up the Committee of Whole debate with the Health department budget explanation on Wednesday. The Senate will get through the entire bill on Tuesday, a Senate leader said. Senators will be expected to prepare amendments Wednesday for presentation on second reading Thursday. Third reading of the bill is expected on Friday. With legislators as always looking for ways to trim the budget, the ESPC is particularly interested in retaining funding for a prison nursery at the Women’s Prison in Lusk. The Joint Appropriations Committee authorized spending just over $1 million to renovate a vacant building that already has some basic security needs in place. Helping women to develop and maintain a bond with their children while incarcerated will reduce recidivism and improve prospects for the children. (See our Issue Fact Sheet on the nursery proposal.) The ESPC also is concerned about the funding for the state’s HIV/AIDS services program providing treatment to more than 150 people who otherwise cannot afford the care. Cuts have been proposed but their ultimate impact is unclear, according to people interviewed this weekend. We will watch this appropriation closely.

Coal tax break

Once the House convenes for its floor session Monday, it will take up House Bill 38 – Coal severance tax industry factor. This bill will change the way coal is valued for tax purposes. The new formula will reduce the coal industry’s expected tax payments to the state by about $12 million through 2015. It is proposed by the Wyoming Mining Association, which says the bill represents a compromise that produces winners and losers among its members. The WMA says the change will simplify calculation of taxes and eliminate litigation over tax assessments. The association opposed an attempt by Rep. Mike Madden,HD 40, R-Buffalo of the House Revenue Committee to adjust the formula to reduce the impact on future revenues. WMA lobbyist Marion Loomis said the amendment would jeopardize the compromise among the association’s member coal mines. A floor amendment doing the same thing was offered by Minority Leader Patrick Goggles, HD33, D-Ethete, in the Committee of the Whole debate but failed.

Nice deal if you can get it

The ESPC opposes the HB38. Other groups of taxpayers are not given this sort of opportunity to negotiate among themselves how they will be taxed. Furthermore, no company will promise that it will never challenge its tax assessment. Meanwhile, Wyoming’s coal mines are thriving and planning to spend millions on new federal coal leases. They project an excellent market for Wyoming’s low-sulfur coal as the nation imposes new air quality regulations. Costs of producing a ton of coal in Wyoming are far less than in mines in the Midwest, according to public company statements. At a time when legislators have been warned about the stability of future revenues, it is imprudent to erode the tax base by cutting Big Coal’s future tax obligations.    

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