Federal relief bill could provide funding to Wyoming health-care facilities

CHEYENNE – After lawmakers were unable to reach an agreement on funding more than $150 million worth of capital construction projects during this year’s budget session, they may get a chance to revive one of those defeated proposals during the Legislature’s upcoming special session.

Members of the House and Senate reached an impasse on the final day of the Legislature’s session in March, largely over funding for a new swimming facility at the University of Wyoming. The clash left a wide range of projects, from an upgraded recreation center at Laramie County Community College to renovations to the women’s prison in Lusk, without funding for the coming year.

But with the omnibus federal relief bill bringing $1.25 billion to the state’s coffers, state lawmakers are now weighing legislation to allocate some of that money to construction projects that could prove useful during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last week, the Legislature’s Management Council, composed of legislative leadership from both parties, finalized a bill for the special session that would allocate a total of $15 million to the Wyoming Life Resource Center in Lander and the Wyoming State Hospital in Evanston.

The $15 million could go to completing a project that began in 2018 that would allow for one operational system shared between the two facilities.

Under the plan, which is slated for completion by spring 2021, the state hospital would provide short-term psychiatrist services to Wyomingites. Meanwhile, the Wyoming Life Resource Center would focus on providing long-term care for patients with unstable housing or medical situations, while still maintaining its current patients.

Rep. Sue Wilson, R-Cheyenne, who chairs the House Labor, Health and Social Services Committee, called the funding for the project an “emergency appropriation” after the final funds for it fell through last session. The project aims to address some of the complicated dynamic between the two facilities, Wilson said, in which elderly patients in Evanston were staying longer at the facility than originally intended.

“There were these blockages in the system, so in order to make Evanston more responsive to the needs of patients who are endangering themselves, we had to figure out where we can move these long-term patients with psychiatric needs,” Wilson said. “You had to kind of work both (health-care facilities) at the same time, because you couldn’t do what you wanted to do in Evanston until you did what you need in Lander.”

Securing the additional funds for the project has been a priority of Gov. Mark Gordon in recent weeks. During the Management Council’s first meeting of the interim session in mid-April, the governor emphasized the need to support the two facilities.

“One of the critical things that we really need to address going forward, and now more than ever, is how do we get the Wyoming Life Resource Center functional soon? How can we keep that project going?” Gordon said to the council. “The Wyoming (State) Hospital, the Wyoming Behavioral Institute, these are all facilities that need help.”

Though the Lander project that failed last session may secure funding, federal guidelines have restricted what the state can do with its $1.25 billion in CARES Act funding. The money cannot be used to replace lost revenue or cover costs in the state’s budget already approved for the upcoming biennium.

Expenses incurred in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, are permitted, thus allowing the money for the two health-care facilities to make it into the legislation.

Additionally, one of the bills advanced by the Management Council last week would free up leftover funds from projects completed in 2018 and 2019 to be used on ongoing projects until the end of this year. Any reappropriation would still have to win approval from the State Building Commission.

Don Richards, the state’s chief budget administrator, told the council those carryover funds would be used to help finish the Wyoming Life Resource Center project in Lander. A few projects winding down across the state are expected to produce leftover funds in the next six to eight months, Richards said.

Other capital construction projects could be funded through the federal relief bill, largely through an amendment added to the legislation outlining permissible uses of the federal money. Senate President Drew Perkins, R-Casper, proposed the amendment, which would allow for spending on projects that improve the state’s capacity for mental health care services.

Along with the capital construction funding, the legislation up for consideration also authorizes up to $200 million of the federal funding for expenses incurred by the state’s hospitals and health-care centers, which have already taken revenue hits due to the pandemic.

While the legislation sets the table for a few projects to secure funding, the bills will still need to win the approval of the state Legislature, which will meet for a special session in the coming weeks. The Management Council could reach a decision on when and how a special session would be carried out during its meeting Friday morning.