The interior of an AMR ambulance in Lander. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — A bill to help counties form and fund EMS districts is heading to Gov. Mark Gordon’s desk for a final signature. 

Senate File 43 – EMS districts aims to help rural communities secure emergency services, which are struggling to stay solvent amid low reimbursement rates and limited ridership. Though county budgets often supplement EMS agencies to keep them afloat, at least 10 shuttered in the last decade. 

The legislation emerged from state-wide discussions last year. It empowers county commissioners to create a district that voters can opt to fund via mill levies.

If signed into law, SF 43 would allow counties and voters to raise up to four mills specifically for EMS districts. Without special districts counties are limited to passing 12 mills for county operations. As of October, all counties but two have maxed those out. 

The bill cleared both chambers of the Legislature Friday.

While many stakeholders expressed support, it did face pushback — namely, from the House Freedom Caucus and libertarian/conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity. 

Former lawmaker Tyler Lindholm represents that group and spoke up in the House Corporations, Elections & Political Subdivisions Committee.

He said AFP is not opposed to EMS or ambulance services, but “what we are opposed to is not properly funding emergency services with the existing mills that are currently available in the state of Wyoming.” Constituents, he added, have expressed they can’t afford their current property taxes. 

The Petroleum Association of Wyoming’s president Pete Obermueller, meanwhile, reminded legislators that the industry often pays a significant amount of the mill levies since it bears so much of the state’s property taxes. That said, he added that, “we do not oppose this bill.”

Senate File 43 passed out of the House 37-25 after passing the Senate 23-8.

Into the weeds

Representatives opposing the bill argued there is already a means to create a new special district, albeit one that requires more work for citizens. In statute, 60% of landowners in an area holding at least 60% of the area’s property value could petition their county commissioners to create a special district. 

“I think that there’s a point where we don’t want to make taxing easy,” Rep. Jeremy Haroldson (R-Wheatland) said on the House’s second reading of the bill. “We’ve gotta have a question of: Do we want to make taxation something that’s easy, even if it goes on ballot initiatives?”

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander), told WyoFile that option is more complicated and can be more costly than his proposal because it also requires a special district board to be elected.

“They are kind of a branch of government,” he said. “I actually think (SF 43) is a better way and a more fiscally responsible way to create a district.”

The senator’s proposal met resistance on the House floor, where the very notion of taxes was enough for members of the House Freedom Caucus to vote against the bill.

“It does give the people a right to vote on it, but it does pave the way for more taxes,” Rep. Jeanette Ward (R-Casper) said. “Because the bill paves the way for more taxes, I urge a no vote.”

However, those backing the bill argued it still gives residents a voice on how, and whether, they want to fund EMS. 

“I would just like to point out that this is a great example of local control. And better yet, you know, the folks get to see it on the ballot before they say yes and no,” Rep. Cody Wylie (R-Rock Springs) said. “Please let my friends, families and neighbors choose this for themselves.”

Lawmakers also referenced the challenges EMS agencies face in their own counties and how even four mills might not be enough in rural areas that don’t have mineral interests to prop them up.

“The community where I represent has no dead dinosaurs so we do not have a large oil and gas industry to help us with our income for these services,” said Rep. Trey Sherwood (D-Laramie). “And our three largest employers do not pay property tax.”

Suggested amendments to decrease the possible four mills to two and limit voting on these mills to the general election failed. 

One amendment that did pass on the House floor requires the EMS district’s board of directors to attempt to get reimbursement from those who receive emergency services.

“You don’t want a district to be so flush with cash and form its budget such that it says, ‘We’re just not going to bill for the service,’” said Rep. Clark Stith (R-Rock Springs), who brought the amendment. “So the point of this is to make sure that taxpayers are only paying for the difference between the cost of emergency medical services and the revenue they get from billing patients.”

The amendment also requires quarterly reporting to county commissioners of how many people EMS districts serve and the number of those covered by some form of insurance.