Here’s a “Jeopardy” answer I’d like to submit to the TV quiz show’s producers: “Abortion, hog rustling and student sex.”

The correct question? “What are issues addressed by the 2020 Wyoming Legislature?”

As state lawmakers finish up their 24 days of work this week, allow me to share a few lowlights from the budget session. I’m probably the only one who considers them all memorable, which shows just how frustrating this year’s legislative sideshow has been to watch.

Don’t confuse us with the facts

The Legislature opted out of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System” in 2016 by defunding the survey. This year the House overwhelmingly defeated an attempt to revive it.

Wyoming is one of only four states that doesn’t participate in what is a useful tool to gather data about a wide range of risky teen behavior.

The survey for middle and high school students asks questions about suicide, tobacco use, depression and bullying. But it is the questions about sex that left some legislators red-faced. I’m not sure if they were angry or blushing. 

“I’ve got pictures on my phone here with some of the questions,” said Rep. Scott Clem (R-Gillette). “I’m not going to read those questions because I think it’s very distasteful, and yet that’s what we’re exposing our high schoolers and middle schoolers to.” 

Clem apparently deemed the material too risqué for the ears of his fellow representatives. That left House Minority Leader Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie) to take charge and read what she described as “the most salacious” questions. They dealt with use of contraceptives, if and when a student first had sex, and the number of partners they’ve had.                

“This is information that we in this state have used for decades in order to plan programs, in order to use our prevention money well,” Connolly said.

It never fails to amaze me that legislators like Clem, who come back year after year with bills to restrict women’s access to abortion, are adamantly opposed to sexual health education programs that could reduce the number of teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. In this instance, the prudes prevailed.

Are they genuinely embarrassed about the CDC questions, or afraid of finding out that students’ answers don’t match their world views? I suspect it’s the latter.

Holding a university hostage 

The anti-reproductive-rights lobby failed to pass two bills, with a third still under consideration as of Monday. But it did tally one victory — if you can count a budget footnote as a win. I don’t, because in order to pass it lawmakers deceived the public.

The Legislature took aim at the health insurance policies negotiated for students by the University of Wyoming. The policies cover elective abortions, and after Rep. Chuck Gray (R-Casper) successfully amended the budget in the House to prohibit such coverage, it was Sen. Lynn Hutchings’ (R-Cheyenne) turn.

What unfolded next was incredible: Not only did lawmakers hold UW’s entire $446 million budget hostage, but moderate senators who should have been the voice of reason caved into such an unreasonable — and likely unconstitutional — demand. 

The budget footnote clearly violates the Wyoming Constitution’s guarantee that citizens can make their own healthcare choices. Even more galling, UW’s Student Health Services does not even receive state block grant funds.

Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne) had it right: “The Legislature shouldn’t be involved in this. We never insert ourselves to this degree in private insurance.”   

But the erroneous claim that the university is “subsidizing” abortions stuck. The fact that the amendment wasn’t germane to the budget bill was ignored. An initial tie vote, 14-14, would have killed the amendment, but at the last moment Sen. Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne) changed her mind and voted for it, giving it just enough support to pass. 

Intolerance is not a ‘Wyoming value’

Senate confirmation hearings of gubernatorial appointments are generally routine. This year though, one senator vigorously stirred the pot.

Sen. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle) wrote a letter to Gov. Mark Gordon, objecting to three of his nominees: Ryan McConnaughey and Keren Meister-Emerich for the Judicial Review and Ethics Commission, and Dr. Rene Hinkle, an OB-GYN who was appointed to another term on the Wyoming Board of Medicine.

Steinmetz complained to Gordon that the trio “demonstrated the inability to remain impartial in the areas they would oversee.” Here’s the part that left me boiling mad: She asked the governor to replace them with others “more in step with Wyoming values.”

Casper Star-Tribune reporter Nick Reynolds, who broke the story, asked Steinmetz what values she was talking about. “Exactly what I said in my letter,” she responded. “You’re welcome to read it, and I’m not going to infer anything else into it.”

What Meister-Emerich did to incur the political knife Steinmetz stuck into her back isn’t readily known. Oh, but McConnaughey knew exactly what she meant, he said.

“From what I understand, it’s apparently my ‘radical LGBT agenda,’ and I don’t know what that is,” he told Reynolds. “But apparently I have one.” 

Hinkle has testified against several anti-abortion bills, including one Steinmetz sponsored this session that would require all aborted infants born alive to receive the same medical care any other infant would. In her testimony, the doctor pointed out that since late-term abortions aren’t legal in Wyoming, the measure was pointless. 

In the 30-member Senate, eight members opposed McConnaughey, and five opposed Emerich. But Hinkle, who has served honorably and professionally on the Board of Medicine, was only three votes short of being removed. 

I’m glad they all survived the unfair attack on their character. The fact so many climbed aboard the train trying to run them over, however, was a sad reality I hope the Senate never repeats.

Sen. Larry “Hang ‘em High” Hicks 

Sometimes debates that begin as serious topics devolve into the ridiculous. One of those moments unfolded in the Senate, when the body considered House Bill 16 – Consolidation of theft crimes.

Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) offered an amendment to remove theft of  horse, mule, sheep, cattle, buffalo or swine — regardless of their value — from the state’s list of felonies. 

Hicks said he is concerned that somebody convicted of stealing a pig worth $50 would be a felon. “If you want to fill the jails up with more felons, let’s send them to jail for a $200 pig,” he said.

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Some legislators talked about how serious a crime livestock rustling is, but Sen. Dave Kinskey (R-Sheridan) struck a lighter note. “You may be correct  — the swine-snitchers and the buffalo-embezzlers are just misdemeanor offenders,” he joked. “But clearly the sheep-swipers and the cattle-kidnappers are felons.”

Hicks noted that in territorial days, rustlers were lynched. “If it goes back that far, maybe we ought to make it a hanging offense for pig poachers,” he said. Senators laughed and killed his amendment, which is the fate it deserved.

The session ends Thursday, and I can’t wait to put a large segment of these confounding lawmakers in my rear-view mirror. I don’t think I’m alone.

Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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