Activist conservatives chafe under Wyo’s ‘moderate’ GOP leadership

by Geoff O’Gara, Wyoming PBS (published with permission)
— February 13, 2014

Geoff O'Gara, Wyoming PBS
Geoff O’Gara, Wyoming PBS
Geoff O’Gara, Wyoming PBS

There is a surface of civility, and a current of silliness, to the Wyoming legislature that sometimes obscures deeper forces shaping the way we govern. State legislators address each other as “my respected colleague from the state’s largest county” and debate topics like whether to support, as a state, our “great friend” Azerbaijan.

But legislative leaders know that underneath the surface a battle is underway for the political heart of the state – and it is waged, these days, within the Republican Party, since the Democrats no longer have enough votes to matter. The Republican leaders of today’s legislature are moderates – or what passes for moderate in Wyoming, which is fairly conservative on the national scale – but they must manage a team that includes a growing number of activist conservatives who are chafing under the dictates of the leadership.

You can see it in the hullaballoo over Cindy Hill, the Superintendent of Public Instruction whose powers were substantially stripped by the legislature last year. Now the Supreme Court has ruled that the so-called “Hill Bill” (Senate File 104) of 2013 was unconstitutional, and, with Hill announcing a run for Governor next fall, many legislators privately wish the whole thing would just go away. Leadership, though, will keep it alive, with an ongoing investigation and, likely, a special session later this year. And so far none who voted for it – including many conservatives – dares to concede publicly that the whole thing might have been a mistake.

That puts them at odds with the state Republican Central Committee, which asked the legislature to just drop the Hill thing. And some of the newer, more activist, Tea Party-leaning members of the House are feeling the same way. So far, though, any rebellion against the Republican leadership, on this and other issues, simmers just beneath the surface.

Rep. Thomas E. Lubnau (R-Gillette)
House Speaker Rep. Thomas E. Lubnau (R-Gillette)

One way to gauge how much anger there is in the ranks will be to watch how bills sponsored by “moderate” House Speaker Tom Lubnau (R-Gillette) fare during the session. He has only two. One, which would put any delegates to a national constitutional convention (at this point, a hypothetical convention) firmly under the legislature’s control, has already mustered the 2/3 majority necessary for introduction. His other bill, which may come up today, would allow speed limits on some Wyoming roads to be raised to 80 miles per hour.

A speed limit bill hardly seems a very good marker of conservative rebellion, but it would certainly send a message to the embattled Lubnau if it failed to get the 2/3 vote necessary for introduction.

In the meantime, anyone who doubts the muscle in the Republican Party’s conservative wing should note the popularity of any bills – some close to the “silly” category – that shakes a fist at the federal government, or even Cheyenne’s dictates. For instance – and this one isn’t silly – a bill to reject the national “common core” set of education standards, in favor of more local control over what our children learn, garnered a 47-13 vote for introduction in the House. The bill was not supported by any of the many teaching professionals who serve in the legislature, most of whom yearn for stable standards of some kind; but Rep. Tom Reeder (R-Casper) declared the rejection of “a national standard” as a test of whether “this is truly a Republic.”

Efforts like this are part of a general movement to take control back from – well, from the evil federal government, certainly, but perhaps as well from the folks in Cheyenne who are just a bit too “moderate” in allowing government further away than a few blocks to play a major role in education, health care or other aspects of our lives.

We’ll see shortly if that discontent extends to raising speed limits, as well.

— Please visit Wyoming PBS Capitol Outlook for further coverage of the Wyoming Legislature by Geoff O’Gara.

Geoffrey O’Gara is a writer and documentary producer based in Lander, Wyoming. He works for The Content Lab, LLC and serves on WyoFile's board of directors. His column, Weed Draw, is named for a remote...

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