A large group prepared to testify during the 2016 Wyoming Legislative session. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

There’s a simple way to predict how much public testimony to expect at the start of a committee meeting, according to Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie).

“You look at the room, the room is full. You look online, there are plenty of people,” Rothfuss told WyoFile. If participation promises to be high, Rothfuss said, it’s important for the committee chairperson to set ground rules, such as limiting each speaker’s time, to ensure as many people as possible can testify. 

Monday’s Senate Education Committee was one of those instances, Rothfuss said. The room was packed as lawmakers were set to discuss three bills, including Senate File 51 – Fairness in women’s sports act, which would ban transgender girls and women from competing in women’s sports that are sponsored by a public entity such as a high school. Chairman Sen. Charlie Scott (R-Casper) announced one ground rule — priority would be given to in-person testimony.

After about 80 minutes of public comment, Scott cut it off as Sabrina King was talking. King is with the American Civil Liberties Union of Wyoming. 

Scott postponed a vote on the bill, and said he was considering not allowing public testimony when the committee took the bill back up. Rothfuss pushed back. 

“I hope if we are going to move this bill forward, that will take thorough and robust public testimony,” Rothfuss said. 

“I will not tolerate a filibuster on the bill,” Scott responded. 

“I don’t think it is [a filibuster]. I think it’s a passion,” Rothfuss said. 

When the committee picked the bill back up Wednesday, King finished her testimony. It was the only public comment Scott allowed. 

“That was just a warning to people to be brief and to the point,” Scott told WyoFile. “I don’t like cutting off the public participation and debate. But you have to sometimes.”

The meeting was illustrative of a growing trend, some lawmakers say, as hot-button issues draw more public interest to the Capitol. The overwhelming amount of public testimony can eat up hours of time and spur legislators to curtail comments, which leads to complaints that people are robbed of their opportunity to participate. 

But lawmakers differ on how to strike a balance between hearing out the public and meeting legislative deadlines. 

Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper) during the Wyoming Legislature’s 2022 budget session. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

Balancing act 

Time is of the essence during a 20-day budget session as lawmakers race to meet deadlines. Such constraints, Scott said, create tricky limits. 

Scott, the longest serving lawmaker in Wyoming history, has seen public interest in the Legislature grow in recent years, he said, echoing an observation made by many lawmakers. Some point to contentious bills, others like Rothfuss give credit to the ease of virtual testimony. 

“Which is certainly good from a public access standpoint,” Rothfuss said. “That’s been a real improvement of the Legislature over the past few years.” At the same time, Rothfuss said, it does make it difficult — but not impossible — to manage public testimony. 

“If you want to cut off debate, because you don’t have time, that’s OK. You just don’t then pass the bill,” Rothfuss said, adding that it’s better to table such legislation and take it to the interim. 

The Senate Education Committee voted 3-2 in favor of SF 51, with Rothfuss and Sen. Affie Ellis (R-Cheyenne) in opposition. 

Sen. Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne) on the Senate floor during the 2022 Legislative Session. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

Hot-button bills

Sen. Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne) does not think public participation has increased at the Legislature. However, she said there are certain bills that garner more interest than others. One such bill came before the Senate Judiciary Committee — the committee Nethercott chairs — on Monday.  

Senate File 102 – Second amendment protection act would restrict state law enforcement from enforcing federal gun laws. About twice as many supporters of the bill were permitted to speak than those against it. Two ideologically different political groups that both oppose the bill — Wyoming Gun Owners and Wyoming Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America — criticized Nethercott for who was allowed to testify during the meeting. 

“I get it, that time for public comment must be limited, but this feels like a calculated attempt to suppress the opposition and a devolution of democracy,” Beth Howard with Moms Demand Action wrote in an email to WyoFile. Several of the organization’s members were waiting on the Zoom call, Howard said, ready to testify. 

“It’s not that we didn’t all get to speak, we’re all prepared for that. It’s that none of us got to speak,” Howard said. 

One lawmaker also expressed dissatisfaction with the way Nethercott ran the committee meeting. 

“Quite frankly, I’m offended because I wanted to speak in committee and it got shut down pretty quick,” Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne) said on the Senate floor. Sen. Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) called a point of order before asking Bouchard to “stick to the facts.”

“At times like this, when I was teaching social studies, I’d say, ‘just settle down guys,” Sen. Jeff Wasserburger (R-Gillette), who was acting as chairman for the committee of the whole, said. 

“There has never been an effort on my part, or do I know of any other chairman in the Wyoming Legislature that tries to reduce or eliminate or manipulate public testimony in any way,” Nethercott told WyoFile. “Nor did I do that, nor have I ever done that, nor do I intend to do that.”

During the meeting, Nethercott noted when the committee was running out of time and asked at least one speaker to limit their comments to one minute. She also asked several members of the public to keep comments germane to SF 51.

When concerned about having enough time for everyone to speak, Nethercott said, she’s previously divided opposing sides to line up and take turns testifying. But with contentious bills, Nethercott said there’s a sensitive dynamic to consider. 

“There was quite a bit of tension [in the room] and maybe some discomfort associated with the subject matter. And so [I] didn’t necessarily want to divide the room out in that way,” Nethercott said. “And that’s kind of the chairman’s prerogative, recognizing that there is a much bigger picture than what maybe is appreciated at any given time.”  

Eroding civility

Committee meetings offer the one in-person opportunity for the public to formally testify on a bill during session. Members of the public can also email or call legislators, or use the online hotline. That service was launched about a decade ago to help residents participate in the legislative process. A lot has changed since then, according to Linda Burt, who has spent about 25 years as a lobbyist in Wyoming for various groups, including the ACLU and Pro-Choice Wyoming. 

The Legislative Service Office has greatly improved the Wyoming Legislature’s website, Burt said, and that’s made it much easier for the public to learn about and track legislation. Burt also said she appreciates House and Senate rules that require public notice of a committee meeting by 3 p.m. the day before the meeting. 

“This is very much better than the old days [when] we had to wait for a notice to come up on the [LSO] door. And we might be sitting there at 6 o’clock at night waiting,” Burt said. 

It is still challenging for people traveling from the far corners of the state, Burt said.  

Burt has other, larger concerns about the Legislature and public participation. 

“I understand leadership is in a very distinct, difficult position right now in terms of the critics in the Legislature and the hard right that’s making it difficult for leadership. And I think they’re making it difficult to have that sort of more collegial atmosphere,” Burt said. 

That deteriorating civility can be seen in committee meetings as legislators challenge those giving testimony, Burt said. 

“I think for a lot of people who aren’t used to this, it’s very disquieting to have a legislator, sort of, come back at you with a response that they disagree, and be very aggressive about it,” Burt said.

Burt would prefer to see less of that. She’d also like to see the public shift its focus from hot-button legislation to other pressing matters for the state, she said.

Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) speaks during the 2021 Wyoming Legislative session as Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne) looks on. (Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle/Wyoming News Exchange)

At the discretion of the chair

There are no Senate or House rules regarding length or quality of public testimony at committee meetings; the chair has discretion. Rothfuss isn’t sure a rule change is necessary to account for increased public interest, he said. 

“As long as it’s done in a fair and balanced way, things will proceed correctly. What you end up seeing and what concerns the public is when a chair has a clear bias one way or another on the bill, and quite honestly, just doesn’t want to hear the public testimony,” Rothfuss said. 

Scott has his own take on adjustments. Part of that is giving preference to “the people that have taken the time to come and be in front of us,” he said. 

Scott also said he would support either limiting or dropping virtual public testimony completely. 

“It’s a matter of balance, and I got to strike a balance,” Scott said. 

Maggie Mullen reports on state government and politics. Before joining WyoFile in 2022, she spent five years at Wyoming Public Radio.

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  1. It is time to stop with contentious bills in the budget sessions. Laws are being passed that most citizens are unaware of and have no input on. At this point it is easier to get discpicable legislation through because it should not be part of the budget sessions, especially when we are in a financial crisis in this state. The expectation of those we elected to do their jobs for all citizens with input from all they represent has become a joke. They act only with their personal bias and listen to no one about the issue on the table. Emails sent are not even a knowledged as having been read. Testimony is ignored, rigorous debate is not held. Rubber stamps are in play. This is not a democratic forum nor is it how our government is supposed to work. I am ashamed of all of them. None of them should be re-elected. If the Senate and Congress of the US acted like this, we would be Russia or some other autocratic state. This supposed to be government for and by the people, not special interest groups and dark money.

  2. The solution seems pretty simple. Stop considering hot button issues during the budget session. Leadership needs to lead by applying much more stringent criteria to which bills are allowed. Make the budget session a true public exploration of where funds should be spent, and only let in other bills that have a practical need for speed or an urgency to be addressed, like Medicaid expansion. It’s a good example of something that Wyoming people urgently need and that has repercussions for budget and the state economy. The voting restriction bills are only urgent to those who oppose Liz Cheney’s candidacy, and trying to manipulate votes for national office is not a legitimate state legislative function. And certainly abortion bills are not urgent in a state with no abortion clinics. It is past time for the legislature to focus on bills that address Wyoming issues rather than bills that are manufactured in national political advocacy organizations. Crossing corners to access public lands is a Wyoming issue. Trying to prevent schools from teaching accurate history and to inject more obstacles to teachers in the public school system damages Wyoming in order to support national special interest groups. That isn’t needed here and if those issues are to be considered, the focus should be on the costs of implementing them in an already financially stressed education system. We are like puppets dancing to the tunes of those outside our borders while ignoring much more important state concerns.

  3. Fascism in action. No participation by the people…or “three-minute” people? Either alternative means the public has little influence over government decisions. The so-called founders would have preferred the first. They designed the national government to ensure that they ruled with no bothersome interference from us commoners (except those with wealth). The states (and lower echelons of so-called representative government) have agreed with that mode of governance ever since. Fortunately, for the top monkeys (humans), only a short time remains…

  4. With the state legislature being saturated with big landowners, the BLM welfare cowboys and their shills/pretenders/wanna be’s, of course they don’t want “public testimony”………..that goes against the grain of a contingent that wants total control of Wyoming. Sadly, it makes many of us long time R’s to reluctantly vote D.

    Residents of Wyoming need to wise up and really vet who we send to Cheyenne. There’s a whole bunch of Wolves in Sheep’s clothing out there that only want to represent special interests and they’re really not that hard to spot. Throw the bums out come November 2022.

  5. Legislators know at the outset, for the most part, what are hot button topics such as gun issues, abortion issues and now this year limitations on what or how teachers can teach. Even knowing this, these bills are allowed to be presented in a short version of the session, the budget session. So, who is surprised, when it comes time to hear testimony on these issues, that there are many who show up, yes in person and online, some chairmen are limiting testimony so they can get the bill passed on and let the other side of the Chambers worry about it. I’ve witnessed bills that have objections to it, that appear to need further work, maybe in the interim get passed for the sake of time. Something needs to change.