Conservative members of the Wyoming House of Representatives have created a caucus to negotiate with House Republican leadership, two members of the group told WyoFile this week.
The group calls itself the Wyoming Freedom Caucus, has somewhere between 18-20 votes in the 60-member House of Representatives and was formed at a September meeting in Story following the primary election, Rep. Tim Hallinan (R-Gillette) and Rep. Dan Laursen (R-Powell) said.
It’s not yet certain how the group will act compared to the already established Republican and Democratic House caucuses — groups that meet often during legislative sessions to discuss priorities and strategize how to approach bills.
Members of the Freedom Caucus have no intention of leaving the Republican caucus, Hallinan said. However, the group shares policy goals, he said, and has already approached Republican House leadership with some of its priorities and grievances.
The Wyoming Freedom Caucus shares a name with a group of U.S. House lawmakers famous for clashing with moderate Republicans during the Obama administration. The Wyoming version might play a similar role in Cheyenne — elevating long-running tensions among the Republicans who hold a supermajority in the Wyoming Legislature — Laursen and Hallinan indicated.
Members will meet during the 2021 session and perhaps outside it, Hallinan and Laursen said, though nothing is yet set in stone. Even the legislative session dates are uncertain — leadership decided recently it will not convene for the session in January as scheduled because of the state’s COVID-19 surge.
The Wyoming Freedom Caucus hopes to expand the influence of “the conservative members of the Legislature in the Republican Party,” Hallinan said, and challenge House leadership that he described as more moderate. If that leadership is not receptive to the new caucus’s interests, the bloc could offer resistance, Hallinan said, and “there’s probably going to be some controversy.”
“They’ve had their way for pretty much as long as I’ve been in the Legislature,” said Hallinan, who served in the House from 2007-2010 and then returned in 2017.
“It may be time for some change now,” Hallinan said. “If [moderate Republicans] give in to that change, I think things oughta go pretty well. If there’s opposition to our side, well, we’ll see how that goes.”
There is not an equivalently formalized group in the Senate, Hallinan said.
Because of the political party’s supermajority, the Republican Caucus plays a significant role in policy making. The group elects leadership, granting power to lawmakers like the speaker of the House or Senate president, who can then impact a bill’s fate by deciding what committee it’s assigned to, or whether lawmakers debate it at all.
An individual lawmaker’s personal causes can benefit from his or her relationship with leadership, which can translate into a better chance for a solon’s bill. Likewise, leadership’s own policy initiatives usually receive good consideration from the body.
But most lawmakers deny quid-pro-quo voting, saying that any representative’s first duty is to the constituents of his or her district. Trading votes is banned by the Wyoming Constitution.
Legislative leaders also facilitate efficiency during time-crunched sessions, maintain decorum amid passionate debates and can help drive the body toward the consensus and compromise necessary to writing statute.
The House and Senate Republican caucuses meet regularly, but usually separately, during legislative sessions. The groups can be convened seemingly at any time. It’s not uncommon for proceedings on the House or Senate floor to be paused while Republican lawmakers file out of that public chamber and into a room where they close doors to the public.
The Wyoming Legislature exempted itself from the state’s public meetings laws, meaning the Republicans can deny access to the public even when a majority of voting lawmakers meet in one room.
Across the aisle, the much smaller group of Democrats generally also caucuses once a week in meetings that are open to the public. Democrats have little power to swing issues Republicans are united on, but can present a unified front in efforts to kill bills, push amendments or draw out debates.
On bills where Republicans are split, the Democrats’ votes can make a difference. The minority party in the past voted with moderate Republicans at times, and at other times joined libertarian-leaning lawmakers who identify with the Wyoming Freedom Caucus, like Representative-elect Mark Baker (R-Rock Springs), who will return to the Legislature this year after a three-year absence.
Though a formal Freedom Caucus could have an impact on policy negotiations, even the traditional Republican caucus doesn’t generate monolithic voting.
Baker, for example, sided with Democrats on efforts to soften the state’s stance on marijuana. He anticipates disagreeing with other Freedom Caucus members over his support for repealing Wyoming’s death penalty, he told WyoFile.
“I’m not going to be controlled by them any more than I am by any other group that I go to a meeting of,” he said.
Guns, budget cuts and abortion issues
Hallinan named opposing taxes, shrinking state government and preserving the “right to life” as priorities for the new caucus. While Hallinan has voted for some limited new taxes,“the majority of our members are opposed to taxation of any kind,” he said.
The caucus could seek to influence the budget bill, which requires a two-thirds majority to pass, to shrink the government. “That’s a voice we want to be heard again, or more,” Laursen said: “Smaller government means less employees.”
A smaller state government after the next legislative session is a near certainty. Gov. Mark Gordon is proposing steep budget cuts that will eliminate state jobs as Wyoming grapples with plunging mineral revenues. Lawmakers have little appetite for significant taxes to replace the lost revenue.
On the abortion front, the caucus might push an anti-abortion law stringent enough to end up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court as a challenge to Roe v. Wade, the landmark protection of abortion rights, Hallinan said. “I don’t know whether we’re going to challenge that and leave it up to the Supreme Court to rule on our state’s law,” he said, but such a measure is under consideration.
Laursen added gun issues to the list of priorities for the Freedom Caucus. “We want some more pro-gun issues brought forward and pushed,” he said.
The Wyoming Legislature has passed some measures, like a controversial “stand your ground” self-defense law, in recent years. Lawmakers have rejected other measures to roll back the state’s few gun restrictions, however.
The group aligns itself politically with the state central committee of the Wyoming Republican Party, Hallinan said. That committee has led an increasingly sharp turn to the right for the state’s largest political party, and has called for stricter adherence to the party platform from state lawmakers.
Just how much influence for a Freedom Caucus?
The 20 people who attended the September meeting included a mix of current lawmakers and candidates who had recently won Republican primaries, Hallinan said. It’s not clear yet, however, if that will translate to a 20-vote bloc on the House floor.
The newly elected House will have 50 Republicans, eight Democrats, one Libertarian and one Independent.
Laursen pointed to votes cast during the Nov. 14 Republican Caucus meeting, where majority party lawmakers proposed House leadership for the next two years, as an indication of the Freedom Caucus’s strength.
Members of the Freedom Caucus ran for those leadership seats — House Speaker, Majority Floor Leader, Majority Whip and Speaker Pro Tempore — and in most cases lost 32-18.
When the Legislature does meet again, “we’re going to try to move our agenda that’s for sure,” Hallinan said.
Rep. Eric Barlow (R-Gillette), the current House majority leader, has met with representatives of the Wyoming Freedom Caucus, he said. At the November meeting, Republicans elected Barlow as speaker of the House for the 66th Wyoming Legislature beginning in January.
Hallinan and Laursen said they wanted top positions on legislative committees for the members of their group. “We told them they should recognize us and give us some chairmanships,” Laursen said.
“We were pretty much rebuffed,” Hallinan said.
Barlow, however, said the Freedom Caucus members’ inquiries were “more nebulous.” They asked what his style would be if he was elected speaker, he said.
Barlow told the group he intended to be a speaker for “the entire House,” he told WyoFile. “I want the legislative process to sort out [policy] and I want people to have a place at the table so they can be part of that,” he said.
“As far as what their organizational structure is, I asked that myself and it’s not clear to me,” he said. “I asked if they were going to caucus separately and they said ‘yes, they would caucus.’ I asked who is in it and they wouldn’t disclose that.”
Barlow in some ways finds the group unnecessary, he said. He rejects the idea that there is any organized effort by other Republicans to quash Freedom Caucus ideas.
“If you do your homework and you have an idea that 31 members of the House buy into, it stays alive,” Barlow said. “And it doesn’t matter how you label yourself and others but [what counts is] the relationships you build and what you bring to the table. I don’t understand this factionalizing because I don’t consider myself a part of any faction.”