Wyoming voters will decide the fate of two constitutional amendments in November’s general election. One proposes to change the retirement age for certain judges, while the other would allow municipalities to invest in stocks in the same manner the state does.
Changing the Wyoming Constitution involves a lengthy process originating with the Legislature. Both amendments began as legislation and received the required two-thirds supermajority in both the House and the Senate. That move sent them to the ballot for voter consideration.
Cities, counties and towns currently have the ability to make low-risk, fixed income investments, such as certificates of deposit, federal agency bonds and U.S. Treasurys.
If voters approve Amendment A, those municipalities would have the option to invest in equities, like the stock market, just as the state does.
Rep. Pat Sweeney (R-Casper) brought a bill to the Legislature earlier this year to get the amendment on the ballot. He introduced the legislation following the sale of Wyoming Medical Center, for which Natrona County received more than $100 million. The Board of County Commissioners then agreed to invest those funds rather than spend them.
However, because the county’s investment options are limited, the funds are yielding very minimal returns, according to Paul Bertoglio, a Natrona County Commissioner and proponent of the amendment. If properly invested and managed for long-term returns, the funds could provide additional revenue for local governments without any additional taxes, he said. With decreases in coal and oil and gas production, Bertoglio expects the state to be under increasing pressure to cut, including funding for local governments.
“At some point, they’re going to have no choice but to start cutting back what they give us, and that is the value of this — it gives us an independent revenue stream that offsets some of those cuts,” he said.
The Wyoming County Commissioners Association has endorsed the amendment, but with the expectation that the Legislature will create rules requiring long-term investing by municipalities be done by professional portfolio managers instead of local officials.
The Wyoming County Treasurer’s Association, meanwhile, opposes the amendment.
“The volatility of the market means that losses are inevitable, and county treasurers believe any loss of the funds entrusted to us is unacceptable,” the association wrote in an open letter to the public.
While investing in equities would indeed provide higher yields, it would also come with unacceptable risk, according to the treasurers.
“The investment of public funds is rooted in a system of trust, and we are very aware of your expectations. To that end, the safety of your money should be the priority, over yield and other political considerations,” the letter stated.
The amendment mirrors one from 2016 that granted the state the ability to invest in equities.
The second amendment on the ballot faces no apparent, organized opposition.
If approved by voters, Amendment B would change the required retirement age for Wyoming Supreme Court justices and district court judges from 70 to 75.
“Mandatory judicial retirement at age 70 has resulted in the loss of many eminently qualified Justices and Judges in Wyoming,” according to a fact sheet from the Wyoming Judicial Branch. “If the mandatory retirement age were extended, not only could these members of the judiciary continue to meaningfully contribute to the law in Wyoming, longer service would also result in a net savings for the state.”
Wyoming is one of 17 states that has a mandatory judicial retirement age of 70, according to the fact sheet.
As a Judiciary Committee bill in the Legislature, the proposal faced little opposition. In the House, it passed third reading 54-5 with one excused. In the Senate, it passed 20-10.
Sen. Tom James (R-Green River) voted against the amendment because he opposes extending appointments for “any position which has decisions over the people’s Constitutional rights,” he wrote in an email to WyoFile. He added that he believes judges should be elected, not appointed.
Since 2000, some 20 constitutional amendments have appeared on the ballot in Wyoming, according to secretary of state records. Twelve of those were approved, including one in 2012 guaranteeing citizens the right to make their own healthcare decisions, which is now at the center of a lawsuit involving Wyoming’s abortion “trigger law.” The other eight amendments were defeated by voters. Early voting in Wyoming is currently underway. The general election is Nov. 8.