ESPC: Session ends on high note; Good session yields passage of job safety and sunshine laws

On Thursday, Mar. 8, Dan Neal of the Equality State Policy Center discussed the end of the session, including the public meetings bill and a workplace safety bill:

As the Legislature’s 2012 budget session drew to a close Thursday, two bills improving the public’s access to both government records and meetings of public boards and agencies were finally passed when the House voted to accept conference committee reports on them.

Coupled with the Wednesday passage of job safety legislation, it looks like a good session for the Equality State Policy Center and its allies.

Public wins greater accountability

Senate File 25-Public records makes clear that the term “public records” includes “any written communication or other information, whether in paper, electronic, or other physical form.” When a document is “readily available,” it must be provided to the person asking to review it. If a record is not readily available and a written request for it is submitted, the new law requires the document custodian to acknowledge receipt of the request within seven days.

In what became known as the “grand compromise” between groups representing state and local government agencies and those seeking greater access to records, including nonprofit organizations and the Wyoming Press Association, the ESPC dropped its goal of imposing a deadline for actually providing the records.

The final version of the bill dropped an amendment made in the House at the request of Rep. Jeb Steward, HD47, R-Encampment, which would have specifically required public access to documents relating to government funding of improvements to private agricultural operations, such as ditches or pipelines, and to easements purchased with public funds.

Sen. Larry Hicks, who authored the section of the bill specifically exemption information agricultural operations provide to the government into to participate in state and local programs, signed off on Steward’s amendment before Steward offered it on Second Reading in the House. But Hicks later reneged on the deal. In the conference committee of House and Senate members working to reconcile differences in the versions passed by each House, Hicks, SD11, R-Baggs, said the Steward amendment was not tolerable and had to be excised for the Senate to approve final passage.

Steward ultimately acquiesced to the demand and the amendment was dropped in order to reach agreement with Senate conference committee members.

Senate File 27-Public meetings likewise had to get through a conference committee, though a far less dramatic one. An amendment placed on the bill by the House was dropped.

The new law requires a quorum to take any action and states that no public meeting can happen electronically unless the public is allowed to sit in and either hear or read any discussion as it happens.

It also requires a public entity to to announce publicly the reason for conducting an executive session before going into such a session. This means that important decisions that are not specifically exempted from public deliberation, (personnel matters, real estate purchases, and matters relating to pending or active litigation) are made in font of a public audience. A requirement to record executive sessions was dropped as part of the grand compromise.

The bill also requires a board to give at least eight hours public notice of a “special meeting.” These are meetings conducted outside a board’s regular schedule. Boards still have to quickly call meetings in an emergency. The law also gives public entities more time to ratify any actions they take at emergency meetings.

( Neither of the enrolled versions of these bills was available online at 4 p.m. but they should be available by Friday morning here. Scroll down to the Senate File number and click on Enrolled Act.)

Job safety bill passes

In eight of the last nine years, Wyoming has had the worst or second-worst job fatality rate in the nation. Wyoming avereaged a fatality every 10 days over the past 10 years.

While workplace injuries overall have declined in recent years, a December report from the state epidemiologist revealed that the number of injuries requiring amputations and requiring hospitalization have increased.

House Bill 80 – Workplace safety – employer assistance authorizes the expansion of the Division of Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) by adding five “courtesy consultants” and enables the Department of Workforce Services to transfer two positions to add two more consultants. Those consultants will work with businesses to develop safety programs. Companies can invite them to a job site to point out violations of safety law without fear of being fined for the violations. The companies must agree to correct the hazards.

Increasing the number of courtesy consultants to seven will enable OSHA to respond to requests for courtesy inspections within 30 days, according to the bill’s primary sponsor, House Majority Leader Tom Lubnau of Gillette.

The new legislation also authorizes contracts with companies to subsidize purchases of safety equipment. Sen. Charles Scott, SD30, R-Casper, asked for the amendment to address his concerns over the constitutionality of issuing “grants” to companies to do the same thing. One of the Senate’s biggest advocates for the bill, Sen. John Hastert, SD13, D-Green River, defended its constitutionality on the floor, noting that the Wyoming Constitution authorizes spending from the Industrial Accident Fund to support safety programs.

Hastert and the rest of the Senate supported Scott’s amendment changing the word “grants” to “contracts” throughout the bill. The House agreed to that amendment and another Senate change increasing the amount of money available to $500,000.

Guy V. Padgett has been with WyoFile since October of 2011. He serves as WyoFile’s operations director

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