Walrus in the room

This Wyoming Capitol Outlook blog post by Geoff O’Gara originally published Tuesday February 14, 2012. Capitol Outlook is a program of Wyoming PBS.

Wyoming Senate President Jim Anderson and House Minority Leader Patrick Goggles provided some on-air Capitol Outlook commentary last night on Gov. Matt Mead’s State of the State address, and when we were done, Anderson lingered to talk a little bit about the compressed schedule of our “citizens legislature,” in which enormous amounts of work are done in a very short time. This year’s budget session will run 20 working days – with innumerable decisions to make in carving out a $3.4 billion budget.

Geoff O'Gara

“I’m not sure how well it works,” he admitted. “It’s not just the budget we’re doing – we’ve got 150 bills to deal with.”

It may have worked better when budgets were smaller and the reach of the state was less. Now, you have to be an adrenaline junkie – and that goes for journalists, too. Perhaps it’s just as well – for those of us from out of town, Cheyenne is not exactly a hot bed of culture, sports, and entertainment.

Start around 6 a.m. That’s when I go out for coffee, and who do I find? Legislators and lobbyists, of course, waiting in line at Starbucks, so right away we’re talking about lawmaking agendas. Then it’s up to the Capitol’s third floor for the Joint Tribal Relations Committee’s early morning meeting, talking about a bill that would allow peace officers on the Wind River Indian Reservation to enforce traffic violations and catch drunk drivers on state highways that run through the reservation. In an hour, legislators who live many miles away from Wind River try to grasp the complex historical and cultural differences that make it hard from some non-Indians to trust reservation peace officers to issue state traffic violations or DUI’s in the state-approved way.

Take a breath, run down the hall, it’s time for Gov. Matt Mead’s State of the State address, an affirmative and cautious assessment of where we are and where we’re going (not much eloquence, I’m afraid, but he did trot out the wonderful word: “petaflop”). Greetings to judges and dignitaries and a press conference with legislative leaders who mostly talk about tightening belts to adjust to revenue drops. (The Democrats – wouldn’t you know – ask whether it might make sense to spend some of the ‘rainy day’ money we’ve been squirreling away for a decade, figuring new roads and such might be a better investment than a bank account.)

Halfway through the day, and a bunch of bills are waiting in the wings to be introduced – a process that will have to move super-fast if a bill is to get the 2/3 vote required for introduction in a year when legislators have to okay a mammoth $3.4 billion budget. But first: a complicated presentation by some energy consultants that use a bunch of graphs to tell the legislators that the abundance of new natural gas means prices are going to stay low – and therefore state budgets, so dependent on severance taxes and royalties, may have to scale back after years of expansion. (One observor noted to me that these same consultants were telling legislators a few years ago – different set of graphs – that natural gas supplies were declining rapidly.)

Uh…lunch? Not going to happen.

So in go the legislators for the first wheel barrow full of bills…but, first, let’s say hello to our constituents in the gallery, in fact, let’s get some of these folks – how about the Goshen County Community Theater, hey? – to sing us a few songs. Quite a few actually – from “Guys and Dolls” and such – while not a few of us are wondering: Don’t we have a considerable amount of work to do? And somewhere in there – can’t remember if it was before, during or after the Broadway medley – the House leadership got up and laid out an agenda of sorts, with perhaps the most interesting lines coming from Majority Leader Tom Lubnau.

“Education,” said Lubnau, “is the walrus in the living room.” Perhaps a Republican isn’t allowed to say “elephant.”

And, talking about Wyoming’s top-notch retirement system: “In real terms that makes us the tallest leprechaun.”

Which, at that point, was as real as anything in a chamber with an impossible workload bearing down on it like, let’s see, a manatee in the bedroom. Or a petaflop in the attic. I half expected the Goshen County Community Theater to do an encore of “Tomorrow” from the musical Annie.

— Geoff O’Gara is a Wyoming Public Television producer and host of the influential Capitol Outlook and Wyoming Chronicle programs.  He is the author of What You See in Clear Water: Indians, Whites, and a Battle Over Water in the American West (2002) and A Long Road Home, Journeys Through America’s Present in Search of America’s Past (1989) and several other books. An avid cyclist, basketballer and fly fisherman, he lives in Lander.

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