The 2023 legislative session has been difficult to categorize. Some of the legislation passed appears far-sighted and will almost certainly benefit our state for a long time. Yet, some of the conduct we have seen in the session does not reflect well on those we have elected. As the roughly two months of activity in Cheyenne draw to a close, it is time to assess where our Legislature triumphed and where it fell short.
The most encouraging piece of legislation from the 2023 session was the supplemental budget. The Legislature had approximately $2 billion of surplus funds to work with — significantly more resources than originally intended — and our lawmakers did what we so often wish they would: they exercised restraint. Rather than spend all the additional funds, the Legislature put some toward needed expenditures and put the rest aside. Of the slightly less than $2 billion, the Legislature only spent about $400 million, and tended to do so wisely. The remaining $1.4 billion was split between permanent funds — which are permanently set aside to generate future income for the state — and reserve accounts that can be tapped for future spending if necessary.
This approach was so encouraging because it was a step toward addressing some of our state’s systematic budget issues. With mineral revenues generally declining, our state is faced with questions about how we will fund our government in the future. Many of the options are undesirable, such as increasing sales or property taxes or implementing some sort of income tax. If, however, the Legislature can save enough in the permanent funds, we may be able to fill the gap, instead, with state investment income. This may be optimistic, but if nothing else, increased funding from state permanent funds could at least reduce future tax increases. Our lawmakers deserve credit for voting to set money aside in a way that is likely to benefit Wyoming in the long term.
Another positive from this general session is that most of the really bad bills either died or were amended into palatability. With nearly 500 bills filed this year, there were too many stinkers to list individually. Instead, we should remember that some of the Legislature’s most important work is in preventing bad policy from being enacted. Just like physicians, legislators should endeavor to “first, do no harm.” This year, it appears that the majority tended to abide by this maxim.
Not everything the House and Senate did is deserving of praise, however. The 2023 session saw a continuation of the division and dogma that have plagued our politics in recent years. Even though the Legislature’s decorum improved over last year’s, that does not mean that the body was entirely focused on problem solving. Rather, this year saw open development of competing camps and bloc voting. Rather than embrace debate and open-minded consideration, too many lawmakers stuck to their entrenched camps and refused to listen to the points of those they disagree with. Legislators who are unwilling to consider input and opposing viewpoints, are unlikely to be responsive to the public or the issues facing the state. This is a foreboding development and it worries me for the future.
Ironically, despite the reluctance to listen to opposing views, a lack of appreciation for the process of good lawmaking often resulted in too much debate rather than too little. Nearly a third of the body had not held legislative office before taking their oaths in January. As a result, the legislative process was unfamiliar to many and the nuance of when to talk and when to sit, satisfied that the point had been made, was not readily apparent. The House in particular struggled with too many representatives feeling compelled to comment on every bill. The result was an inefficient process that slowed important work. Had there been a better understanding of legislative processes and norms, there likely would have been more time to consider the truly meaningful bills.
As with every legislative session, this one was a bit of a mixed bag. Some very thoughtful and meaningful legislation passed. A few duds did as well. I come out of it with hope, and some trepidation, about the future. If those who focus on Wyoming’s long-term well-being maintain their positions, I have faith that things will continue to turn out well for Wyoming. Whether or not that happens is up to us.