Speaker of the House Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) during the first week of the session. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

CHEYENNE – After the gavel fell Thursday morning, Wyoming’s Speaker of the House Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) picked up a stack of paper nearly one foot in height, warning members of the chamber of the work they had to do and the brief amount of time they had to accomplish it.

“I want to show you what I came in to this morning,” he said, before slamming the massive stack of bills back on the desk with a resounding thud. “We need to have a conversation about what our expectations are. Those are the bills that … were delivered this morning.

“The chief clerk and I have some work cut out for us,” he added. “Obviously, I will be asking some of you for assistance. What are your priorities?”

Judging by the breadth of the subject matter of those bills, the priorities are manifold. From profound changes to the state’s elections to bills addressing abortion and Second Amendment rights, the House and Senate enter the second in-person week of the legislative session with hundreds of measures to work through and just over one week to vote them out of committee and to the floor.

Even with the breathless speed at which bills have thus far been assigned to and subsequently voted out of committee, the pace is insufficient to meet the demands of the dozens of eager lawmakers’ legislative priorities this session. Many of their ideas will likely end up on the cutting room floor.

“The screaming you hear in the halls,” Rep. Sue Wilson (R-Cheyenne) told the body Friday morning, “is the sound of bills dying.”

While some bills are intended to address immediate policy concerns, others are designed to start a conversation about an issue that could one day evolve into legislation. Some issues with vocal support — like increased controls on public health orders — will likely get a hearing on the floor, Barlow told reporters Friday. Other bills intended to start conversations, like a marijuana legalization bill, will also see strong pushes for the floor, he said.

But at this point, and with budget discussions beginning in earnest this week, nothing is certain. Barlow has advised lawmakers to prioritize and pick their battles.

Second Amendment becomes first priority

So what rose to the top in the session’s first week? Early indications — at least in the Senate — are pointing to a wholesale expansion of Wyoming residents’ right to bear arms.

Sen. Tom James (R-Rock Springs)

Wyoming has long been known for its reputation as one of the nation’s most Second Amendment friendly states. In an exchange with a death penalty policy expert during a hearing on a bill to repeal Wyoming’s death penalty Thursday night, Sen. Tom James (R-Rock Springs) asked if Wyoming’s lower rates of violent crime were due to the fact that “everybody was packing,” and objected to the comparison of Wyoming (a lower-crime state) to states like New Mexico and Alaska, which both have higher crime rates and high rates of gun ownership.

“Come to Wyoming sometime,” James said. “We have far more guns than Alaska does.”

Senate lawmakers smiled on several gun-related proposals in the session’s first week while other bills expanding gun rights could find their way onto the docket in the coming weeks. 

On Friday, the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a pair of Second Amendment bills — a Gun Free Zone repeal bill (Senate File 67), and a bill that would suspend governments’ right to limit the operating hours of firearms licensees and businesses (Senate File 155) — setting the stage for additional firearms legislation to be successfully advanced in week two.

This year’s version of the Gun Free Zone repeal bill — which prevents public venues like city halls or public meetings from banning firearms — is much narrower than earlier iterations. It is applicable only to concealed-carry-permit holders and in specific venues such as public facilities or government meetings. It would not apply to private property or schools (unless employees were previously allowed to carry weapons) but as written, would apply to other sensitive areas like colleges and public hospitals. This despite the protests of community college officials and hospital administrators who said the presence of firearms could add stress to already tense areas, like emergency rooms.

Others called it a matter of public safety.

“I have no problem if someone in here had a firearm,” the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Ogden Driskill (R-Devil’s Tower) said as he was presenting the bill. “In fact, it would make me feel more comfortable.”

With likely little resistance to those gun-rights bills in a highly conservative Senate, several other bills related to firearms — including last session’s controversial Second Amendment Preservation Act — will also be on the docket this year. Whether that bill (which would, among other things, require Wyoming law enforcement officials to serve arrests on federal agents trying to enforce a federal firearm seizure) makes it over the finish line is another question.

Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, listens to a colleague during the first day of the 66th Wyoming Legislature Monday, March 1, 2021, inside the state Capitol. (Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle)

Earlier this week, all 23 county sheriffs across Wyoming signed a letter to lawmakers objecting to the bill, arguing it could force their agents to make potentially illegal decisions in performing their duties.

“The Second Amendment Preservation Act, while well intentioned to prohibit firearms confiscation by federal entities pursuant to unknown future laws, could actually inhibit Wyoming peace officers from enforcing certain Wyoming statutes,” a copy of the letter obtained by WyoFile read. 

All politics is local

House and Senate leadership have encouraged lawmakers to prioritize bills pertaining to their own communities and in the first week, legislators debated numerous local issues.

But even local issues can get divisive at the state level. On Tuesday, the Wyoming Senate debated the merits of Senate File 83 – Gillette college community college district. The bill would allow voters in Campbell County to vote to form their own community college district and break Gillette College’s partnership with the Northern Wyoming College District’s board, which locals feel is dominated by representatives from nearby Sheridan.

Sen. Dave Kinskey (R-Sheridan)

The divide — which stemmed from Sheridan’s trustees voting to defund Gillette’s sports teams — is a tale of rivalry between two close-knit communities. Locals in Gillette, hoping to avoid the loss of their hometown teams, offered to put up the half-million-dollar cost to support the athletics program, only to have the Sheridan-dominated board vote against it.

It’s a prime  example of a local issue the state can solve — two years ago, the Legislature intervened on a zoning issue in Jackson that allowed the construction of a private school to move forward. But those issues can also get divisive.

Sen. Dave Kinskey (R-Sheridan), spoke out loudest against SF 83, arguing the state can no longer afford the number of community college districts it already has, and that creating one more during a time of attrition is nonsensical.

The bill passed resoundingly.

Elsewhere in the Senate, Sen. Mike Gierau (D-Jackson) argued on the floor Thursday in support of an automatic vehicle identification system on Teton Pass that needs legislative authorization to implement. The idea of Senate File 3 – Automated vehicle identification systems is to allow WYDOT to install traffic cameras on the more than 8,000-foot-elevation pass to ticket speeding drivers or overweight vehicles, in an effort to deter reckless driving on one of Wyoming’s most treacherous stretches of highway.

Though the bill passed, it did so narrowly, 13-11, after a number of hardline conservatives raised concerns over possible surveillance by the state, deep-seated doubts over remote forms of traffic enforcement and a persistent mistrust of government agencies. 

Sen. Ed Cooper (R-Ten Sleep) said that many of his constituents “do not trust” WYDOT, calling out the agency’s signs along the highways reading “Arrive Alive – Then Wear A Mask” as a specific grievance. Others, like Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne) said that the technology used by law enforcement agencies can not be trusted, naming one instance where his daughter was allegedly clocked by a police officer’s radar gun at 108 mph, despite having a speed limiter on the car.

“I just don’t see how we put a piece of equipment over common sense,” he said.

Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne, takes a sip of coffee during the first day of the 66th Wyoming Legislature Monday, March 1, 2021, inside the state Capitol. The session, which the majority of legislators are attending in person, will run through Friday, April 2. (Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle)

With two extremes, who gets heard?

Week one of in-person session work also featured emerging priorities from different factions in the House and Senate, with liberals, conservatives and even the Legislature’s lone Libertarian seeking to promote their agendas.

Early in the proceedings, House and Senate Democrats released an ambitious and progressive policy slate addressing topics from a $15 minimum wage to Medicaid expansion to wealth taxes and reforms for law enforcement. In the Republican party, a new, more conservative wave of lawmakers sought to make their presence felt, issuing numerous legislation on spending reform, voting reforms and social issues. 

The Legislature’s lone Libertarian, Rep. Marshall Burt (L-Green River), has drafted several pieces of legislation that have attracted a tri-partisan coalition of sponsors, including one bill to randomize the order in which candidates appear on the ballot in an effort to reduce voters’ psychological bias toward the name at the top of the list.

House Republicans have also sought to impose some of the most aggressive restrictions on abortion introduced in the Wyoming Legislature in years, including Rep. Chip Neiman’s (R-Hulett) House Bill 235 – Human life protection act. That bill would only allow abortions if the pregnancy clearly endangers a woman’s life, and would remove the term “age of viability” from Wyoming law, essentially making any abortion illegal. It has 16 cosponsors.

One of the most novel bills currently being heard by conservatives was Senate Joint Resolution 3 – Convention of States, a piece of draft legislation giving Wyoming approval to join into a prospective Convention of States, which would essentially give states a mechanism to override the U.S. Congress and potentially even alter the U.S. Constitution. While a longshot at the federal level, enthusiasm for the Convention of States has been growing in conservative circles, with proponents seeing it as a path to bypass what many view as a corrupt Congress.

Rep. Marshall Burt (L-Green River) starts work during the in-person portion of the 2021 legislative session in Cheyenne. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

“There’s a lot of pressure building in our political system right now,” Sen. Jeff Wasserburger (R-Gillette), one of the bill’s sponsors, said on Wednesday. “This is a great way to relieve some pressure.”

Some opponents raised fears over a runaway convention. Others questioned the need for a Convention of States, saying the current electoral process also serves as a sufficient check on government. But some conservatives — like former Wyoming Rep. and ex-Wyoming GOP National Committee member Marti Halverson — opposed the bill on different grounds.

“There is nothing wrong with our constitution,” she said.

The bill advanced out of a Senate committee on Friday.

The bill could find support in the House as well. On Friday, Barlow said he has attended five training sessions on the process of a Convention of States and, while it’s not a priority item, it has a lot of support in the House and Senate and could potentially be taken up by the full body this year.

“A lot of people seem to care about it,” he said.

Two wins for journalism

House Bill 103 – Journalists privileged communications, a “shield law,” which would protect journalists from revealing their anonymous sources under duress of litigation, advanced by a resounding margin in the House of Representatives late last week, leaving the journalism community with a sense of relief and optimism heading into week two of session.

“Still a long way to go, but it’s a good start,” Casper Star-Tribune Editor Josh Wolfson tweeted after it passed its first vote Thursday.

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That bill passed the House on Monday on the third reading consent list, with just 23 lawmakers in opposition. 

The newspaper industry also experienced a victory on Friday with the death of Senate File 17 – Governmental publication requirements, which would have modified numerous public notice requirements by a 20-9 margin on third reading.Those legal notices help balance the budgets of many newspapers around the state. Though the burden of those legal notices is hard to deny — public notices cost governments tens of thousands of dollars a year, and go to support for-profit entities — opponents of the bill noted the detrimental impact their disappearance could have on those newspapers and particularly, on their constituents, who tended to be older and live in more rural areas.

“The paper is just God for them,” said Sen. Ogden Driskill, (R-Devil’s Tower). “It’s what they live by.”

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    1. As a gun owner since I was a kid, I have never experienced anyone threatening my “gun rights”, though I have felt threatened by the actions and philosophies of the “gun-nutty” crowd.

      1. Mr. Reading: Thank you for your comment. The thing that has always confused and disappointed me about the gun-nutty crowd is that they claim to need all the high-powered weaponry to defend us against tyranny.

        Yet when a tyrant does arise like in the White House during the last four years, the gun-nutty crowd comes out and supports the tyrant. Go figure.