Rep. John Patton (R-Sheridan) died Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015 from a lung condition following a heart attack he suffered during the 2015 session. He was 84.
Patton served in the Wyoming Legislature on and off from 1961-1971. He returned to the Legislature in 2009, serving in five more sessions until his illness forced him to drop out of the 2015 session.
WyoFile interviewed Patton in 2013 to learn about his service in the 1960s during a crucial period of reforms that helped create the Legislature as it exists today. Legacies of that tenure include the creation of the Legislative Service Office, the creation of the budget session, the severance tax on minerals, and the School Foundation Program to finance K-12 education.
Patton came to Sheridan in 1954 to operate an insurance and real estate office. He also served on the city council. He first took a seat in the House of Representatives in 1961. He returned to the House in 1965, serving as a Republican when the GOP was the minority party, something that no other lawmaker today has experienced. He won election to the state Senate and served in the 1967, 1969, and 1971 sessions.
At that time, lawmakers met in session every other year, and they didn’t meet during the interim. The Legislature had 17 committees, none of which were shared between the House and Senate.
In 1969 the state reorganized and consolidated school districts under Patton’s chairmanship of the Education Committee, requiring that every district offer K-12 classes. Lawmakers also passed the first 1 percent severance tax on minerals.
“Industry wasn’t paying its fair share, and then the railroads were really big interested people, and they sure as hell weren’t advancing tax increases,” Patton told WyoFile in a 2013 interview . Today’s funding for K-12 schools and the University of Wyoming wouldn’t be possible without severance taxes on minerals, he said.
In 1971 Sen. Patton served as chairman of a committee that reorganized state government. He introduced the bill to create the Legislative Service Agency, later renamed the Legislative Service Office.
“We didn’t have an LSO,” Patton said. “We had a House attorney, and that was it, other than secretarial help for the chief clerk.” Lawyers across the state drafted bills without regard to consistency or the effect on existing statute, he said.
Many of Patton’s reforms paralleled recommendations in the 1971 book The Sometime Governments: A critical study of the 50 American legislatures published by the Citizens Conference on State Legislatures. The book ranked Wyoming 49th out of 50 states in efficiency of government.
“My response was, ‘Thank God for Alabama or we’d have been 50th,’” Patton said. “Three years later we were rated by the same people as making the most meaningful progress and improvement of any state legislature in the 50 states.”
• 1961 — Legislature passed a bill banning discrimination based on race, color, religion or national origin.
• 1969-1971 — Wyoming became the first state west of the Mississippi to have a computerized system for retrieving statutes. The original model was an IBM 360 mainframe computer installed by Data Retrieval Corporation.
• 1971 — Lawmakers approved borrowing authority for $4.4 million to construct the Hathaway state office building.
• 1971 — Lawmakers passed a bill to raise the minimum wage to $1.60 per hour by 1974.
One of Patton’s last acts during the 1971 special session was to introduce a successful resolution to amend the Wyoming Constitution to allow residents 18 years old the right to vote.
Patton was defeated in the 1972 primary election. He went on to serve as director of the Citizens Conference on State Legislatures. In that position he became an expert in the latest reforms on legislative process and procedure. The organization later played a role in creating the National Conference of State Legislators.
Upon returning to the Wyoming Legislature in 2009 at age 78, Patton served on the Judiciary and Corporations Committee before gaining a seat on the Education Committee in 2013, where he could work on his passion for public education.
“This institution is important to me because it controls the throttles of public education,” Patton said. “We are the only large nation in the world that when a kid gets born they are guaranteed a public education at no expense.”
Patton took over as chairman of the House Education Committee for the 2015 session, sponsoring a successful bill to repeal the ban on Next Generation Science Standards.
During the 2013 interview with WyoFile Patton said he wanted lawmakers to recognize the expertise in local school districts, rather than dictate how to improve schools. Most of all, he said he wanted Wyoming schools to provide a quality educational opportunity for kids and families willing to take advantage of it.
“I wanted to leave it a little better than I found it,” Patton said.
For more on Patton’s life and service, read this remembrance from The Sheridan Press.