It seems like only yesterday that state lawmakers were at the Capitol in Cheyenne, working their magic the way only they can do.
But they left last Wednesday, and when I look back on it all, what strikes me the most is the enormous amount of inaction — particularly on the most crucial issues facing the state. In many vital areas, Wyoming is in the same dire position it was before the much-anticipated session.
This year, I watched the action from the comfort and clutter of the Drake’s Take Home Office. I love the newly restored Capitol building where I once worked in the media room, but since COVID-19 hit, I haven’t spent much time in my old stomping grounds.
I miss witnessing this traditional exercise in democracy in person. It’s accomplished by a tiny community that cares about the work being done in the name of Wyoming.
This year, the Legislature live-streamed all its meetings and archived everything on YouTube.
I’m grateful for the opportunity this has afforded us to participate without risking our health. I tip my hat to the hardworking and all too often under-appreciated staff of the Legislative Service Office who made it all work remarkably well. I’m sure it wasn’t easy.
For those who didn’t watch the hours and days of debate, I’ve compiled a list of important issues tackled and major failures of the session. If you’ve been following the Legislature yourself through the years, the shortcomings might make you feel like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day.” Sometimes, however, the best outcomes are the bills that failed. I’ve also tacked on a couple of bizarre but memorable moments.
Going into the session, the $300 million shortfall in education funding was at the top of everyone’s priority list. Lawmakers spent countless hours trying to find ways for school districts to survive with less money.
But the Senate went home pouting after rejecting a House bill that included a provisional half-cent sales tax for education that wouldn’t kick in unless the state’s “rainy day fund” falls below $650 million. The bill also diverted some mineral severance tax revenue to the School Foundation Program.
None of that will happen now, as the chambers failed to reach an agreement, effectively killing the bill. Lucky for them and our schools, the federal American Rescue Plan will pony up more than $270 million for Wyoming schools.
Unbelievably, Senate Education Committee Chairman Charles Scott (R-Casper) grumbled that the school system would be better off if the state refused the federal money so it could make more budget cuts. How dare those damn feds throw us a lifeline? We’re perfectly capable of bankrupting our education system on our own, thank you very much.
Scott’s unwillingness to compromise with House negotiators — he hilariously called them “tax and spend liberals” — will ironically contribute to the education deficit’s growth.
The Senate foolishly said no to Medicaid expansion for the eighth consecutive year, despite potential federal ARP funds that would sweeten the deal for Wyoming and 11 other GOP-led states to get on board.
Wyoming could have provided health insurance to 25,000 low-income residents while pocketing $34 million over the next two years. The money could be used to pay for another three years of Medicaid expansion.
Opponents denigrated that sweetheart deal by calling it socialized medicine, ripping the feds as untrustworthy and lying about Montana’s supposedly rotten expansion experience. The Big Sky State adopted it in 2015 and has extended expansion until 2025.
Wyoming desperately needs new revenue sources to help make up for plummeting mineral severance tax revenues, which have historically helped pay for schools, higher education, infrastructure and government services.
But at this critical juncture, the Legislature once again said no to higher taxes on property, fuel and tobacco, and to creating either a personal or corporate income tax. How many years can Wyoming keep ignoring its fiscal needs?
Watching Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne) lose his cool when fellow Republican senators gutted — but still advanced — his Second Amendment Preservation Act left me grinning. His clearly unconstitutional bill would have allowed the state to ignore any federal gun laws it deemed a threat to law-abiding citizens, plus punish Wyoming peace officers who tried to enforce them.
Bouchard ended up voting against his own bill. House Republican leadership agreed and didn’t even allow a vote on its introduction. Is it childish to point out that this is one gun-friendly bill that died not with a bang, but a whimper?
Legislators authorized a $1.2 million fund to file lawsuits against states that won’t open export terminals for Wyoming coal, or won’t force coal-fired power plants to keep operating long past their economic and environmental viability.
State officials preach about states’ rights and free enterprise all the time, but apparently those can be cast aside if it benefits Wyoming’s interests.
Conservative lawmakers and the religious community led a coalition to repeal the death penalty. It had good reasons to be optimistic. The movement has been gaining traction in recent years, even with legislators.
This year’s effort started in the Senate, where it failed again. But it wasn’t for lack of trying by supporters, who raised both fiscal and ethical concerns about capital punishment. Wyoming hasn’t executed an inmate since 1992, yet it must budget $750,000 a year for the state public defenders’ office to be ready to handle such cases.
Pro-choice advocates notched an important victory when the House refused to consider a Senate bill that would have outlawed two drugs used to terminate pregnancies between four and 10 weeks. Physicians said the bill would have effectively banned all abortions in Wyoming.
Lawmakers accomplish a great deal of work during the interim period between sessions. The Joint Agricultural Committee is gung-ho about using the upcoming interim to push for the transfer of federal public lands to Wyoming.
This should be a non-starter. Wyoming lawmakers have schemed for years about ways to take over some or all of the 30 million acres of federal lands in the state.
Of course, Wyoming has no authority to seize property from the U.S. government or its citizens.
Even if it did, Wyoming doesn’t have the extraordinary amount of money needed to manage federal lands. Opponents have long contended that in order to make a profit, the state would give the extractive industry and ranchers free rein over lands at the expense of wildlife and public access for recreational uses. Or worse yet, the state may sell off the prime parcels altogether, turning over Wyoming’s best and most iconic assets — our wide open spaces — to the ultra-rich.
If this latest iteration of the nearly perennial transfer movement gains any momentum, critics need to mobilize quickly and squash it.
The House killed two bills that would have required school districts to teach an hour of suicide prevention training to students per year. Wyoming has the highest rate of suicide in the nation.
I was flabbergasted when freshman Rep. John Bear (R-Gillette) contended that the reason so many adolescents kill themselves is because schools teach evolution. He claimed this gives them no reason to live because they’re told they’re just here by chance.
“The scientific support for that particular theory [of evolution] weakens every day,” Bear said.
That’s right folks, these are the people we’ve elected to determine, among so much more, our school budget. But wait, there’s more!
The strangest moment I witnessed was Rep. Jeremy Haroldson (R-Wheatland) interrupting Wyoming Game and Fish Director Brian Nesvik’s update on the potential for zebra mussels to invade state waterways. Haroldson suddenly launched into a minute-long prayer.
“God, I pray that the larvae stage of this zebra mussel will die and that we will be able to look back on this and say that we were truly protected, and you truly took care of us,” Haroldson prayed. An increasingly uncomfortable-looking Nesvik shared the split screen.
I get it: This is an invasive species that poses serious risks to ecosystems and the economy. It’s a grave matter from which we truly need protection. Which is all the more reason for Haroldson and his colleagues to do their damn jobs, instead of crossing the line that separates church and state in the hopes that a God will do it for them.