UPDATE: An effort by right-wing lawmakers to force the Wyoming Legislature into a normal session amid the pandemic came up far short of the needed votes. In the House, the vote on a motion to adjourn until meetings to be held online later in January was 45-14 in favor, with one lawmaker excused. Senators voted 22-6 on the same motion. Senate President Dan Dockstader (R-Afton) did not take the voice vote which was not required, and Sen. Jim Anderson (R-Casper) was excused. The Senate did not take a roll call on the vote. In the House, the following representatives voted against adjourning in an effort to force a normal session: Reps. John Bear (R-Gillette), Marshall Burt (L-Green River), Bill Fortner (R-Gillette), Chuck Gray (R-Casper), Jeremy Haroldson (R-Wheatland), Scott Heiner (R-Green River), Mark Jennings (R-Sheridan), Dan Laursen (R-Powell), Chip Neiman (R-Hulett), Pepper Ottman (R-Riverton), Clarence Styvar (R-Cheyenne), Robert Wharff (R-Evanston), Rachel Rodriguez-Williams (R-Cody) and John Winter (R-Thermopolis). Rep. Mike Yin (D-Jackson) was excused. —Ed.
The Wyoming Legislature convenes Tuesday for an unusual one-day virtual session before returning in person over the coming three to four months, according to a schedule published by the Legislative Service Office.
Lawmakers who choose to be at the Wyoming State Capitol on Jan. 12 will be joined by their colleagues remotely to hear from Gov. Mark Gordon, anoint their new leadership, adopt temporary rules to govern their debates and, likely, engage in the first intraparty Republican skirmish.
If leadership’s plan holds, the full Legislature will adjourn at the close of the day until Jan. 27, according to a schedule posted online.
But the Legislature’s right-wing faction intends to try and force the Legislature into session, according to several lawmakers, by voting against adjournment. During a typical session, the Legislature votes at the end of each day whether to adjourn as a matter of procedure. Adjournment votes are usually celebratory and perfunctory, often eliciting loud “nos” in obvious jest from tired lawmakers.
On Tuesday, however, right-wing lawmakers plan to oppose the measure in seriousness, Sen. Tom James (R-Green River), one of those lawmakers, said. If a majority of lawmakers in either the House or Senate reject the motion to adjourn until Jan. 27, someone could offer a new motion to adjourn until the next morning, as would be done during a normal session.
Some more moderate Republicans don’t believe the right wing has the numbers to defeat the motion to adjourn, they said. However, the strength of that faction grew during the last election, and has also become more organized with the creation of a “Wyoming Freedom Caucus” in the House.
James predicted a closer vote in the Senate than in the House.
A single chamber’s refusal to adjourn would force both the House and Senate to meet. The Wyoming Constitution requires an adjourned chamber to reconvene within three days if its counterpart convenes, according to the Legislative Service Office.
A public process
If Legislative leadership’s plan carries the day, following adjournment the rest of the session would proceed as follows:
Beginning Jan. 19, legislative committees would spend three days considering bills developed by interim committees since the close of the 2020 session. These committee meetings would not count toward the constitutionally mandated 60-day biennial legislative session limit. The committees would meet virtually.
Then, beginning Jan. 27, the full Legislature would convene online for eight days to work those committee bills through the standard legislative-session process. Bills will begin in one chamber with committees taking public testimony, and face several rounds of debate and votes before passing through to the same process in the other chamber.
That format cheered Equality State Policy Center executive director Chris Merrill, a good government advocate. Procedures lawmakers used during a May 2020 special session limited public input, Merrill said. During the special session, lawmakers worked “mirror bills” simultaneously in both chambers. The process was hard to follow, limited transparency and made it difficult for the public to contact and advise their elected representatives, critics say.
“It’s good to see a commitment to the traditional process in challenging times,” Merrill said Monday. “It looks like they’re trying to get through things in an orderly fashion, as orderly as possible.”
The Legislature is committed to taking public input during a time when the public can’t just walk into committee rooms, incoming-Senate President Dan Dockstader (R-Afton) said on Monday.
“I always worry if we can receive enough public input,” he said. “This [spaced out schedule] is designed to receive it. [Public comment] may slow the process down a little bit because we have to bring people into Zoom meetings.”
Lawmakers won’t take up the state’s supplemental budget bill during the January-February session as planned. The state is in the middle of a two-year budget cycle, but this year’s budget bill is far more consequential than the usual midpoint update. Gordon’s proposed budgetary changes cut hundreds of millions of dollars, coming on the heels of earlier cuts he made through executive action.
Leadership’s plan is to, instead, address that measure in person in March. Beginning March 1, the full Legislature will convene in the Capitol, “if health metrics allow,” according to the schedule.
Gordon will also deliver the traditional legislative kick-off “State of the State” speech at that time, according to Dockstader. Tuesday’s speech is titled a “Message to Legislators,” according to Gordon’s spokesperson.
During the month-long session, each chamber will spend a week on their version of the budget — the Legislature employs the “mirror bill” process on the budget, despite complaints from some members. A negotiating committee assigned by leadership will then hash out the differences and seek the approval of both chambers.
The result of those negotiations, which in the past have sparked extravagant House versus Senate showdowns, will hit Wyoming residents whose livelihoods are tied to the state’s operations — whether they live in the state capital or small towns.
Leadership chose to address the budget during the in-person session because of the complexity of the bill and the debate, Dockstader said. Chamber debate on the budget bill usually features dozens of amendments from individual lawmakers pushing their districts’ or their own priorities.
The budget will just be one piece of the March action, however, if the full Legislature does indeed convene in the State Capitol building. Lawmakers are anxious for a chance to bring their own individual bills, Dockstader said.
The month-long session will proceed as normal, excepting the lack of committee bills, according to Dockstader. Both chambers must agree to legislation and override any governor’s vetoes by April 2. The Legislature will adjourn for the year at midnight on that day, the schedule says.
Earlier vaccines considered
Lawmakers have considered seeking to prioritize themselves and their staff within the COVID-19 vaccine hierarchy, but for now haven’t taken any action, according to two members of legislative leadership. Many members of the Legislature are old enough to receive some vaccine priority.
The Legislature’s staff of attorneys and researchers are mixed ages, but the special staff brought on for sessions — who print and distribute stacks of bills and research, serve as sergeants-of-arms, clerks and in other roles — are mostly retirees, incoming House Speaker Pro Tempore Mike Greear (R-Worland) said.
Another lawmaker noted that even if the legislators and their staff were vaccinated, members of the public and those who work in the building during sessions wouldn’t be. “It still leaves the press and lobbyists and everybody left out in the cold,” incoming Senate Majority Floor Leader Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) said.
Leadership is hopeful vaccine distribution will have reached a broader selection of the populace by March, Dockstader said. A change in presidential administration may help, he said — President-elect Joe Biden has promised changes to the vaccine rollout, which has not been as fast as hoped.
“It would help us do our work a lot better,” Dockstader said. Staff should prioritized even over lawmakers, Dockstader said.
Leadership on the whole has tried to balance safety and the desire of lawmakers to get back to work, they said. “Our priorities are to serve the people of Wyoming effectively and ensure the health and safety of all personnel, legislators and the public,” incoming Speaker of the House Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) said. “We can do both.”
Many more right-leaning lawmakers, several of whom have criticized public health orders, don’t agree.
The Legislature needs to adhere strictly to the schedule in the Wyoming Constitution, James said. “It has nothing to do with the bills [under consideration] … it has to do with doing our job and that is addressing the issues that our state is dealing with right now,” he said.
James wants the schedule to be voted on by the entire body and not determined by leadership alone, he said, and has seen a wave of outreach from constituents on the subject.
“We have been hearing from the people unanimously that the session should happen as scheduled, it should not be altered,” James said, citing a flood of emails, phone calls and other messages he said lawmakers have received on the subject. “We have not heard from a single person that the session should be delayed.”
Leadership is “ignoring the voice of the people,” he said.
One incoming lawmaker labeled that sentiment an oversimplification. Lawmakers have indeed seen emails, said incoming-Rep. Karlee Provenza (D-Laramie), but they appeared to be part of an “organized effort” from activists on the right and not a true sampling of statewide sentiment.
Provenza has also heard from people who do not want the Legislature to convene if it means undermining health orders and spreading COVID-19, she said.
“There’s light at the end of the tunnel here with the vaccine,” she said. “Pausing and coming back when it’s safe to do so does not equate with not doing our jobs. It’s just a different timeline.”
As a newly elected lawmaker, Provenza is also eager to get to work, she said. “I want to be in that beautiful Capitol,” she said. “I want to be where I was intended to be next to my colleagues.” However, she thinks James and others are misrepresenting what the majority of the state wants, she said.
“What the people want is good lawmaking, and it’s going to be very hard to do that by forcing a session tomorrow,” Provenza said. “It’s hard to do good lawmaking if your staff is sick or in the hospital or other lawmakers are sick or in the hospital.”