The Senate discusses a bill before voting during the first day of the 66th Wyoming Legislature March 1, 2021, inside the state Capitol. (Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle/Wyoming News Exchange)

CHEYENNE – The Wyoming Legislature wrapped up its business Friday afternoon with a record-breaking storm on the horizon and another brewing under the Capitol roof: a battle between a House and Senate that remain tens of millions of dollars apart on the supplemental budget.

Entering Friday morning, the House of Representatives had voted to return roughly $40 million to the budget that Gov. Mark Gordon proposed cutting. The Senate, meantime, had gone the other direction, voting for $6 million in additional cuts beyond the governor’s position. 

On Friday afternoon the disparity swelled further as the House sought to curb major spending reductions to a number of public health programs through a series of one-time appropriations. Senate leadership said such appropriations will face an uphill battle on their side of the building.

Meanwhile, the House and Senate have embraced dramatically divergent approaches to funding education. The chambers are poised for some additional skirmishes as the education-funding debate ramps up in the session’s three remaining weeks.

On the House side, lawmakers have proposed HB 173 – School finance funding-2 to address the issue. The broad-based bill  employs both cuts and a sales tax increase to help bolster the state’s savings accounts. 

The Senate, however, has shown preference to the deep across-the-board cuts outlined in SF 143 – School finance-funding model amendments. The measure, which could cost hundreds of jobs across the state, would cut the top-line funding the state provides to each school district and leave the difficult decisions about student activities, faculty, transportation and administrative costs to the districts themselves.

“We need to make something explicit. If there’s a reduction of teachers that is not a decision of the Legislature,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) said on Friday. “Even though the bill that came out of the recalibration process proposed across-the-board cuts, we give a block grant. How those local school boards choose to spend that money rests solely with them.”

That approach runs counter to the House’s philosophy.

“I think it comes down to whether you think we can cut ourselves out of this situation,” House Majority Floor Leader Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) told reporters Friday morning. “You can cut $150 million now and wring your hands and say you can’t do anything on revenue and a year later, cut another $100 million and wring your hands again. Or you can recognize we need a broad-based approach.

House Majority Floor Leader Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) gives a speech during the first day of the 66th Wyoming Legislature Monday, March 1, 2021, inside the state Capitol. (Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle/Wyoming News Exchange)

“Are we not going to tax at all to solve this problem?” Sommers asked. “I think that’s the question to me. I think we can do a little of all of those things and solve the problem. But it’s not OK to cut $100 million and $150 million over the next two years. Because I do believe a [$250 million] cut is too far.”

Neither bill is likely to survive the opposite chamber as currently written. 

On Friday, the Senate killed its backup plan. In an 18-11 vote, the body defeated a controversial budget amendment from Sen. Charlie Scott (R-Casper) that, if adopted by the full Legislature, would have cut about $106 million from the state’s K-12 education budget — well beyond the House’s position of roughly $50 million in cuts to health insurance for so-called “ghost teachers,” which refers to funded, but unfilled positions.

While some in the Senate equated Scott’s amendment to playing “brinkmanship” with the state’s K-12 education system, those in favor saw it as a line in the sand for forthcoming negotiations with a House of Representatives unwilling to make significant cuts. 

“If we don’t adopt this, we’re looking at surrender,” Sen. Bo Biteman (R-Ranchester) said on the floor Friday afternoon. “We’ve worked tirelessly to solve the K-12 problem and we’re getting hung out to dry. This isn’t brinkmanship on our part, this is us doing what’s right.”

The debates throughout the week underscored just how dire the state’s funding situation is, with the distinction between “wants” and “needs” becoming more and more nebulous. On Wednesday, for example, the House was embroiled in a lengthy debate over significantly reducing the funding of Wyoming PBS — which broadcasts the Legislature’s meetings — to fund a noxious weed program in northeastern Wyoming.

But even that proved too heavy a lift: Lawmakers approved funding for the noxious weed program but declined to cut the commensurate funding of Wyoming PBS.

“I didn’t come to Cheyenne to do the people’s work so people couldn’t see what I was doing,” freshman Rep. Karlee Provenza (D-Laramie) said in opposition to the proposal.

Some highlights from the week:

$10 million for carbon capture

A rare point of agreement between the House and Senate came on the budget bill, as both voted for an amendment to invest $10 million to support the development of carbon capture technology.

“We don’t really know if it’ll work out or not,” Rep. Tim Hallinan (R-Gillette) said in-favor of the amendment. “But I think it’s worth a chance.”

Marijuana legalization advances

Following four hours of testimony, including input from former Rhode Island governor and current Teton County resident Lincoln Chafee, the House Judiciary Committee voted 6-3 Friday to advance a bill to regulate recreational and medical marijuana in Wyoming. 

While unlikely to pass this session, House Speaker Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) has already endorsed discussing House Bill 209 – Regulation of marijuana on the floor as Wyoming faces down the prospect of federal decriminalization and increasing momentum for legalization around the country. 

Some testified against it, expressing concern over the environmental and public safety implications of legalization. Others advocated for a regulated and appropriately taxed marijuana market, saying the right mix could actually help eliminate black-market consumption and keep the proportion of psychoactive THC contained in marijuana products predictable and safe. 

House Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. Jared Olsen (R-Cheyenne) speaks during a meeting Thursday, March 11, 2021, inside the state Capitol. Olsen is the lead sponsor of House Bill 209 – Regulation of marijuana. (Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle/Wyoming News Exchange)

Though most lawmakers who testified said they see it as a “break-even” proposition for the state, advocates for the bill said Friday the bill would offer Wyoming control of its future and help decriminalize behaviors many Wyoming residents already engaged in. 

One person who testified in favor of the bill was Zach Padilla, chair of Teton County Libertarian Party, who said he was charged with a felony for using marijuana in his own home.

“I’m not one of a kind,” he said. “There are so many people who use marijuana as a form of relaxing, like a beer at the end of a shift. It shouldn’t be treated any differently.”

Bias-motivated crime held back

Since the murder of gay, University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard in 1998, Wyoming has been under national scrutiny for its status as just one of three states nationwide without a hate crime law.

Proponents for such a law might have reason for optimism, however. This week, members of the House Judiciary Committee heard extensive testimony on House Bill 218 – Bias motivated crime. While the committee ultimately decided not to take up the bill this year, the committee’s chairman, Rep. Jared Olsen (R-Cheyenne) noted the issue is important to a large proportion of residents, and could potentially be taken up as an interim topic later this year.

Unlike previous forms of hate-crime legislation considered by the Legislature, House Bill 218 would not create a new category of charges, and would only take consideration of any bias in the crime during sentencing, and only after the perpetrator had been found guilty of existing violent or destructive crimes.

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While some groups — like ACLU Wyoming — expressed apprehension with the scope of the bill, others argued the legislation was not necessary, and would only sow greater division between groups. (According to the FBI, white people commit the vast majority of hate crimes.)

“[Hate-crime laws] serve to further drive a wedge between social groups by allowing the media to focus on hate crimes between perceived social groups, while prosecutors are trying to determine what actually happened,” Nathan Winter, a former state legislator and the executive director of the Family Policy Alliance, said.  

The majority of those to testify were in favor of the bill, however. Janet de Vries, an “out” lesbian, told lawmakers that she has been called derogatory names because of her appearance and was harassed by coworkers for her support of LGBTQ causes. 

Shannon Lastowski-Monahan — who was harassed with her partner by neighbors at their home in Wapiti last fall in an incident that gained national attention — also testified in favor of the bill, lamenting the fact that the perpetrators never faced consequences for their actions.

The height of the day’s testimony, however, came from University of Wyoming student Jaida Cooper, a Black, Indigenous woman who was victimized in a recent “Zoom bombing” incident at the university where members of a Black student organization were pelted with racial slurs and graphic images. She called out the Legislature for years of inaction on the subject, saying they should have done something the moment a gay man was “lynched” for who he was, and urging them to represent all of their constituents, not just the white, cisgender ones.  

“Why do people of color have to depend on white people to be protected?” she said. “Why do we have to face our oppressor? Why do we have to beg to be protected? At this point, we might as well start calling all of y’all ‘massa.’ I have been told that some politicians don’t feel this is necessary. But I’m standing in front of you telling you that we need this bill. I shouldn’t have to come here as an angry Black woman to ask for something that ‘might’ be considered.”  

Sports betting dies, then advances

House Bill 133 – Online sports wagering, garnered little attention early last week when it died in the House of Representatives on a narrow 32-28 floor vote.

An idea that has been vetted since last session’s regulated gaming discussions, the bill has been seen as long coming. The issue is that the state is not earning any money from the illicit, online sports betting already occurring in-state,  sponsor Rep. Tom Walters (R-Casper) said. Prohibition makes little sense when the activity is already widespread, he said.

The Northern Arapaho Tribe has already started the process of implementing sports wagering at its gaming facilities, which it began after the Wyoming Legislature failed to act last session. 

This year’s HB 133 was hustled to the floor without collaboration from the tribes, opponents argued. Rep. Andi Clifford (D-Fort Washakie) rallied the Democratic caucus to vote as a block against the bill, effectively killing it.

House House Labor, Health, and Social Services Committee member Rep. Andi Clifford, D-Riverton, listens to public comment during a meeting Wednesday, March 3, 2021, inside the state Capitol. (Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle/ Wyoming News Exchange)

But not for long. The bill was brought back for reconsideration the following day. At that point, Clifford told WyoFile she would urge her fellow democrats to “vote their conscience” on the measure and would attempt to amend the bill once it reached the Senate.

Five Democrats changed their votes, and the bill passed by a tally of 32-28. Rep. Jim Blackburn (R-Cheyenne) also changed his vote from an ‘aye’ to ‘no’ to round out the vote.

Experts ignored?

Subject matter experts are often called upon to testify on legislation at the committee level to ensure that bills are informed by factual, accurate information. This past week, however, featured numerous instances of legislators ignoring what those experts had to say. 

On Monday, the House Committee on Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions advanced House Bill 127 – Public health amendments despite steadfast opposition from the medical community. 

On Thursday, the Senate Committee on Labor, Health and Human Services advanced legislation to ban chemical abortions despite testimony from healthcare officials who practice with those drugs that refuted misinformation used in advocating for the bill.

The tepid relationship between lawmakers and medical experts was most explicit on Wednesday, when the Senate passed Senate File 80 – Public health orders-local and legislative oversight by an overwhelming margin, creating an avenue for elected officials to have greater oversight in public health decisions made by appointed experts.

Sen. Troy McKeown, R-Gillette, speaks during the 66th Wyoming Legislature’s general session Thursday, March 11, 2021, in the Senate chamber inside the state Capitol. (Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle/Wyoming News Exchange)

“I’m not saying we’re smarter than health officers, but we’re responsible for their decisions,” the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Troy McKeown (R-Gillette) said on the floor. “We can’t delegate the outcome of that.”

In interviews Friday morning, Senate leadership said they always attempt to bring expert opinion to the table when considering legislation but that, ultimately, the policy decisions they make as lawmakers should respect the will of the people, whether that will is informed by fact or not.

“Just look at seat belts,” Sen. Ogden Driskill (R-Devil’s Tower) said. “We know if you wear a seat belt all the time you’re gonna have fewer highway deaths. So how do you explain why we don’t have a mandatory seatbelt law? And the answer is that the majority of our population has made a choice that they want it to be a choice whether they wear it or not.”

Not everyone is happy with that arrangement, however.

“A lot of our members came in with ideas or promises to their constituents and certainly, what we’re seeing is a manifestation of that,” House Speaker Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) said in an interview. “I think that’s just where we are as a country. People are listening to whatever course they want to listen to. Unfortunately, I think that we’re not actually looking at the full range of information that comes before us. But I don’t know that it’s surprising based on where we are in this nation with frustrations over the health orders or the spectrum of ideology we have out there, no matter what it is. We’re starting to see [in the Legislature] a lot of what we’ve seen at the national level, and I think that’s unfortunate.”

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  1. A brief correction. The Legislative Services Office live streams Legislative events from the Capitol complex. WyomingPBS live streams events with the Executive Office. Both the LSO and WyomingPBS livestream Committee Hearings outside the Capitol

  2. Maybe the Legislature should take the hint from that record snowfall? Use so sense for a change?

  3. That massive snowstorm closing down the Legislature in Wyoming is a blessing for everyone.