What does it say about a special legislative session when the most memorable moment of the first week was a former House speaker dropping a couple F-bombs to disparage another lawmaker?

Perhaps it’s a sign that everyone involved in this lame effort to show the federal government it can’t push Wyoming around should just go home before the state wastes any more money. 

This special session to fight a federal COVID-19 “vaccine mandate” has already cost taxpayers at least $100,000. Lawmakers who demanded a public forum in which to grandstand their frustrations are doubling down, and will spend at least as much this week.

What do they have to show for it so far? A pair of flawed COVID-related bills approved by the House, and an unrelated Senate measure that fixes an error in a gambling commission law that passed earlier this year.

House Bill 1001-COVID-19 vaccine employer mandates passed 38-20, but the measure is so weak that even some of its supporters had to hold their noses and vote for it.

“I think everybody, without a doubt, knows this bill isn’t a perfect bill. It isn’t really even a good bill,” said Rep. Bill Fortner (R-Gillette). “But it’s like building a house. You’ve got to have the foundation before you build the house.”

House Bill 1001, though, is a house of cards. It’s built on the premise that states can supersede federal laws, when in fact the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause says just the opposite. That’s a civics 101 lesson that the Wyoming Legislature appears impervious to learning, despite numerous painfully expensive teachable moments.

OSHA hasn’t written the rules yet for President Joe Biden’s so-called “mandate.” We know, however, that the forthcoming regulations will include a provision enabling anyone who doesn’t want to take the vaccine to instead remain employed with weekly testing. Hysterical extreme-right-wing reactions aside, that simply doesn’t qualify as a mandate. And even if it did, the regulations are yet to be released or enacted. The state can’t block something that doesn’t even exist.

That hasn’t stopped the Legislature from trying. HB 1001 would prohibit certain businesses — those with 100 or more employees, health facilities that receive Medicare or Medicaid funds, and companies with federal contracts — from requiring workers to be vaccinated.

But the state law would be in effect only until corresponding federal regulations are approved. Then the federal law would apply, unless a court issues a stay when the state appeals it. Wyoming businesses would have to follow the state law until the issue is fully adjudicated.

I don’t think the U.S. Department of Justice and federal courts are going to see it that way. Does it seem reasonable that Wyoming or any state can tell a private company that it can’t protect its workers from exposure to unvaccinated employees who pose the highest risk of spreading a disease that has claimed more than 700,000 American lives?

House Bill 1002-Federal COVID vaccine mandates-prohibition and remedies-2 would give the governor $250,000 to file lawsuits against the feds, which Gov. Mark Gordon already plans to do at his earliest opportunity. So, why the rush to pass a law that could easily have been considered at February’s budget session?

I was amazed that several lawmakers compared their fight against vaccine mandates to the civil rights struggles against racial injustice.

“What are we having right now with COVID? Second-class citizens,” said Sen. Bo Biteman (R-Ranchester). “I’m hearing members who are perfectly OK with that, [they] think it’s funny to have a vaxxed bar versus an unvaxxed bar. It’s not funny to have a Black-only bar versus a white-only bar. We’re beyond that in this country, thank God.”

Rep. Chip Neiman (R-Hulett) compared those who stand up to the feds over vaccine requirements to Rosa Parks challenging segregation by refusing to leave the white section of a bus. Does he actually fail to grasp that people don’t choose their race, but they can choose whether to get vaccinated? Or that the color of one’s skin poses no danger to those around you?

Perhaps Neiman is envisioning the day when a future Wyoming Legislature erects statues of the brave culture warriors who made it illegal for companies to protect their workers during the worst health crisis in American history.

Several legislators tried to be a voice of reason, and no one did it better than Rep. Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne), who eloquently addressed what’s at stake for Wyoming residents.

“No doubt we are in a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” Nicholas said. “If everyone was vaccinated, this pandemic would be gone.”

The attorney pointed out that 1,150 people have died in Wyoming due to COVID-19, including his father.

“This is not an unconstitutional mandate,” Nicholas said. He added that the Wyoming Medical Center in Casper — which has seen its staff overwhelmed caring for mostly unvaccinated COVID-19 patients — would have lost more workers had it not imposed a vaccine mandate that went into effect Nov. 1.

“There’s a lot of staff saying, ‘Look, if my co-worker is not vaccinated, then I’m not coming back to work. It’s a dangerous work environment,’” Nicholas said.

His valuable, fact-based speech deserves to be remembered. Unfortunately, what grabbed more headlines was an embarrassing incident last Thursday involving former House Speaker Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper).

Harshman, who participated from home via Zoom, was irked by an amendment to HB 1001 sponsored by Rep. Chuck Gray, another Oil City Republican. Gray was one of the most strident voices demanding the special session. He wanted political theater, but got a little more drama than he expected when his colleague accidentally shared with the world his less-than-flattering opinion of Gray. 

Harshman loudly voted against the amendment, which failed, and his image disappeared from the screen. But he accidentally left his mic on, and while the House moved on to other business, Harshman could be heard cursing about Gray.

It was a stunning moment and inexcusable behavior, especially from a legislative leader. Harshman drove to Cheyenne the next day to address Gray and the entire chamber in person.

“I apologize for that distraction because we have real work to do for our people. … It wasn’t right and it won’t happen again,” he said.

House Speaker Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) took away Harshman’s privilege to work remotely during the session. But Harshman left the Capitol after a few votes and made a beeline for home, putting that “real work” for his constituents on hold because he had a more pressing matter.

As the football coach of Natrona County High School, Harshman needed to get his squad ready for that night’s playoff game. His Mustangs won, so if the session extends until Friday, Coach Harshman will presumably be on a bus to the next contest in Sheridan and a no-show at the Capitol.

Rep. John Bear (R-Gillette) says he will offer a motion to censure Harshman when the House reconvenes Wednesday. It promises to be a dramatic moment that potentially upstages whatever the Senate does with the two lackluster bills the House sent it.

In my dream scenario, the Senate — which jettisoned all five of the COVID bills it considered — does the same thing to the House bills ASAP. It would then send the House a message to not bother coming back Wednesday because everything is stone-cold dead.

Even the legislators who foisted this worthless session upon the state don’t appear happy with the results, because all of the penalties have been removed. Instead of carving up the feds into little pieces, what remains in both bills is a grudging acceptance that the only real option the state has is to sue — and almost certainly lose in court.

I’m not trying to spare Harshman any punishment for his outburst; I’d kind of like to see how the whole censure thing plays out. But I have to admit, he had the right idea leaving Cheyenne. And if he gets to go home before this wretched mess ends, why should the rest of us have to stick around?

Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. People must research these matters independently.
    Trust no one’s opinion on these issues.
    Consensus does not mean correct, it only means coordination and control.
    The voice in the wilderness is sometimes right.

    1. Agreed. Now, if only the ruling class elites who control the media, and their small but vocal tribe of followers were confident enough in their arguments to allow honest, uncensored debate. “Fact checking” and subjective “disinformation” proclamations are merely tools of oppression. “Compliance and silence empower the tyrants”.

  2. Rep. Neiman, (my representative) comparing those unwilling to get vaccinated to the likes of Rosa Parks is laughable, and sad. A more apt comparison would be smokers. When the smoking bans first started many smokers refused to comply. As time marched on, the businesses soon saw the benefits of a smoke free atmosphere to their customers and employees. Today smokers have their rights, but not to inflict their personal enjoyment of tobacco on their fellow citizens. And they have the right to pay higher health insurance premiums and the science be damned.

  3. How many of the WY legislators mugging for the cameras drive without headlights on after dark? Society has many reasonable expectations for health and safety that did not exist when the US or WY Constitutions were drafted.

    Any healthcare workers not vaccinated have disqualified themselves from working in that field. I wish them luck in their new careers away from sensitive public health areas. They can go play Daniel Boone.

  4. Kerry,

    Thank you for your article. I access risk in a different way then you do.

    When the government puts health care as a top priority, and the economy as a lower priority, then the public should expect shortages and high price.

    The OSHA mandate will obviously cause more shortages of food, energy and services. The economic devastation the Wyoming will face will be massive.

    I expect empty shelves, dormant gas pumps, and rolling blackouts. If the legislature needs to spend 10 million dollars to try and stop the destruction, it looks like money well spent. Wyoming should not just accept economic suicide.

    1. This sensationalism is along the same lines as the conspiracy of un-vaccinated people would be hauled of to interment camps. It’s an exaggeration of basic fear mongering.

      The sky is not falling. To portray it as such is pointless.

        1. This is from a Candace Owens tweet that was designed to stoke fear. Obviously, it has worked. You shouldn’t believe what she posts without looking into it yourself.

          The shielding approach was discussed in July 2020, when chrump was still in office. As quoted from one of the three sources:

          “The CDC document outlining a potential shielding strategy for people living in humanitarian settings is not intended for the the general U.S. population, as posts on social media imply.”

          https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2021/aug/20/candace-owens/cdcs-not-going-put-people-high-risk-catching-covid/

          https://www.reuters.com/article/factcheck-cdc-document-idUSL1N2PK1OU

          https://www.forbes.com/sites/brucelee/2021/08/14/did-cdc-propose-putting-high-risk-people-into-camps-for-covid-19-heres-what-they-actually-said/

          More misinformation and fear mongering..
          ..

          1. Actually, here is the CDC source. Notice how they refer to “camps/sectors” that do not allow movement into or out of them.

            https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/global-covid-19/shielding-approach-humanitarian.html

            Australia has actually implemented them. Many argue that the Second Amendment is what has prevented such unconstitutional measures here.

            https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/australia-darwin-covid-quarantine/2021/05/21/f72bc0ac-ad1b-11eb-82c1-896aca955bb9_story.html

            Predictably, you continue to blame Trump, but it’s Biden who’s dictating mandates that ally with the intended plans of the CDC.

  5. Please tell me who the constituency is that these people claim to represent. It can’t be business owners, healthcare workers, teachers, “essential” workers or others trying to eke out a livelihood in this public health/economic catastrophe. No matter what your politics is, barking by the legislature will not make people feel safe about going out again.

  6. There wouldn’t be a special session without the mandate. It became preemptive when a big medical conglomerate forced their healthcare employees to choose between their careers or the vax, and refused to grant any exceptions. At least there is a legislative process being followed, and testimony from both sides, which is a far more democratic process than the mandate. The narrative now is that business owners have been “pitted against” employees. It was this regime’s mandate that created the division, and corporate media that thrives on it. If you don’t want to “stick around”, don’t. No one, and nothing is forcing you (unlike the federal mandate).

    1. As of Jan 4 the mandate goes full force. OSHA will be the muscle and it would not surprise me if they start SWAT teaming non-compliant businesses. The Democrats would love that. Their kind of thing. Of course, the pandemic will continue unabated.
      There is no cure for stupid people and a manufactured plague.

  7. I was born in Wyoming 65 years ago and have seen the politics go from reasonable a long time ago to the F minus legislature we have now.

    I have a friend that is being discriminate against because they are they are the only one that is vaccinated at the business.
    Employees every where are getting more work piled in them because of vaccination refusal by other employees.

    As long as a business does not discriminate based on; race,creed, color, sex, national origin, age ancestors, handicap or religious belief.
    Or any other mental or physical attribute. They are good. Political affiliation is also protected.

    Business have the right to operate their business without major Government interference. From the federal government or the state government

    So our legislators are giving business a terrible choice. Violate a state law or violate a Federal law. Great idea. Don’t they want less government interference

    But let’s forget all that.

    We have a public health care crisis in our country. I know 6 people that have died from Covid. 2 of them close to me.
    I do not know anybody that has died from a covid shot. There maybe some but compared to the death toll is a very small number.

    It is so sad that we have one the lowest vaccination rates in the country

    Vaccinations have been a part of life
    Since I was a child.

    So get vaccinated or wear a mask. If you don’t want to get vaccinated , get tested. Put a mask on.

    It is for your friend, you neighbor, your United States and the world

  8. This entire fiasco of a session demonstrates the real need to vet candidates. Those who are ignorant of law and who are self-serving for political points need not apply. It is time to demonstrate actual intelligence and an ability to discern facts from fiction. Party lines need to disappear and the people of Wyoming need to vote authocratic personal interest out. We need leadership and an understanding of how desperate we are for a future for this state. The ranchers, the oil lord’s, the control freaks need to go. We need youth and women in office. They and they alone can change the downward spiral of this state, lack of revenue and no future for youth and begin the hard work to diversify and bring this state into the new century. I find it easy to make disparaging remarks about those who pretend to stand for freedom, rights and the people of Wyoming, because most are not native, have no vision and are participating for personal gain and attention. Wake up. Vote these fools out!

  9. Kerry writes: “House Bill 1002-Federal COVID vaccine mandates-prohibition and remedies-2 would give the governor $250,000 to file lawsuits against the feds.”

    Alas, this is incorrect. The bill gives the Governor $10 MILLION to waste on a quixotic, frivolous lawsuit against the Federal government. A good reason to scuttle the bill right there. Why not let other states pay for this futile foolishness?

    1. Brett, the House adopted a House Appropriations Committee amendment to reduce the funding from $1 million to $250,000. When the bill went to the Senate, the Senate Appropriations Committee changed it to $10 million, which the full Senate adopted. If the bill is approved by the Senate, a conference committee will try to reconcile the two figures.

  10. Another weekly division piece. For all the focus on the Harshman, it’s telling that no one on the Left is discussing the actual homosexual reference that Steve Harshman used. Special Interest groups must be following orders to remain silent.

  11. Well said! I could not agree more with this article! The legislature is like the keystone cops, but sadly, much more harmful and dangerous.

  12. Where are the fiscal zealots to scold our feckless legislators for wasting over$100k of Wyoming taxpayers’ money?
    A wretched mess, indeed!

  13. Comparing it to segregated bars? Come on, how utterly ridiculous! No one can choose their race, but they can choose whether or not to be vaccinated. Refusing vaccination tends to make people see you as a Typhoid Mary, so don’t act outraged when you are not welcomed in the work and social sector. We are talking about if you have the ability to spread COVID and possibly killing someone compared to where you go to get drunk. What a strawman argument!