The Wyoming Legislature’s Management Council, which sets priorities for the body, is weighing a policy change that would give committee chairs the authority to decide whether the public can participate in their meetings remotely.
The proposed change comes as lawmakers return to in-person committee meetings for the 2021 interim — the period between legislative sessions. Traditionally interim committees meet in a variety of locations around the state. Throughout the 2020 interim, however, meetings took place almost exclusively online, as did much of the 2021 legislative session. Access and transparency proponents have said the shift to remote live-streamed meetings allowed greater numbers of the public to participate in legislative hearings. The entire session — including in-person discussions — was streamed online.
While the proposed change would codify some language that allowed members of the public to participate in meetings remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, the change would also leave it to committee chairs to decide whether their meetings will include live testimony from remote participants. The proposed changes also give chairmen and -women the ability to select their meeting locations without any requirement that sites are equipped to facilitate remote participation.
“If [legislators] can’t make it, they can make a request of their chairman to be allowed to attend remotely,” Legislative Service Director Matt Obrecht said. “But it’s still the chairman who could say ‘no, I want to meet in a location that, you know, doesn’t have the necessary equipment to allow Zoom-based remote participation.’ If that would be the case, then we just wouldn’t be able to have remote participation at that meeting.”
Though the return to in-person meetings in widely distributed locations across the state will once again accommodate field visits and other activities, critics have argued the proposed change could give committee chairs leeway to only consider spoken testimony from people who can attend meetings in-person.
During the legislative session, members of the public typically unable to participate in meetings testified from all corners of the state on myriad topics. Special interest groups like Better Wyoming, a progressive advocacy group, also found advantages to better organize people to lobby. During a hearing on a proposed wind tax on March 4, one rancher even called into the committee from his truck to testify against the bill during his morning chores, becoming one of the only landowners to testify during the meeting.
Transparency advocates want that type of participation to become a feature of policymaking, not a bug.
“If you’re at the capital, the conversation is mostly among lawmakers and people who are paid to be there to advocate for one thing or another,” Nate Martin, executive director of Better Wyoming, said. “The public voice is relatively absent, in large part because traversing large swaths of Wyoming’s landscape during the middle of the week or during the middle of the day is something that a lot of people just can’t do. But a lot of people can step out from whatever they’re doing for a few minutes to hop on a Zoom call.”
Obrecht said he hoped “75% or more of meetings” around the state would have Zoom capability, but likely it could be “way higher than that” as committee chairs schedule meetings. A Joint Revenue Committee meeting scheduled to take place in Lander next month has been moved to Central Wyoming College’s Riverton campus, for example, after it was determined the Lander facility was unable to accommodate remote participation.
As of Wednesday, Obrecht said LSO had identified 22 sites around the state that could facilitate at least 14 attendees in-person as well as remote participation. Approximately 30% to 40% of all interim meetings — including a July special session — will be held in Cheyenne, where remote participation is now standard, Obrecht said. Legislative leadership could also extend its contract with Wyoming PBS to broadcast some of its meetings at almost no cost, Obrecht said. Wyoming PBS typically covers the cost of broadcasting up to 10 meetings per year, with the Legislature only paying the travel, meals and lodging the per diems of Wyoming PBS staffers. However, such an expansion is still hypothetical, Obrecht said. Wyoming PBS would have to consider its own staffing and technology limitations.
“They’ve got certain bandwidth and other requirements before they can go to a place and set up a meeting, too,” Obrecht said. “We’re talking to PBS and seeing how many meetings they’d be willing to do, and they may be able to. … If they can bring in their equipment, we may be able to have remote participation in more places than we think we can.”
Martin said he believes keeping the public involved in the process should remain a permanent part of the legislative process.
“Having perspective from members of the public and the people that lawmakers are ultimately representing, I think, is critically important,” he said. “I think it improves government. And it definitely amplifies the voices of everyday people who want to participate in the policymaking process.”
Management Council is scheduled to vote on the proposal at its next meeting on May 7 at 2 p.m.