The last time the Wyoming Legislature met in a special session to deal with the impacts of an outbreak was 1950. The body needed to pass control measures for a plague of grasshoppers. (Rick Cameron / FlickrCC)

The Wyoming Legislature is about to undertake a rare event — at least in terms of recent history. Lawmakers are set to meet in special session on Friday to begin the process of legislating programs and spending needed to respond to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

At this point, only three bills are slated for consideration during the session. One bill sets out in general terms how the state will spend much of the $1.25 billion in federal relief funds allocated by the CARES Act. Another bill deals with emergency assistance for citizens who’ve lost work or income because of the pandemic. Included are emergency funding for rent payments, unemployment insurance and workers compensation benefits. Lastly is a bill that provides general direction in calculating the virus’s financial impact on state government agencies and local school districts — figures that can ultimately be used for reimbursements.

The federal funds need to be spent this calendar year, so the Legislature has to act fast. Citizens, no doubt, can clearly see the necessity of the upcoming special session, particularly once they understand how the legislative rules are laid out in the Wyoming Constitution.

Article 3, Section 6 states, “The legislature shall not meet for more than sixty (60) legislative working days excluding Sundays during the term for which members of the house of representatives are elected, except when called into special session. The legislature shall determine by statute the number of days not to exceed sixty (60) legislative working days to be devoted to general and budget session, respectively. The legislature shall meet on odd-numbered years for a general and budget session. The legislature may meet on even-numbered years for budget session.”

In other words, lawmakers get 60 working days spread over two years — 40 days on odd-numbered years and 20 days on even-numbered budget-session years — to conduct the people’s business. Anything beyond that must take place in a special session, and those can only be called for by the governor.

A look back through history shows Wyoming has used special sessions sparingly. In fact there have been only 23 special sessions called since statehood in 1890 — a span of 130 years. Interestingly, the very first special session was called by executive order of the governor in late 1889. In looking back, most of the other 22 special sessions were in some way related to fiscal issues. 

So far this century, there have been only three special sessions called, including the one Gov. Mark Gordon announced last week.

The last special session occurred in July of 2004 in response to another — albeit entirely different — healthcare concern. The years leading up to 2004 saw several sizable malpractice suits in Wyoming, many resulting in multi-million dollar court awards. Accordingly, medical malpractice insurance rates in the state skyrocketed. This, in turn, discouraged new physicians from establishing practices in Wyoming, especially in smaller communities, and led to a scarcity of medical care for citizens.

The Wyoming Constitution effectively prohibits state government from establishing limits on civil damage awards, so the special session was called to pass a joint resolution enabling a public vote on a constitutional change that would enable statutory limits on malpractice awards. Naturally, trial attorneys and others campaigned vigorously against the question on the ballot and it was defeated in November of that year.

In addition, two other related measures were enacted during the 2004 special session. One dealt with establishing a state program to assist medical practitioners in purchasing malpractice insurance and other measures to foster risk-reducing reinsurance programs. Another bill called for various studies to be undertaken by the state relating to medical errors, malpractice insurance and tort reform in general.

Two years earlier in 2002, a special legislative session was called to take place immediately following the 2002 budget session. This wasn’t the first time such a convening was invoked to accommodate overwhelming workloads. In that year the Legislature not only had its typical budget-session work to do, but also had to reapportion legislative representation and redraw district lines — always a hotly debated and time-consuming topic. As if that wasn’t enough to cram into 20 working days, lawmakers also had to respond to the K-12 education finance model employed by the state. They simply needed more time to get it all done. 

The education finance model arising from the 2002 special session is essentially the basis for how we operate today. A cursory comparison of the education finance bill passed in 2002 with the statute on the books today shows the importance of the work done in 2002. 

Two special sessions preceding 2002 also were public-education-focused. A series of lawsuits in the 1990s dealing with educational opportunity inequities around the state resulted in, among other things, much greater funding responsibilities and therefore additional revenue sources for the state. There was also a requirement that these issues be dealt with legislatively. So there was a special session in the summer of 1997 and another in 1998 which in turn was combined with the 1998 budget session. Because of the continual nature of legislative action on these education measures, it is convenient to in-effect merge these two special sessions with the 1998 budget session and treat them as one. The official session archives covering these three sessions are treated in a consolidated format as well.

The legislature considered bills establishing mill levies for schools, school construction financing and prioritization and transportation, but because of the voluminous nature of the measures and variety of the bills, many failed. That left much work to be done in the following years.

In May of 1992 a special session was called because the entire biennium budget bill had not been completed during the budget session before exhausting the maximum number of days allowed by the constitution. Lawmakers agreed on the allocations for most state agencies but budgets for the Department of Corrections and some agencies within the Department of Health were left unfinished. The fiscal pressures brought about by low mineral prices and production during that era necessitated a complex reshuffling of revenues to meet critical expenditure needs during this special session. 

The special session of 1987 dealt with a different financial matter. The state had to adopt the federal speed limits established in 1974 in response to the Carter-era oil embargo, or forfeit federal highway funding. The federal government essentially forced state compliance with the national standard with the lever of federal dollars. 

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Naturally, this approach was not well accepted especially in rural states such as Wyoming. There was enough push-back by legislators during the 1987 regular session that the issue went unresolved. When it was revisited during the special session, amendments reducing fines for speeding on Wyoming highways and relaxing enforcement requirements accompanied the required provision of conforming to the national speed limit law. The national speed limit law was repealed by Congress in 1995.

Two other special sessions — 1978 and 1981 — grew out of economic and political tumult in Wyoming. 

The May 1978 special session was necessitated by the fact that the legislature failed to agree on a state budget during the budget session that ended three months earlier. One reason for this impasse was a near even partisan split in the House. Revenue challenges were also increasingly problematic during this era.

Similarly a special session occurred in 1981 because the required legislative business during the regular session was incomplete. Foremost among the 25 measures left undone was the state capital construction bill. 

A wide variety of reasons accounted for special sessions in Wyoming during its early life. Prior to 1972, there was only one regular session during each biennium. This meant that occasionally pressing needs arose during the two-year interval between legislative sessions. Also, some special sessions were called for reasons related to World War II, and, earlier in the 1930s, the national economic depression brought about the need for two special sessions. 

Perhaps the most unusual justification for a special session took place in 1950, when the stated purpose was to adopt control measures for a grasshopper infestation that plagued the state. 

Although such issues were important to the state citizens at that time, it seems remote in scope to the cause for the special session of May 2020.

Michael Madden

Michael Madden served 12 years in the Wyoming House as a Republican representative from Buffalo, including seven years as chairman of the House Revenue Committee. He is an economist and holds a doctorate...

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