2013 Session Notes: Wyoming’s legislature is conservative, neighborly

A group of Senators applaud to show their gratitude to legislative staff sitting in the third floor balcony. (WyoFile/Gregory Nickerson)
A group of Senators applaud to show their gratitude to legislative staff sitting in the third floor balcony. (WyoFile/Gregory Nickerson)
 By Gregory Nickerson
April 1, 2013

In a departure from the normal Capitol Beat news format, this week’s offering is a perspective column from me, WyoFile’s government and policy reporter.

There’s a lot you can say about the Wyoming legislature. It’s small, fiscally conservative, anti-federal, and very Republican. But it’s also socially moderate, efficient, and congenial. After spending the better part of two months covering the session this winter, I left feeling impressed by how informal and personable our legislature is.

My reporting in Cheyenne required a temporary move from my home in Laramie. Rather than face the treacherous summit of I-80 on a daily basis, I rented a basement room from an old UW friend. Each morning I showed up in the capitol wearing a tie and a bright red ID badge that said “Legislative Media.” It wasn’t hard for lawmakers to see me coming.

Over the course of the session I saw lawmakers debate issues ranging from budget cuts to bible classes, and worked to provide a balanced take on the news.

Most of what I saw in Cheyenne fit well with what I’d learned about Wyoming politics in graduate school. Our legislators aren’t exactly progressive, but they aren’t radically conservative either. The small-government mindset, not religion, forms the platform of most Republicans here. In many ways, the legislators are a valid representation of their home communities, and Wyoming’s current population. (The state used to have a legislature more evenly split between the two parties, but that was  decades ago.)

You may not agree with the positions taken by the legislature, but how they get it done is admirable. As far as states go, Wyoming has a very efficient political process. It takes in a wide variety of ideas, and in a short 40-day session puts bills through a rigorous vetting that allows for plenty of debate. It takes eight “yes” votes for a measure to pass.

Compare that to the six-month legislative sessions some states have, and Wyoming’s lawmakers look very good. They know how to make laws fast, and then get out of Cheyenne before they suffocate the public under a pile of statutes. Whatever they don’t finish they relegate to the interim, or some future session. For the most part, the people writing our laws are citizen legislators, not politicians, and they want to get back to their regular lives. They don’t make much money in Cheyenne, and most are there because they care broadly about Wyoming and hope to make a difference.

The legislature has a strong culture of statesmanship. There is no shouting, no personal attacks, and no agitated voices on the floor of either chamber. Anyone who makes a personal jab at a colleague gets a stern talking to from House and Senate leadership.

If a lobbyist makes a personal attack on a legislator, lawmakers circle the wagons. They don’t take kindly to off-color insults to one of their own, and will visibly support their colleagues who are under attack. I saw that support for both Rep. Lynn Hutchings (R-Cheyenne) and Sen. Leland Christiansen (R-Alta).

On the other hand, if a lawmaker makes a callous remark to a citizen, as Rep. Hans Hunt did in his letter to a Cheyenne citizen, legislative leaders won’t necessarily come to the rescue.

It’s a very close-knit group, particularly in the Senate, which has 30 members. The lawmakers sometimes have decades-long relationships. Two people might be on opposite sides on most issues, but still really like each other. In the 60-person House, lawmakers may not know each other as well, but the same feeling prevails.

There’s a lot more humor and laughter on the floor than I had expected. During debate on the driest topic, someone always finds a way to insert a joke. There isn’t an hour that goes by without some levity. Sometimes there are good-natured pranks, ranging from white-elephant gifts to full-fledged rubber band shootouts. That kind of behavior isn’t often captured by the audio recordings or news coverage. Sometimes it shows up on Twitter. But when you see it in person, it makes people human.

Throughout the session, dozens of official visitors and school groups come through the Capitol. When these citizens show up in the chambers, the lawmakers stop what they are doing and give a standing ovation to the visitors. It helps lighten the mood, and makes the lawmakers remember who they are working for.

As a journalist, I came to like most of the people I covered, even as I tried to develop a critical understanding of their views. Many were friendly, knowledgeable, open, and didn’t mind answering tough questions, though some of them made me earn their confidence once they saw my media badge. Sometimes there can be a knee-jerk distrust of the media — likely the result of past experience with reporters. Lawmakers want to know they’ll be treated fairly and given a fair hearing in news coverage.

Part of the pleasure of reporting from the Capitol was getting to know some of the members of the Cheyenne press corps. Up in the third floor media room, I had stalwart Associated Press reporter Ben Neary on the desk to my left, and the astute Bob Beck from Wyoming Public Media on my right. I also got to rub shoulders with Becky Orr and Trevor Brown from the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, and Kyle Roerink and Laura Hancock from the Casper Star-Tribune. I think they all out-tweeted me using the #wyleg hashtag.

On the other side of the room Casper Star-Tribune reporter Joan Barron worked from the desk she’s occupied year round for decades. The background knowledge she brings to her work is nothing short of remarkable. She never said just when she came to the Capitol, but I expect she’s been there longer than anyone, whether reporter, legislator, or state employee. Even so, she shows no signs of burnout. (By the way, her name is pronounced Jo-Ann.)

As with any institution, a few people do most of the hard work. Many of the newer legislators are just trying to keep their heads above water, and they look to more experienced people they respect to see which way to vote on issues they may know nothing about.

It takes a really, really smart person to keep up the flow of information. The best legislators can take in huge amounts of information, remember things they learned months ago in interim meetings, and then communicate that effectively in debates. The high-level skill of synthesizing information is very valuable.

Well-educated people run the show and occupy all the leadership positions. Many of them have legal training, but any background that involves the accumulation and application of a large amount of knowledge is good preparation. Those who don’t have that ability fall behind rather quickly.

A lot of the lawmakers have serious knowledge on the issues. But you’d be fooling yourself to think that any legislator knew every bill. A lot of them focus on amending bills on their pet issues, and when a bill comes up about branding or road kill, they just look to one of their respected colleagues to see how to vote.

You might find this odd, but a lot of the legislators, and the lobbyists, are really tall. These are the guys and gals who felt confident at an early age and never lost that. Out of curiosity I did a quick internet search and found that yes, tall people disproportionately hold positions of leadership.  Think Al Simpson, Mike Massie, Sen. Charlie Scott (R-Casper), Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander), Sen. Eli Bebout (R-Riverton), Sen. Bruce Burns (R-Big Horn). All these guys, and some of the ladies may not be as tall as Abe Lincoln, but are still over six feet. I think it has less to do with voter preference than the achievement level of people with high confidence.

Having seen the legislature at work, I do worry that Wyoming will continue to have a difficult time developing secondary industries. Most folks are focused on maintaining the status quo when it comes to mineral revenues that supply most of our tax base. There are huge impediments to innovating Wyoming’s economy. We’re making some strides in diversification, but for the time being we’re looking to structure our state government to accommodate booms and busts, rather than addressing the root causes of economic volatility that come with our mineral economy. If it were easy to change that, it would have already been done.

I would also point out that much of Wyoming’s efforts to resist the federal government seem futile if you consider just how dependent we are on Washington D.C. They hold the purse strings on much of our revenue, particularly for federal mineral royalties. As much as we might disagree with the inefficiencies, wastefulness, and ineptitude of Washington, taxpayers across the nation are footing much of the bill for many of the services provided by the state of Wyoming. Even Gov. Matt Mead acknowledges that. Left to our own tax revenue, Wyoming would be a very Spartan place. A fair assessment of the support the federal government gives Wyoming would add a lot to the political discourse in the legislature, and the state generally.

It was a little disappointing to see only minimal citizen participation on most bills not relating to social issues. There might be a handful of citizens in committee meetings, but most people who showed up were paid to be there. Professional lobbyists who have long-standing relationships with lawmakers do a lot to shape opinion and debate. The average citizen really doesn’t have time to show up at an 8 a.m. committee meeting in Cheyenne. Some bills get debated over a period of weeks, making it challenging for citizens to stay involved.

Yet when I went home to Laramie on the weekend, people surprised me with how informed they were about what was going on in the legislature. Sometimes they were following issues I hadn’t judged to be significant, but had a lot of local importance. Certainly there are well-informed people in every community, which is a very good thing.

A significant number of people do get the chance to visit the capitol during the session. I ran into friends I knew from my hometown, including my sixth-grade social studies teacher from Big Horn Middle School — the very person who first gave me the assignment to read and summarize stories in the local newspaper.

It’s one of the joys of living in Wyoming to keep those kinds of connections. To paraphrase a saying I heard from Michael Walden-Newman who oversees Wyoming’s investment portfolio, “In Wyoming, everybody is connected somehow, and if they aren’t yet, they will be soon.”

Politics is all about relationships, especially in this state. It’s wise not to burn bridges. In Wyoming, we’re all neighbors, and it’s important to remember that in the legislature.

Getting things done does depend on who you know and who has confidence in you. Luckily, there are less hurdles of gaining access than you might find in other states.

For those interested in getting involved, the next interim meeting will happen April 12th in Casper, when the Joint Interim Committee on Healthcare will meet to discuss health insurance exchanges. Click here for the agenda.

— Gregory Nickerson is the government and policy reporter for WyoFile. He writes the Capitol Beat blog. Contact him at greg@wyofile.com.

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Gregory Nickerson worked as government and policy reporter for WyoFile from 2012-2015. He studied history at the University of Wyoming. Follow Greg on Twitter at @GregNickersonWY and on www.facebook.com/GregoryNickersonWriter/

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  1. “Fiscally conservative” is what they like to call themselves. But what should we call people who vote to spend $47 million in order to deprive people of Wyoming of federally financed health insurance? I don’t think “fiscally conservative” is the right term.

    Still, it was great reading your column throughout the Legislative session. Please don’t stop coverage just because the session has ended!

  2. The Wyoming Legislature is NOT “socially moderate.” The hate that pours from Rep. Lynn Hutchings’ mouth is what those so-called “congenial” members feel should be the norm in a self-respecting theocracy.