Veteran observers of the Wyoming Legislature — including a few lawmakers — told me they consider the 2022 budget session one of the most miserable in recent memory.
I don’t share that view.
There were definitely dreadful moments that made me wonder why I’m still doing this, 44 years after covering my first session. But one of the 20 days was absolutely wonderful, the kind where all the stars align and things turn out exactly the way you hoped. For me, that magical day was Tuesday, March 8.
After watching four wretched bills sail through the Senate, I fully expected the House to embrace them. Instead, the measures ran into a brick wall on the final day for bills to be heard on the floor. None survived.
It’s strange that a day marked by death was so life-affirming, but it made me want to shout, “Finally, something’s gone right!”
One, Senate File 51 – Fairness in women’s sports act, was silently snuffed out days before by House Speaker Eric Barlow (R-Gillette), who stuck it in his drawer instead of assigning it to a committee. But the bill’s official tombstone will read March 8.
Senate File 51 would ban transgender athletes from competing in girls’ high school and women’s college sports. Critics warned it was blatantly unconstitutional and violated Title IX, a federal civil rights law.
The Senate, which is leaning way far to the right these days, adopted its typical “let ‘em sue us” attitude and passed it, 24-5. Many red states are passing bills that hurt the LGBTQ community, and I’m glad the “Equality State” didn’t join them.
Next up: a pair of bills Barlow sent to the House Education Committee.
Senate File 103 – Education-limitations on teaching critical race history sought to ban something that isn’t even being taught in Wyoming’s schools: “critical race theory.” But the extreme-right has latched onto CRT as the top issue to rile up its base, so that fact didn’t matter.
The Senate, once again, was perfectly fine jumping on the national GOP’s bandwagon, approving the bill 25-4. The House panel never considered it.
Senate File 62 – Civics Transparency Act did get a hearing, likely in deference to its sponsor, Senate Majority Floor Leader Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower).
Driskill said he wasn’t trying to ban CRT, but his bill — which required teachers to post all their classroom resources online — would have effectively put a target on the backs of Wyoming teachers. It would have enabled zealots to look for supposedly “liberal” material and use smear tactics to ruin educators’ careers.
There were plenty of jaw-dropping moments this year, but topping my list was Driskill telling the committee how teachers should discuss the Holocaust.
“There’s a full variance on what happened and how it happened,” he said. “Should both sides of that be taught? To me the answer is absolutely. You need to have everything from ‘it was the most atrocious thing that ever happened’ to ‘here’s people who say it didn’t happen.’”
House Education killed SF 62 on a too-close-for-comfort vote of 5-4. But it died, and that’s really all that matters.
The final one to be put out of the electorate’s misery was Senate File 97 – Change in party affiliation. This absurd, undemocratic bill was sponsored by Sen. Bo Biteman (R-Ranchester), who has brought it back every session since 2019. His fellow legislators keep telling him it’s a bad idea, but Biteman doesn’t get the message.
Biteman first sponsored the bill at the behest of the Wyoming Republican Party, which made banning “crossover voting” its top legislative priority.
GOP officials were livid that two far-right candidates, Foster Friess and Harriet Hageman, split the vote in their 2018 gubernatorial primary, allowing the more moderate Mark Gordon to win the nomination. They blamed Democrats, even though not nearly enough switched parties to alter the outcome.
Senate File 97 prevented voters from changing parties after the candidate filing period started in May. That’s right — before anyone even knows who’s actually running in the August primary. The Senate approved it, 18-12.
Ah, but the House was a different story, penned once again by Barlow, who sent the bill to the House Appropriations Committee. The House Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee, where it could have landed, was likely to send it to the House floor.
But HAC, after listening to overwhelming testimony against SF 97, voted 5-2 to not recommend it.
As much as I appreciate Barlow’s decisions, I was disappointed he kept the House from voting on House Bill 20 – Medical treatment opportunity act. After a decade of rejecting Medicaid expansion, the House finally passed it last year, inching closer to legislative victory, before it ultimately died.
But in a budget session, at least 40 of the 60 House members must vote for a bill to be introduced, and not enough were willing to commit this time around. Barlow, who backs Medicaid expansion, made the political calculation to not hold a vote on a bill destined to fail, and expose GOP legislators to possible primary challenges from the far-right.
There are plenty of legislative decisions I believe went awry House Bill 92 – Abortion prohibition-supreme court decision will ban virtually all abortions in Wyoming if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade. That’s right, some legislators felt compelled to enact new state laws reacting to a decision that hasn’t even been written.
Gun-rights activists finally passed a Second Amendment Protection Act, after rejecting the more radical Second Amendment Preservation Act. It was fun to see them trash talking and voting against each other’s bills, at least until one became law.
Lawmakers were so busy debating abortion, guns and transgender discrimination, many forgot redistricting is mandated by the U.S. Constitution every 10 years. They put off serious talks until the final day, then passed an out-of-compliance mess no one was happy about. The state will be very lucky if it’s not sued.
Not allowing some bills to get out of the starting gate were among the best decisions made. Included in this group was a host of proposals aimed at banning COVID-19 mask-, vaccine- and vaccine-passport “mandates.”
Rep. Chuck Gray (R-Casper) had the dubious distinction of authoring five dead bills, four of them not considered at all. The other, which failed its introduction vote, was a worse version of the critical race theory ban.
One of Gray’s proposals — House Bill 99 — was at the top of my list of bills I just couldn’t stomach passing. I would have leapt on the governor’s desk and grabbed his pen to keep him from signing it.
You probably know HB 99 better by its title: President Donald J. Trump Highway. It would have renamed Highway 258 in Natrona County.
Thanks to the House leader’s wisdom, no one is going to be driving on that sucker any time soon.