Down at the capitol, the Wyoming Freedom Caucus roasted House Speaker Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) last week for holding back a trio of bills that were unconstitutional, discriminatory and as freedom-squashing as they could be written.
Perhaps the extreme-right caucus, bigger this year but without many successes, is just letting off steam by focusing its ire on Sommers. With a week left of the session as I write this, it’s too early to give the Freedom Caucus a final report card.
But several of the group’s top goals were not realized. Librarians can still lend LGBTQ-themed books without fear of being locked up. Hospitals, businesses and other facilities must still follow federal mask and vaccine mandates. I am grateful for both outcomes, and I thank moderates for making them happen.
The bills Sommers held back — or kept from being heard, a prerogative of the speaker that helps determine which bills end up on the governor’s desk — were already controversial. One would ban talk of sexual orientation and gender identity in classrooms, another was a school voucher program and the third would criminalize gender-affirming care for minors.
Andy Roth, chairman of the State Freedom Caucus Network, parent organization of the Wyoming group, tweeted that he can’t believe Sommers is blocking conservative legislation “in the most Republican state in America.”
That set off Wyoming’s freshman U.S. Rep. Harriet Hageman, who retweeted Roth’s message and added her own: “This is about protecting our children. In Congress, I’m fighting for these very issues. I hope the Wyoming Legislature will do the same.”
With all due respect, Hageman — who has never before held public office — is still learning the ropes back in D.C., and should stay in her lane. She’s got more pressing duties than telling Wyoming’s speaker of the house how to do his job.
The highest profile of the three bills is Senate File 117 – Parental Rights in Education, Wyoming’s version of Florida’s infamous “Don’t Say Gay” law, which that state signed last year. Sponsored by Sen. Dan Dockstader (R-Afton), the Senate approved it 18-12 before it went to the House.
The bill spent 24 days on Sommers’ desk without any action, which prompted the Freedom Caucus to eventually tweet about how the bill “solves the problem of parental exclusion [because it] prohibits classroom discussion about sexual orientation and gender identity for students in grades K-3.”
What about the exclusion of LGBTQ parents and their kids? In Jacksonville, Florida, Dan VanTice, who has a husband and twin 7-year-old sons, said it’s families like his who are excluded, by the same law hard-line Wyoming conservatives want to pass.
“If our kids aren’t allowed to talk about their families, it’s basically saying [our families] are less-than,” VanTice told The 19th, a nonprofit news organization that reports on gender, politics and policies. “It’s ironic that it’s called a parental rights bill. I’m a parent and I have rights and my family has rights. But those rights are the ones that the bill is trying to diminish and eliminate.”
Sommers told reporters he has always fought “against taking authority away from local school boards, town councils, county commissioners … And in my view that’s what this bill does.”
Freshman Rep. Jeanette Ward (R-Casper), a Freedom Caucus member, challenged Sommers’ decision to not send the bill to a committee. A legislative rule allows any member to call for a vote to revive it, and Ward wanted this education bill assigned to the House Agriculture Committee — yes, agriculture — but her motion was defeated 34-27.
A similar fate awaited Senate File 143 – Wyoming Freedom Scholarship Act-2, sponsored by Sen. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle). It narrowly passed in the Senate, 17-14, but then ran into the Sommers buzzsaw. His reason for killing it was once again spot-on.
An identical bill, House Bill 194 – Wyoming Freedom Scholarship Act, had already been tabled by the House Education Committee, so it was dead. The panel identified myriad problems with that bill, beginning with the fact it’s obviously unconstitutional, meaning the Senate version was similarly flawed.
Both bills would have diverted $6,000 in public money per every K-12 student outside the public school system, which parents could use to pay for their child’s private, religious or home schooling. The Wyoming Constitution says, “No money of the state shall ever be given or appropriated to any sectarian or religious society or institution.”
Here’s one thing I always have trouble understanding: many far-right groups, including the Freedom Caucus, pledge undying loyalty to the federal and state constitutions. Would it be too much trouble for them to actually read what the documents allow or forbid?
The State Budget Office, tasked with administering the new scholarship program, made it clear it wanted no part of that responsibility. The Wyoming Education Association said the bill would siphon off even more money from an already underfunded public K-12 system.
Sommers explained why he didn’t assign SF 143 to the House Education Committee. The panel had already rejected the twin version so the Senate iteration would have met the same fate.
I guess Sommers could have sent it to the House Agriculture Committee, which would rubber-stamp anything GOP legislative leaders want. But the speaker recognized it was a bad bill.
Rep. Ocean Andrew (R-Laramie) tried to get SF 143 recalled, but the House rebuffed him on a voice vote. Why waste time on an unconstitutional lost cause?
The third bill that agitated the Freedom Caucus was Senate File 144 – Chloe’s law-children gender change prohibition, an anti-trans measure sponsored by Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne).
“Chloe’s Law” is named after California teen Chloe Cole, a self-described “former transgender kid.” After taking puberty blockers for years and getting a double mastectomy at 15, Cole “detransitioned.”
Senate File 144 would have made it illegal for doctors to prescribe gender-affirming surgery to anyone under the age of 18. That makes sense, but guess what? Medical professionals told lawmakers such surgeries aren’t performed in Wyoming.
But Bouchard’s bill would also outlaw hormone blockers used to delay the onset of puberty.
That might sound like a way to give kids more time to figure out if their gender identity is persistent, but the Mayo Clinic advises that for adolescents with gender dysphoria, hormone blockers can improve mental well-being, reduce depression and anxiety, improve social interactions with other kids, eliminate the need for future surgeries and reduce suicidal ideation.
Senate File 144 would punish doctors who prescribe hormone blockers by revoking or suspending their medical licenses. Wyoming Insurance Commissioner Jeff Rude said the bill’s ban on insurance coverage for gender-affirming care would violate the Affordable Care Act’s prohibition on sex-based discrimination.
Sommers sent the bill to the House Appropriations Committee, an experienced panel. It voted 5-2 to not recommend the bill, which put it at the bottom of the House’s general file. Those bills had a Monday deadline to be approved by the Committee of the Whole, or die. The move all but assured its demise.
A furious Bouchard demanded the Wyoming Republican Party censure Sommers, which I don’t expect to happen.
I also have a hunch Sommers could care less about getting a verbal slap on the wrist from the Freedom Caucus, whose chairman, Rep. John Bear (R-Gillette), claims it “exists as a reflection of the God-fearing, self-sufficient, liberty-loving people all across our state.”
If Bear and his crew would hand Sommers a few more bills that aren’t unconstitutional, maybe the caucus could defend self-sufficiency and liberty, not violate it.