Representatives on the House floor for the Jan. 12 kickoff of the 2021 legislative session. Though debate was conducted online, many lawmakers continued to work from their chamber desks. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

CHEYENNE — After a year of operating from their basement offices, places of business and occasionally even backyard patios, the members of Wyoming’s 66th Legislature have finally returned to the floor of the Wyoming State Capitol to do the people’s work.

For the next month, lawmakers will debate hundreds of pieces of legislation in a first-of-its-kind session covering everything from liquor sales to legislator compensation in days lasting from early morning until well into the evening.

It stands to be one of the most pivotal Legislatures in the history of the state. Entering the 2021 session, the body of lawmakers finds itself tasked with guiding Wyoming through the continued pandemic as well as the broader economic challenges fueled by declines in the state’s long-reliable extractive industries, which still generate much of the state’s annual revenue. The persistent challenges facing coal — and newer competition for oil and gas — have matured into economic crises. Wyoming’s leaders are now tasked with leading a reluctant public into a future with fewer public services, higher taxes or some combination of the two.

Have questions about how we got to this point? We’ve got plenty of answers.

Hasn’t the Legislature already been meeting?

They have. Just not at full force.

Typically, in odd-numbered years, the Wyoming Legislature would meet for 40 working days over approximately two months to consider a broader policy slate with ambitious and, oftentimes, polarizing bills up for discussion. In even-numbered years, it convenes for just 20 days in which the focus is narrower and the state budget remains the No. 1 priority.

The normally crowded Senate chamber was sparsely populated as the Senate began its special session deliberation on May 15, 2020. Wyoming lawmakers are conducting a hybrid 2021 session, with the bulk of the action starting March 1. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

But this year isn’t typical. Shortly after last year’s session ended, business in Wyoming came to a standstill as state and federal officials began confronting the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout the interim, meetings have taken place almost exclusively online and, until recently, many expected the full, two-month legislative session to be conducted similarly.

Through January and February, legislators met in a hybrid, on-again, off-again format, focusing their attention primarily on committee bills — measures drafted and worked-up by standing committees — which tend to be less controversial and more germane to pressing needs than individual-member-generated legislation. Recognizing some bills can’t be worked remotely, legislative leadership planned to save a few weeks to handle the more controversial business in a face-to-face format. That’s where we find ourselves today.

Will it be safe?

Theoretically. People will be allowed back in the Wyoming Capitol for session, but they will be required to wear the face coverings shown to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 from symptomatic and asymptomatic carriers.

Sen. Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne) wears a mask as she is sworn in at the Wyoming State Capitol on Jan. 12, 2021. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

Few lawmakers wore those face coverings at an earlier meeting of the Legislature: a reflection of a Management Council policy decision late last year to not require that members wear them. For session, however, legislators will need to follow the same rules as the public in common areas of the Capitol, and many will have been vaccinated against the virus, though it is not clear who did or did not choose to receive the vaccine.

“They said, when it gets down to the point — particularly some of the younger ones, they said they just don’t feel they were there as far in the at-risk category, and that they didn’t want to step in line of someone who was — and that’s a personal choice,” Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) said about fellow lawmakers in a recent press conference. “So it’s not that they won’t take it, it just may be several months out after we get through the next couple of tiers.”

As far as mask-use enforcement, legislative leadership will likely be responsible for policing their own members. While mask compliance has been spotty at-best over the last few months, House Speaker Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) told reporters the line would likely be drawn at interactions with staff.

Ultimately, the onus will likely fall on lawmakers themselves to follow the rules.

“You can argue that maybe we didn’t have as good of compliance,” Barlow said in that press call. “But I think once we all come together and understand everybody has a different level of concern, I’m hopeful that people will do their part to be responsible and protect each other.”

What should I be watching for?

As with every legislative session, a few themes will emerge. Sometimes, they become clear even before the session officially starts. A few storylines to watch this session include…

Budget cuts and revenue raisers

Since a report by the state’s Consensus Revenue Estimating Group last spring showed Wyoming in a $1.25 billion hole due to the COVID-19 pandemic and declining minerals industries, Wyoming’s leaders have known they need to either cut a lot of programs or raise a lot of money in order to make ends meet.

The deficit has improved significantly since then and, under a plan by Gov. Mark Gordon, Wyoming’s budget is now more-or-less balanced with numerous and steep cuts to divisions like the Departments of Corrections, Family Services and the Department of Health.

After an election in which several anti-tax Republicans ascended to the Legislature, ratifying those budget cuts will likely be the biggest storyline for lawmakers this session. Keep an eye on the floor debates and amendments for the budget bill — House Bill 1 – General government appropriations-2 — as it moves through the process.

There are also several bills coming — particularly from Democrats in Teton County — that will seek to raise funds for the state by taxing the ultra wealthy who have long flocked to Jackson Hole. Whether lawmakers will be willing to take that step remains an open question, however, even as the state faces down economic calamity. Lawmakers passed on a similar concept in November.

Bills to watch on this topic:

Education funding

Budget hawks in the Legislature have been threatening massive cuts to the state’s K-12 education system for years now, or at least a transition away from the built-in spending increases that have long been part of the state’s education funding model.

They have made cuts in the past, but never at the scale some lawmakers wanted. With a near-third of a billion dollar deficit in education — and a savings account running dry — the political will to make those types of cuts might now be in place.

Transportation is one of many elements of public education that’s subject to change during recalibration. (hendrix73/FlickrCC)

Though most of the battle will be on the school recalibration bill,  the question of funding the state’s schools in the long-term and, in particular, avoiding a lawsuit over those cuts will likely linger over the entire legislature throughout the session. There is even a bill to set aside funding to fight those lawsuits on the docket this year.

Bills to watch on this topic:

A new conservative moment

Bolstered by voters’ enthusiasm for President Donald Trump and an uncharacteristically enthusiastic primary season that boosted numerous populist candidates to victory, the Wyoming Legislature took a sharp turn to the right this past year.

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Just how far they’ve moved in that direction will be tested this winter. In addition to the dynamic newly elected conservatives will bring to floor debates, they’ve also fielded numerous bills to advance their ideology, including anti-abortion bills, and measures to rein in state and county health officers, create more elected positions, expand access to firearms and tighten voter access.

Bills to watch on this topic:

A way forward for energy

Lawmakers will be considering numerous bills not only to protect the state’s existing minerals assets, but to earn new revenues from emerging sources, like solar and wind, that activists say could harm those industries.

Bills to watch on this topic:

Will they get through everything in time?

Likely not.

According to an email from Legislative Service Office Director Matt Obrecht last week, lawmakers had submitted 580 requests for bill drafts to the LSO this year. As of Feb. 26, that number had swollen to more than 670.

With limited time (just one month, compared to two) it is highly likely few of the bills named above will have a chance to be made into law. In the 2019 budget session, 503 bills ultimately made it on the docket out of approximately 721 bill requests. Just 213 of those became law, while 61 bills did not even make it to the floor for a hearing.

CORRECTION – This story has been updated to reflect that it’s Wyomings 66th legislature. 

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  1. But this year isn’t typical. Shortly after last year’s session ended, business in Wyoming came to a standstill as state and federal officials began confronting the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout the interim, meetings have taken place almost exclusively online and, until recently, many expected the full, two-month legislative session to be conducted similarly.

  2. The legislature should consider an income tax on profits made by out of state/on line sellers of goods and services produced from Wyoming orders by Wyoming state residents.