The challenges to government transparency and public participation created by the COVID-19 pandemic are substantial, and they could not have come at a worse time for Wyoming.
Public input and public involvement have never been more important as the state faces critical decisions — yet the worsening health crisis inhibits both.
Wyoming lawmakers are currently deciding when and how to meet for their next legislative session. It is essential they do it without shutting out the very people they serve.
What’s at stake in 2021
Before we get to the challenges for public participation and transparency, I’d like to outline the other crisis Wyoming is facing.
If lawmakers can’t figure out how to fund public education and other essential government services, the Wyoming way of life as we know it could be coming to an end, and not in some distant future — but within the next few years.
For nearly four decades, the people of Wyoming have relied on taxes and royalties from coal, oil, and gas industries to pay most of our bills. Those dollars have built and maintained our roads and schools, paid our teachers and funded everything from sewers and safe drinking water to county and municipal government and state agencies.
But those days are over.
Wyoming now faces staggering and ongoing budget shortfalls as part of a structural deficit.
If there was ever a more important time for government transparency and public access and participation at the Wyoming Legislature, I can’t think of it.
Since July, the state’s already lean budget has been cut by an additional 15% — with health, education and family services taking the biggest hits. Those cuts, so easy to talk about abstractly as “line items” or “trimming the fat,” translate to real lives impacted.
These cuts mean real people going without much-needed services like mental health care, developmental services for children with special needs, and elder care. They mean hundreds of residents losing real jobs and very real paychecks.
And this is all before some of the toughest conversations — about what happens to our public schools, the beating hearts of our communities — have even started.
In the coming months, Wyoming’s 90 elected lawmakers will have monumental decisions to make. Those decisions, which will affect the lives of hundreds of thousands for years to come, will be informed by a few fundamental questions.
What do we value most about Wyoming? And what are we willing to sacrifice for it?
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want this handful of citizen legislators to be asking these questions in a closed room. I don’t want them legislating in a vacuum. That’s not how democracy works. For our lawmakers to make the best decisions for the future of this state, they need to be hearing the answers from you.
What we (don’t) know about the 2021 session
We still don’t know when and how the 2021 legislative session — currently scheduled to begin Jan. 12 — will take place.
The Wyoming Legislature’s Management Council met Nov. 24 to discuss the merits of postponing the session until later this spring.
Ultimately, there was majority support on this committee to fulfill constitutional requirements by convening the session on Jan. 12 (when legislators will have the option to participate either in person or remotely), swear in the 66th Legislature, adopt the rules for the 66th, allow Gov. Mark Gordon to give an address, make committee assignments for bills, do other essential housekeeping, and then, ostensibly, adjourn until perhaps early May.
The idea is sound.
Legislative leadership, at the urging of many in the public and in their own ranks, would understandably like to avoid forcing people to meet in person for a full session during what is expected to be the height of a pandemic that has already killed almost 275,000 Americans.
The Wyoming Constitution enables legislators to delay the session. And delaying the session would be in the interest of public safety and the safety of legislators, staff, and legislative volunteers who make the session run. It would allow time for Wyoming to weather the worst of the COVID-19 storm and, as looks increasingly likely, allow the Legislature to convene after an effective vaccine becomes available to the public.
This makes a ton of sense. And I hope this is how things play out. But nothing has really been decided yet.
The Management Council voted during its Nov. 24 meeting to “develop and implement a plan delaying the majority of the legislative working days of the 2021 General Session of the Wyoming Legislature until a date after the initial convening of the session on January 12, 2021.”
But once the new Legislature is sworn in, there will be new leadership and a new Management Council. At that point, the question of whether to adjourn until a later date will not ultimately be up to this committee — it will be subject to a vote by the full membership of the House and Senate.
Until that vote is taken, we won’t know anything for certain.
Ensuring the public isn’t shut out
This should probably go without saying, but unnecessarily bringing hundreds of people to Cheyenne to spend six weeks in close proximity at a time when COVID-19 will still likely be spreading unchecked across Wyoming is not only bad for transparency and public participation — it’s also wildly irresponsible from a public health standpoint.
Necessary limitations on the number of people who would be allowed to observe floor sessions and committee meetings, however, would shut members of the public and media out of the legislative process altogether.
Many more people would be precluded from participating in or observing the process, either because they are at high risk of developing complications from COVID-19 or because their close contacts are.
This too should go without saying: A legislative session where the public can’t fully access or engage with lawmakers is bad for democracy.
To our Legislature’s credit, when COVID-19 hit this spring, leadership quickly pivoted and started live-streaming interim meetings and allowing for remote public participation, a move that has enabled access for more members of the public. But even the remote options under consideration for the general session — a hybrid model with some legislators in Cheyenne and others dialing in via Zoom — pose transparency and access concerns.
And Legislative Service Office staff have testified that any hybrid approach, although functional for committee meetings, would be completely impractical and unworkable for a full session at this point in time.
My organization, Equality State Policy Center, continues to advocate delaying the session until May at the earliest. While it’s not perfect, a May start date would allow more time for authorities to approve and roll out a number of promising vaccines.
A later start date would also give the LSO — the essential support staff who work behind the scenes in Cheyenne to ensure legislators can do their jobs effectively — the necessary time to plan for and acquire the technology that would be needed to pull off a potential hybrid remote/in-person session.
Thorough planning is key to ensuring robust public participation and transparency in a hybrid session, and would take more time than we have between now and January.
Where do you come in?
There’s no question that the legislative process can appear daunting (and opaque), even for seasoned advocates. It’s fast-paced and doesn’t always make sense. Add a pandemic into the mix, and that’s even more true.
But it’s worth remembering the adage about Wyoming: It’s really just a small town with long streets. Ours is a citizen legislature, which only works well if they hear from us.
As Sen. Tara Nethercott told the audience on an ESPC panel discussion on transparency last month, lawmakers want to hear from you.
“We are really, really accessible,” Nethercott said. “We shop at the same grocery stores, we’re filling our vehicles up with gas just like you are. We’ve chosen to run for office to make time for our constituents and to serve the public. This is a priority for us, and we feel valued when we have the opportunity to meet with folks face-to-face and remember why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
How can you make sure you are part of the vital conversations the Equality State needs to be having?
Step one is to get involved and stay involved.
- Learn who your legislators are — and get to know them. Pick up the phone or send them an email. Let them know who you are and what you care about.
- Join an advocacy group like ESPC — or any organization that works on issues you care about.
- Use the Legislature’s website to find out about bill drafts, meetings, agendas and calendars.
- Tell your legislators you care about transparency, and you want them to make sure everyone from the public who wants to participate can participate.
- Ask the Legislature to delay its full session until later in 2021, for health, safety and transparency!