Many people say transparency in government is a wonderful thing.
I wouldn’t know. I live in Wyoming.
All right, perhaps that is a bit harsh. But how are people supposed to feel after being the victims of a legislative bait-and-switch stunt like the public lands hearing at a Cheyenne meeting last Wednesday? The vast majority of the 100-plus attendees thought the panel would take testimony about a controversial proposed constitutional amendment that would supposedly allow Wyoming to prepare for the possibility the feds may someday turn over management of federal lands to the state.
These citizens believed they would have their say because the Select Federal Natural Resource Management Committee told them in Riverton on Nov. 9 that a subcommittee would take public comments about the amendment at the Cheyenne meeting.
The subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Tim Stubson (R-Casper), began the session by telling the crowd that the purpose of the hearing was to work on the language of the amendment and try to improve it, not for the public to state its agreement or opposition to the proposal itself. Several attendees called out at once to let the chairman know they felt misled. Stubson told them the subcommittee wasn’t going to tolerate any “shout-outs” from the crowd.
“We don’t support any of the language because we don’t support the amendment,” Casey Quinn of the Powder River Basin Resource Council said, earning loud applause.
“That’s fair enough,” Stubson said. “But you’re going to have lots of opportunities to grab your legislator by the scruff of the neck and tell them that’s the case, but that’s not the purpose of the meeting.”
But a private conversation with a legislator doesn’t mean as much as expressing one’s opposition at a public hearing where testimony is recorded. There’s too much of a chance the Legislature can pass a measure and a lawmaker can later explain, “Gee, no one told me they didn’t like it.”
Gary Long of Cheyenne noted the irony of the state wanting to take over management of federal lands. “One thing I find rewarding about the federal system — good, bad or indifferent — is everyone has a place at the table,” he said. “It’s like democracy. Democracy’s tough, but it works.”
In Riverton last month the full six-member select committee approved a Senate joint resolution calling for a public vote on the amendment. But that can occur only after two-thirds of both the House and Senate agree to put it on the ballot, so a lot of hurdles remain for supporters.
The select committee’s chairman is Sen. Eli Bebout (R-Riverton), who has salivated over the idea of a federal land transfer to the state for several sessions. As the new Senate president, Bebout doesn’t even have to take the risk of sending his brainchild to a Senate committee, where the public could still negatively comment on the proposal and try to kill it. Instead, it could go directly to the full Senate and bypass the public.
That likely explains why so many people were upset at the subcommittee’s limiting testimony last week. The meeting may have been the last time the public can voice its opposition until the amendment reaches the House, where it may win approval. The House agreed to fund the federal transfer feasibility study two years ago.
The select committee could have opened its amendment to public scrutiny any time in the past two years, but the working draft wasn’t even written until about a week before the committee’s Nov. 9 meeting in Riverton.
Not exactly a heartfelt apology
Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) apologized at the meeting for the amendment’s late arrival. “You have my humble and most sincere apology for not going though a larger public process,” he said. If it makes him feel better I’m glad he made the statement, but it doesn’t change the fact the citizenry has largely been left behind. And what Hicks said soon after that showed his apology was less than heartfelt.
Cheyenne attorney Larry Wolfe told the subcommittee, “Your process, I think, is not what you promised at your November meeting. Not your promises to all of these good citizens who have come here to speak. I think you have, in fact, undermined these people’s confidence in their ability to address the Legislature by limiting this hearing is what [you’ve done].”
“As a constitutional amendment every single word is going to be parsed by lawyers … so if you use language that people can disagree with, such as ‘multiple use’ and ‘sustainable yield,’ all you are doing is embedding into the constitution a whole set of controversies,” the attorney explained. “This goes to the sort of fundamental question of why you’re doing this, which is the sense that there’s some great urgency to take on this issue.
“Think about what might happen,” Wolfe continued. “A Supreme Court might rule that these lands need to be returned …. “
Hicks interrupted. “Now we’re going off and we’re going to bloviate about theories about what’s going to happen,” he said. “That’s not what we’re here to do. If we allow you to do this then we’ve got to allow everyone in this room to do this. We don’t have the time. We need to refocus our efforts. To allow Mr. Wolfe to bloviate all he wants to about legal theories and all this stuff about what may or may happen in the future … “
Several people shouted, ‘Let him talk,” and one observer said the only one bloviating was Hicks.
Wolfe regained the floor. “First of all, I don’t intend to ‘bloviate’ about anything,” he said. “If you looked at these issues realistically you would realize that you probably have a decade before any of these issues would actually come to fruition under the most optimistic of scenarios.”
He added, “If Congress were to pass a bill transferring these lands back to the state, how long do you think that process would take? Look at the [military] base closing commission. It took Congress decades to complete, and it’s still not done. So the notion that we have to vote on this in 2018 is absurd.”
I quoted the two men at length because that was my favorite exchange during the whole meeting. It may be because Wolfe spotlighted one of the major problems with the committee’s work: It isn’t remotely necessary to rush it through the legislative process. Honestly, though, I think I like it because it gave me a chance to use the word “bloviate,” which I’ve never done once in my career, let alone four times in a single column. Five if you count that last sentence.
Why kill the amendment? Let us count the ways
Supporters of the transfer obviously hope to minimize criticism of the idea by including in the amendment a prohibition of sales or land exchanges that significantly reduce the amount of public land or its value.
There’s a host of reasons to deep-six this unnecessary public lands amendment. Here are just a few:
- When Wyoming joined the United States, it pledged in its constitution that “the people inhabiting this state do agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and all title to the unappropriated public lands lying within the boundaries [of the state].” What part of “forever” do Sen. Bebout and his supporters not understand?
- The subcommittee approved changes to the amendment suggested by the public, including a prohibition on the sale of acquired lands except for public health or welfare purposes or to public entities. But opponents fear that when the proposed amendment goes to the full select committee and the Legislature, it could be changed to allow land transfers that result in the loss of public access and/or selling or leasing the land to private interests.
- The Legislature commissioned a $75,000 study to examine what might happen if Congress turned over the management of federal lands within our borders. The feasibility study found that the state would inherit costly wildfire and litigation issues if it were to take over management. Meanwhile, local governments would lose significant federal funding. What is the magic source of money Wyoming would get to absorb the necessary cost of paying hundreds of new workers needed to replace the federal employees who will no longer manage public lands?
Here’s the kicker about how transparent Wyoming lawmakers really want to be in passing their public lands constitutional amendment. The subcommittee will share with the full select committee the suggested changes in the amendment’s language garnered from last week’s hearing. The select committee will then vote by email — that’s right, email, not even at a public meeting — on whether to accept any of them. Bebout & Co. could easily decide, “Thanks, folks, but we don’t like what you had to say. We’re sticking with our own version.”
Perhaps someday the people who run the Legislature will figure out how we can make all of the state’s laws just using Twitter. If there’s no public input in person, think of the savings in meeting rooms alone. Heck, we wouldn’t even need a lavishly renovated Capitol Building, just a server in someone’s basement.