It was a year of change in Wyoming’s government
By Kerry Drake
— December 30, 2014
Wyoming generated much significant and surprising political/government news in 2014 that, for better or worse, will impact the state and its residents far into the future.
Any list of the top 10 stories in a given category is subjective, especially when it’s created by a committee of one. I tried to make mine not too wonkish, but confess since I’m fascinated by our court system, half of the news events listed are related to the judiciary.
My assessment looks much different than I imagined it would, primarily because I expected it to be dominated by legislation. While certain bills were intriguing — particularly moderate lawmakers successfully defeating far-right Republicans who wanted to allow guns at schools — these efforts fell off my list in favor of issues that have actually changed the course of events in the state, or will soon.
I also ignored elections, because despite the attention they receive, nothing much really changed. Wyoming still has an all-Republican congressional delegation, slate of state officials, and both houses of the Legislature. While the brief, self-destructive Senate campaign of Liz Cheney against Mike Enzi provided some comic relief, it fizzled out so early in the year I couldn’t justify giving it a slot.
Here is my list of the top political/government news of the year in the Equality State, in order of increasing importance.
- The Wyoming Lottery began operating in August, after state lawmakers in 2013 finally answered the public’s growing demand for the games. While this was largely seen as a moral issue in years past, the reality of allowing so many other forms of legal gambling — from Indian casinos to horse racing to bingo — made it difficult for opponents to keep the issue at bay.
So far the operation has been running smoothly and more lotto games were recently announced, which should keep players interested. With proceeds going to local governments and public schools, the only serious concern remains how the lottery corporation will make sure help is available for problem gamblers.
- With Republicans taking over the U.S. Senate, Sen. Mike Enzi was in a position to chair a committee in 2015. He’s 25th in seniority in the 100-member Senate, which aided his successful effort to take over the important Senate Budget Committee. It will put him in a much brighter political spotlight than Wyoming is used to seeing him.
Enzi has long criticized government waste and abuse, so it will be interesting to see what he does when it’s his job to set an agenda to root it out.
- State government kept up its war against the feds on a variety of issues, including the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed haze regulations. Gov. Matt Mead sued the federal agency over its rejection of portions of Wyoming’s plan to reduce haze from coal-fired electrical generation.
The main disagreement involves the EPA’s rules on regulating nitrogen oxide. Not surprisingly, the governor maintains the agency’s rules are too costly for both utilities and ratepayers.
- In a development the oil and gas industry and state government didn’t see coming, the Wyoming Supreme Court told the Natrona County District Court to reconsider whether the public has the right to know the ingredients in the chemical products used in hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking.
Industry considered Wyoming’s disclosure rules a model for the rest of the nation, but the state’s high court questioned whether state government can protect the identity of chemicals under the guise of trade secrets. The final decision will affect fracking operations in Wyoming and many other states for years to come.
- The much-ballyhooed Wyoming wolf management agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service came crashing down when a U.S. District Court judge in Washington, D.C., rejected their plan, which classified wolves as predators that could be shot on sight in most of the state. Who didn’t see this one coming?
This issue has been in the court system for years, bouncing from judge to judge, who alternately approve or reject Wyoming’s latest wolf plan. No one should expect the next ruling to decide the issue once and for all, but the state of Wyoming is appealing.
- In a last-minute budget amendment that escaped public attention, Republican leaders banned the Wyoming Board of Education from considering — or even talking about — funding the Next Generation Science Standards in public schools. The governor refused to veto the provision, helping make Wyoming a laughingstock in the eyes of the scientific community.
Tea Partiers bundled up this issue with outrage over Common Core standards as part of the alleged federal plan to take all local control away from school districts. This led to people actually debating whether evolution is a fact or theory. This was state legislative micromanaging at its worst, and hopefully at next year’s session lawmakers will undo the damage they caused.
- Declining oil and gas prices could very well be the top government/political issue of 2015, but right now there’s too much uncertainty about how lower tax revenues from energy development will impact state government.
Customers are taking advantage of lower prices at gas pumps, but analysts say if energy prices continue to fall, it could lead to another bust in Wyoming’s economy, which continues to be far too dependent on energy. Meanwhile, the negative impacts of fracking on the environment and the economy need to be carefully monitored.
- Someday, long into the future, Cindy Hill will probably be just a footnote in Wyoming’s political and educational history. But in 2014, she triggered one of the weirdest political fights the state has ever seen. Although she’s a Republican, she earned the wrath of GOP lawmakers who took away most of her powers as the elected superintendent of public instruction in 2013.
This year, the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled the state’s law that removed her as the schools chief was unconstitutional, and ordered she be allowed to go back to work. The Mead administration unsuccessfully put up legal roadblocks to her return. Meanwhile, Hill finished a distant third to Mead in the GOP gubernatorial primary.
Several lawmakers support a resolution to make the superintendent an appointed position instead of an elected one. Supposedly this will keep incompetent officials like Hill from controlling the public schools. But there’s another way to accomplish that — how about electing a Democrat once in awhile?
- Wyoming’s refusal to expand Medicaid led to terrible results no matter how one looks at the issue. Nearly 18,000 of the state’s working poor remain uninsured, unlike their counterparts in the 27 states that expanded programs. The decision of the Legislature and Mead — based on their desire for “Obamacare” to fail — has cost state government more than $100 million so far.
A recent Wyoming Hospital Association report estimates hospitals in the state provide a total of $200 million in uncompensated care, which “would be significantly offset through the full Medicaid expansion.” Our state’s medical facilities clearly cannot afford to sustain that kind of of loss year after year.
There is some hope an acceptable compromise between the feds and the state will be worked out, but it’s still a long shot, given that the vast majority of GOP legislators who rejected expansion the past two years still have their seats.
- The rapid and unexpected change legalizing same-sex marriage in Wyoming is my top news story of the year. Public attitudes have shifted in recent years, so it’s not like gays and lesbians weren’t eventually going to be able to wed legally. But I don’t think many proponents said at the end of 2013 it would happen this year.
After the U.S. Supreme Court chose to not hear appeals on state gay marriage bans, lower courts threw them out left and right. It happened in Wyoming, resulting in same-sex marriages throughout the state. While some people will always object, most realize the fact that the gay couple down the street living together for a decade is now legally wed isn’t having an iota of an effect on anyone else’s marriage.
This is the top story of the year in my book, because it was an epic change in Wyoming that means what was once an extremely divisive issue will become the norm — and that’s a great change for everyone.
— Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake is a contributor to WyoHistory.org. He also moderates the WyPols blog.
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Thank you to Kerry Drake for all of his sensitive, brave, and enlightening articles.