In the early 1990s, the Equality State Policy Center started compiling a hefty volume each year called the Legislative Accountability Project. Weighing in at well over 200 pages, the book tracked how every legislator voted on various measures and tallied their campaign spending and contributions. It was beloved by the press and relied on by a host of Cheyenne lobbyists.
But times have changed.
“I think that’s a really great tool for people who are in the process and are in the Legislature day in and day out,” said EPSC communications director Robert West. “But we’re not looking to provide those people a tool right now.”
Instead, the coalition of progressive organizations in Wyoming is seeking to become more accessible to the general public.
On Oct. 1, the group will launch The People’s Review, a condensed and streamlined version of the old Legislative Accountability Project. The review will be an annual listing of how legislators vote on a handful of bills important to the ESPC and will be distributed both online and in newspapers around the state. West hopes it will help voters more effectively judge lawmakers.
The advertisements will highlight how lawmakers in a newspaper’s circulation area voted on issues like minimum wage increases, school funding and the recording of legislative meetings.
“There’s a pretty great disparity between the average person and the decisions being made by the lawmakers elected to represent them,” said ESPC director Phoebe Stoner.
Stoner said the disconnect is partially due to the size of the state and the remoteness of Cheyenne to many communities. Living in Jackson, she noted that it was possible to drive to state capitals in Idaho, Montana and Utah faster than it was to reach Cheyenne.
The review is meant to shrink that gap.
But it exists within a larger project meant to focus the ESPC’s mission around three areas: transparent government, fair elections and thriving communities.
Founded in 1993, ESPC has long focused on “good government” and fought for campaign finance and lobbyist disclosures, among other issues. In that sense, the new three-pronged advocacy approach isn’t too different than in past years. But Stoner said that the center wants to makes its mission clearer to both the public and to its 29 coalition members, which range from the Powder River Basin Resource Council to the United Steelworkers and Wyoming Equality.
“Our vision and our mission before was something that was an unspoken understanding among our coalition members,” Stoner said. “But now it’s something we can coalesce around.”
The group is also redesigning its website and has given its logo a facelift for the first time since its founding, all the better to reach the public. While the group has generally focused on lobbying lawmakers on various bills, it also conducts training in civic engagement for state residents.
While the last piece of the center’s new vision — “thriving communities” — includes more controversial issues like minimum wage increases, the three pillars seek to brand the organization as non-partisan and focused on issues with broad public appeal.
That is important because in the past the group has faced attacks claiming that it has an “ultra-liberal” agenda.
Stoner strenuously disputes the notion that ESPC is a liberal organization and notes that its non-profit status bars it from partisan political activity. She pointed out that Democratic state senators helped kill a bill backed by the group that would have required legislative meetings to be recorded and posted online.
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Nonetheless, the group is closely associated with the tiny political left in Wyoming.
The board is made up of labor, social justice and conservation organizations. Stoner became director last year and her immediate predecessor, Bri Jones, is currently managing Democrat Mary Throne’s campaign for Wyoming governor. Directors before Jones include Dan Neal, who ran unsuccessfully for the Legislature as a Democrat last year and Tom Throop, who was a Democratic lawmaker in Oregon before moving to Wyoming.
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“Their support comes from groups that share an ultra liberal agenda and are closely allied with the very left wing of the national Democratic Party,” the state GOP wrote in 2000 a press release.
Almost two decades later, Stoner is hoping to create a more proactive and clearly defined agenda in the group’s lobbying activities. Instead of responding to bills as they arise during the Legislature’s meetings, Stoner wants ESPC to suggest ways for lawmakers to improve government transparency and other goals.
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“I think so often our work as people in politics is kind of bogged down by the present moment and it’s really important to look down the road and envision where we could be,” she said.
In addition to presenting a popular face to the public, Stoner said the three pillars will also help the coalition’s members understand how the group is investing its resources and why. Notably, the priorities are largely palatable across a coalition that includes membership, like labor unions and environmental groups, that might clash over more specific issues such as whether to build new power plants in the state.
“It’s not assumed that all our groups agree on everything all the time,” Stoner said. “We are trying to operate on a level that’s high enough to basically do good for all of our member groups and also just the people of Wyoming.”
Marguerite Herman, who has worked with ESPC in the past as part of her involvement in the Wyoming League of Women Voters, said the group’s newly distilled vision is similar to its prior advocacy work.
But, Herman said, it may help move the organization away from a leader-oriented advocacy style. She cited Throop and Neal as big personalities who, while respected by many lawmakers, came to embody the center itself.
“Maybe being more agenda driven — issue driven — may actually change the way the Legislature sees them,” Herman said. “I hope the group gets another look by some people who might like to put them in a slot as, ‘Oh that leftist group, we don’t have to listen to them.’”