In Wyoming’s citizen Legislature, where legislators aren’t professionals, individual lawmakers often hold significant sway among their colleagues. Whether it’s based on their position in the leadership, how long they have served, deep knowledge in a particular area or experience based on their day jobs, certain lawmakers are likely to play a major role in this year’s session. Here are some of them:
Senate President Eli Bebout, R-Riverton
Bebout has been active in state politics for decades. He entered the Legislature as a Democrat in 1987, switched parties and became a leader in the Republican-controlled House in the early 1990s, and finally was appointed to the Senate in 2007. Entering his second year as Senate president, Bebout has remained as steadfastly against tax increases as he was during the last session. As lawmakers have debated solutions to the education funding crisis, he has maintained the answer will not be revenue increases and has said the Senate is strong in that conviction. He has been a vocal critic of the outcomes of Wyoming’s education system — like test scores — and has suggested the state pays too much to educate its students. Last year, his chamber passed a bill to impose steep cuts to schools, and it stripped a House bill of conditional tax increases. It seems likely any bill to come this year will follow a similar track.
House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper
In contrast to Bebout, the House speaker — and rumored gubernatorial candidate — has remained a relative moderate on education funding. Harshman works as a teacher and football coach at Natrona County High School in Casper, and he’s said repeatedly that the state does, in fact, get an educational bang for its buck on school funding. He’s also said legislators will not cut their way out of the crisis, and unlike some who’ve said similar things, he’s backed it up: A bill he strongly supported last session included a number of conditional tax increases to fund schools and ultimately tapped the Legislature’s rainy day fund to keep schools funded, a somewhat unpopular proposal in Cheyenne. Whether he’ll resurrect his call for potential tax increases in a session in which lawmakers face a smaller education funding deficit remains to be seen. Following state revenue projections that found several hundred million dollars more for the Legislature to work with, Harshman all but said major new taxes were likely off the table. But he remains more flexible on the issue than Bebout and some of his other, more conservative, colleagues in the Legislature.
Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie
Rothfuss has been a key player — and advocate — of school funding over the past year and will almost certainly continue to be. He’s defended educational outcomes and warned against further cuts. When the Legislature passed a budget amendment last year to ensure reductions of $91 million, he criticized the proposal, which passed but was ultimately reduced to the point that it was effectively neutralized. Like Harshman, he’s told his fellow lawmakers that cuts alone aren’t a solution. His party affiliation and safe Laramie seat shield him from some of the backlash Republican lawmakers often face for expressing openness to tax increases. His Senate colleagues tend to respect him and take him seriously — even if they vote down many of his ideas, such as a bill last year that would have undertaken a comprehensive study of Wyoming’s tax structure, similar to the Tax Reform 2000 proposal two decades ago. In a chamber that’s 90 percent Republican, and generally favors cuts to schools and other public services over other solutions, Rothfuss is one of the relatively few voices of opposition.
n. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan
Kinskey is a strong conservative voice in the Senate, though his past service as mayor of Sheridan means he also understands the practical realities of day-to-day governance and has a pragmatic streak. A member of the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration, Kinskey has backed Bebout’s call for no tax increases and has also suggested Wyoming pays too much for what it’s receiving in the way of outcomes from schools. Last session, he sponsored a proposed constitutional amendment to give the Legislature sole authority to determine if schools are adequately funded (the bill died in the House).
Rep. David Northrup, R-Powell, and Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody
The chairmen of the House and Senate education committees — and members of the recalibration committee — Northrup and Coe have been heavily involved in education funding discussions over the past year. Northrup’s committee sponsored the omnibus bill that became the Legislature’s primary education bill from last session. Coe, meanwhile, was one of the primary architects behind the $91 million budget proposal and also co-sponsored a Senate bill that would’ve instituted steeper cuts than what the House had proposed. That bill died, after Northrup’s House committee amended it significantly. Northrup later said he was glad it had been killed.
Rep. Michael Madden, R-Buffalo
Chair of the House Revenue Committee, Madden has long been a moderate voice on many tax issues. While Madden opposes plenty of tax proposals and has taken a fiscally conservative stance on the use of reserves and related issues, he has been willing to take heat for an openness to diversifying Wyoming’s tax base.