CHEYENNE — A rite of passage for freshman lawmakers is introducing a bill on the floor. The state Senate rarely allows it to happen. Some representatives don’t do it until their second year. When freshman Rep. Tom Walters, R-Casper, had an opportunity to present a bill to the House, he didn’t hesitate.
“I’ll do it,” he told Keith Gingery, R-Jackson, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
It wasn’t controversial legislation. But it was important. The bill allows the state to collect more restitution from criminals to help victims of violent crimes.
When Walters took the bill to the floor for its first debate earlier this month, he said there were butterflies in his stomach. It was his first week in the Legislature. Speaking in front of a group of seasoned legislators is no easy task. “There’s always that sense of being nervous,” he said.
But Walters kept his composure. The bill passed the House and is headed to the Senate.
The new members of the 62nd Legislature have a steep learning curve, said Rep. Patrick Goggles, D-Ethete. They have to learn the statutes, learn the lingo and learn how to manage the workflow. Lawyers have the easiest transition, Goggles said. Not one of the 19 new legislators practices law.
“You eat, sleep, dream politics,” Goggles said. “You make it a part of your routine. Some adapt quickly. For others, it takes a full term or a second term.”
Dozens of lawmakers have come in under the aegis of Goggles. He is serving his fifth term in the House and is a former minority floor leader. It’s the job of leadership positions to usher in the neophytes during training sessions.
With the freshmen, it’s not about party politics, said Minority Caucus Chairwoman Cathy Connolly, a Democratic representative from Laramie.
“As legislators, we all want what’s best for the state, and that means helping freshmen,” she said.
Sitting right behind Connolly is freshman Rep. Lynn Hutchings, R-Cheyenne. Hutchings and Connolly may represent different parties, but Connolly is always there to help Hutchings with the growing pains of being a freshman.
“I am always asking Representative Connolly what’s going on,” Hutchings said.
Hutchings is a former IT specialist with the Air National Guard. She retired and planned to relax. But her two favorite subjects didn’t allow her to take it easy.
“If you’re going to talk to Lynn Hutchings, you’re going to talk about politics and religion,” she said.
As the glory of the campaign trail fades, the long nights and stacks of bills come into focus during the first days of the session. A short day is 12 hours, Goggles said. There are new faces and a lot of rules.
Then there are constituents from back home, and they don’t forget about their votes, said freshman Sen. Jim L. Anderson, R-Casper.
“I’ve been replying to emails all week about the fuel tax and [the schools superintendent bill],” he said. “That’s what I want to do. It’s what they elected me to do.”
For freshman Rep. Marti Halverson, R-Etna, getting her political feet wet in the Cowboy State was easier than in her prior home.
“I cut my political teeth as a Republican in Chicago,” she said. “This is nothing.”
Hutchings was sick with the flu during her first week on the job this year. She said the work — and the cough medicine — had her sleeping like a baby.
“During the session you have to pace yourself,” Goggles said. “You need rest. Coming in tired adds to frustration.”
Hutchings lives about 30 minutes from the state Capitol and doesn’t have to stay in a hotel like most legislators. But the comforts of home do have their downsides.
“I still have to take care of the home and my husband,” she said with a laugh.
Walters went home to see his wife after his first week as a lawmaker.
“She’s getting used to me not being there,” he said with a smile.
Halverson’s home is 466 miles from the Capitol. She couldn’t bring her five dogs and five cats to the Little America Hotel.
“It’s quiet at night,” she said.
Rep. Garry Piiparinen is a teacher in Evanston. His wife is the substitute teacher for his class of fourth-graders.
“I’ve been Skyping and Facebooking with my students,” he said.
On the floor Friday, Piiparinen spoke against the proposed 10-cents-per-gallon fuel tax hike. He’d been corresponding with his constituents. They didn’t want the bill to pass. His voice was wobbly when he introduced himself. But then he found his equanimity.
“The power to tax is the power to destroy,” he said.
Before the session begins, the lore of lobbyists is often blown out of proportion for freshman lawmakers in Wyoming. Walters and Anderson said they view them as educators.
When people hear lobbyists, they think of Washington, said Mike Moser, executive director and lobbyist for the Wyoming State Liquor Association.
That perception doesn’t apply to Wyoming, he said.
With the hundreds of bills, statutes and other material inundating lawmakers, freshmen face a tidal wave of information. Because Wyoming is a citizen’s legislature, the lawmakers don’t have staff to deal with interest groups. The lobbyists research for them.
“We do it face to face with them,” Moser said. “We come in handy because we know a lot about certain things.”
Freshman lawmakers have to learn how to filter, Goggles said.
“It’s a part of the climate,” he said.