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2013 Look Back: The 'conflict merchants' and the 2013 Wyoming Legislature

2013-12-29T21:00:00Z 2013 Look Back: The 'conflict merchants' and the 2013 Wyoming LegislatureBy JOAN BARRON Star-Tribune capital bureau Casper Star-Tribune Online

CHEYENNE — Wyoming's 2013 general legislative session was unique — with some unpleasant undertones but productive overall, lawmakers say.

The unique label stems from passage of Senate File 104, the bill that removed elected state Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill's administrative duties and gave them to a governor-appointed director of the state Department of Education.

The legislative action left Hill with her constitutional responsibility for the public schools and of serving on state boards. It also requires new reports, such as one on the state of Wyoming’s public schools. And it added work with the teacher of the year program, seclusion and restraint policies, and professional development.

SF 104 turned the Legislature upside down, House Majority Floor Leader Kermit Brown, R-Laramie, said.

But the bill was dealt with fairly early in the session. It was introduced on Jan. 9 and sent to Gov. Matt Mead for signing in just 12 days.

"... Some people tried to keep it alive, but as far as the business of the Legislature, when it was over it was over," Brown said.

Still, the Hill story has not played out yet.

A lawsuit filed by Hill's attorney that challenges the constitutionality of SF 104 is pending before the Wyoming Supreme Court.

A Wyoming House of Representatives special investigation into possible wrongdoing by Hill when she ran the Education Department also is pending and potentially could result in her impeachment.

The House committee recommendations are expected before the Legislature's budget session opens Feb. 10.

At the outset of the 2013 session nearly a year ago, Senate President Tony Ross, R-Cheyenne, made a speech denouncing and mourning the loss of civility in public discourse and in national politics.

Some of that lack of civility surfaced in angry emails that flowed into lawmakers' inboxes following debates on such touchy issues as gun control and gay marriage.

Some of the emails to Rep. Lynn Hutchings, R-Cheyenne, were threatening, according to lawmakers. They were in response to a controversial statement Hutchings made about the gay and lesbian community taking advantage of the civil rights that were earned by African-Americans like herself.

Sen. Drew Perkins, R-Casper, sponsored a bill to make it a misdemeanor to threaten anyone by email. The legislation passed. The penalty is six months in jail, a $1,000 fine, or both. The penalty is the same that has been on the books for years for threats by telephone.

House Speaker Tom Lubnau, R-Gillette, predicted the "conflict merchants" will continue taking advantage of new technology and social media to make noise no matter what the Legislature does, or until the mainstream news media filter them out from legitimate voices.

Brown said Lubnau made a good decision to bundle all of the social bills together to be debated in one block of time. In the past, so-called social bills were scattered through the session so that although the legislative business went on, the volatile debates were a constant drumbeat.

The bundling decision helps the flow of bills and his job as floor manager easier, Brown said.

He added that he thought the 2013 session was orderly.

Rep. Jim Byrd, D-Cheyenne, said he though SF 104 overshadowed everything else the Legislature did in the 2013 session. It was a legitimate administrative action, he said, and the alternative would have been to reorganize the state Department of Education. It was easier to sever the department from the superintendent, he said.

"We were not, as one legislator claimed, a mob of lynch men," Byrd said.

In the short term, there were positive results in the improved morale of state Department of Education employees following the passage of SF 104, he said.

Meanwhile, Byrd said he was surprised that a bill to allow same-sex civil unions was advanced by a House committee. Although it died on the House floor, its slight progress, he said, could mean resistance to same-sex civil unions is diminishing.

Contact capital bureau reporter Joan Barron at 307-632-1244 or joan.barron@trib.com

Copyright 2015 Casper Star-Tribune Online. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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