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Wyoming defensive end Garrett Crall stands in a pre-game huddle hyping up his teammates before the Cowboys' game against Montana State on Sept. 4 at War Memorial Stadium in Laramie.

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Wyoming Legislature may hold special session on federal vaccine mandate, lawmakers say
  • Updated

As Gov. Mark Gordon is weighing options on how to push back against President Joe Biden’s recent COVID-19 vaccine mandate, it appears part of that effort may come in the form of a special legislative session.

Gordon has been meeting with legislative leaders, and Senate President Dan Dockstader, R-Afton, believes it’s likely there is going to be a special session on the topic of vaccine mandates.

“I think it’s leaning that way, but the formal statement has to come from the governor’s office,” Dockstader said.

But under the U.S. Constitution, which gives priority to federal laws over state statutes, a special session is not likely to produce legislation that could effectively block an executive order from the president, a legal expert told the Star-Tribune.

Biden announced an executive order last week that would require COVID-19 vaccinations for employees at companies with over 100 workers, of which Wyoming has more than 300. If they remain unvaccinated, workers would have to be tested for the virus once a week, according to the order. The president is attempting to implement the mandate via the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a regulatory agency that, in part, protects employees from “grave danger” in the workplace.

Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, who has been in the Legislature for almost 20 years, is also confident there will be a special session based on the phone calls he’s had in recent days.

The governor has the power to convene a special session. Barring that, the full Legislature would have to hold a public vote on whether to hold one.

As of right now, it remains unclear whether or not the special session will come out of the governor’s office or the Legislature.

The governor’s office declined comment Tuesday when asked about the possibility of a special session. A day earlier, a Gordon spokesman said the governor was working with state lawmakers, the Wyoming attorney general and other governors on ways to oppose the Biden mandate.

The governor has met with several members of the House Freedom Caucus to hear concerns about vaccine mandates.

Although a special session would likely only last a matter of days, it comes at a price — roughly $25,000 per day, according to Speaker Eric Barlow, R-Gillette.

“It could all be digital,” Dockstader said. “Digital would be the way to go because we’d save money,” he added.

But holding a special session and passing bills in response to Biden’s executive order would likely have no tangible outcome, said one constitutional expert.

Unless a federal judge rules the delta variant, a more contagious strain of the virus, does not pose a grave danger to the workplace, it’s unlikely any bill passed in the Legislature would have an effect.

“If they do pass it ... it carries no weight,” said Dr. David Adler, a professor of constitutional law and the director of the the Alturas Institute.

“It will be futile. it will be a waste of taxpayer dollars,” he added.

Under Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, which is commonly referred to as the “Supremacy Clause,” federal laws take priority over state laws.

One path forward for mandate critics could be noncompliance — Wyoming companies could simply not enforce the executive order, in which case they could face fines in the tens of up to thousands of dollars per worker, Adler said.

Democrats revise voting rights bill
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WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats unveiled a pared back elections bill Tuesday in hopes of kick-starting their stalled push to counteract new laws in Republican states that could make it more difficult to cast a ballot.

But the new compromise legislation is likely doomed to fail in the 50-50 Senate, facing the same lockstep Republican opposition that scuttled their previous attempts to pass an even more sweeping bill. The GOP blasted the earlier measure as “unnecessary” and a “partisan power grab.”

Republican-controlled legislatures enacted restrictions over the past year in the name of election security that will make it harder to vote and could make the administration of the elections more subject to partisan interference. Texas, which already has some of the country’s strictest voting rules, recently adopted a law that will further limit the ability to cast a ballot, empower party poll watchers and create new criminal penalties for those who run afoul of the rules — even if inadvertently.

The spate of new voting laws — many inspired by former President Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen election — ratcheted up pressure on Democrats in Congress to pass legislation that could counteract the GOP push. Trump’s claims of election fraud were widely rejected in the courts, by state officials who certified the results and by his own attorney general.

“We have seen unprecedented attacks on our democracy in states across the country. These attacks demand an immediate federal response,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., the lead sponsor of the new bill.

The revised legislation was negotiated for weeks by a group of Democratic senators and includes many of the same provisions as the previous bill, known as the For the People Act.

It would establish national rules for running elections, limit partisanship in the drawing of congressional districts and force the disclosure of many anonymous donors who spend big to influence elections, according to a summary obtained by The Associated Press.

But it also includes a number of changes sought by West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, the chamber’s most conservative Democrat. That includes provisions that would limit, but not prohibit, state voter ID requirements, as well as the elimination of a proposed overhaul of the Federal Election Commission, which was intended to alleviate partisan gridlock at the election watchdog agency.

The new measure also dumps language that would have created a public financing system for federal elections. It would instead establish a more limited financing system for House candidates that states could opt to participate in.

Other provisions are aimed at alleviating concerns from local elections officials, who worried that that original bill would have been too difficult to implement. Some new additions are aimed at insulating nonpartisan election officials, who may be subject to greater partisan pressure under some of the new state laws.

White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday that the administration was “encouraged by the momentum” and said President Joe Biden would “continue to work with Congress” to pass the bill.

Despite the changes, Republicans are expected to uniformly oppose the measure, which they say amounts to a federal takeover of elections. That leaves Democrats well short of the 60 votes needed to advance the bill unless they change the Senate’s filibuster rules, which Manchin and other moderates have ruled out.

Manchin has said Congress shouldn’t pass voting legislation unless it is bipartisan. He shopped the revised bill to some Republican senators in recent weeks, seeking their support. But there are no indications of any signing on.

Manchin told reporters Tuesday that the new bill “makes more sense, it’s more practical, more reasonable,” but said he “didn’t have anything to say” about making changes to the filibuster.

“Now we have to sit down and work with our Republican colleagues,” he said.

“I’m headed to do that right now,” Klobuchar said before walking on to the Senate floor.

But moments later, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell threw cold water on the bill, calling it “a solution in search of a problem” that “we will not be supporting.”

“Let me say for the umpteenth time,” the Kentucky Republican said. “There is no rational basis for the federal government taking over how we conduct elections.”

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Wyoming's COVID-19 death toll rises by 39
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Thirty-nine more Wyomingites have died from COVID-19, the Wyoming Department of Health reported Tuesday. This week’s update is nearly double what the health department reported last week, and is the largest weekly update since cases again began surging here this summer.

There have now been 918 coronavirus-caused deaths in Wyoming since the pandemic arrived here in March 2020.

Of the newly reported deaths, 22 occurred this month, according to the health department. Fifteen of the deaths occurred in August, and one occurred in each June and July.

Thirty-four of the 39 residents had been hospitalized prior to their deaths — nine of whom were hospitalized out of state. Twenty-four of the 39 had underlying health conditions increasing their risk for severe illness from the virus.

Last week, the state reported 21 COVID deaths.

The state does not include a death in its COVID-19 count unless the virus is listed on the patient’s death certificate as either the cause of death or a contributing factor. There is often a lag between when deaths occur and when deaths are reported because of the time it takes for death certificates to be processed.

Deaths declined dramatically this spring, with the number reported each week in the single digits since mid-March. But the trend hasn’t held. The weekly updates on COVID-19 deaths have been in the double digits for several of the past weeks. Still, figures are roughly half what they were in early winter when the state was recording more than 50 deaths per week.

COVID-19 infections, too, had plummeted since the winter surge. But cases and hospitalizations are surging again as unvaccinated residents develop severe illness from the virus. On Monday, 217 people were hospitalized for COVID-19 in Wyoming.

The state health department is not releasing the vaccine status of each hospitalized patient but has said roughly 95% of recent hospitalizations have been among the unvaccinated.

A more contagious variant of the virus has led federal and state officials to again recommend face masks be worn in areas with low vaccine uptake and moderate-to-high virus transmission.

Gov. Mark Gordon has said his office will not implement any additional mandates or lockdowns. Gordon said he encourages residents to get vaccinated but that the decision is “intensely personal” and he is not planning any interventions to increase uptake.

Wyoming’s vaccination rate trails the nation. The state is in a three-way tie for the lowest proportion of fully and partially vaccinated residents in the U.S.

Less than 37% of the state is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and about 248,300 people have received at least one dose of a vaccine.

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Lawmakers, state superintendent propose bill to fight against critical race theory in schools
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Critical race theory may not be found in Wyoming classrooms, but it has found its way into sights of state lawmakers.

A bill requiring school districts to create an online directory listing all teaching materials and curriculum used in each school by grade-level and subject will be presented to state lawmakers at the upcoming February budget session.

Non-budget related bills can be considered during a budget session, but must pass a two-thirds introductory vote.

The bill’s sponsors, Senate President Dan Dockstader and Sen. Ogden Driskill stressed in a Friday announcement the legislation is about transparency, nothing more.

“Don’t make it something that it’s not,” Dockstader said during a press conference to announce the bill.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow, however, made it clear the bill exists to challenge critical race theory — a college-level academic framework examining how racism is embedded in U.S. institutions and society.

“Nationwide, we’ve seen K-12 school board meetings engulfed in hostile debate about critical race theory in classrooms,” Balow said Friday. “It is time that we take a stand and action in Wyoming to address this very topic.”

The Wyoming Department of Education’s announcement of the legislation also focused on critical race theory’s impact on public schools.

She went on to say critical race theory is not being taught in Wyoming classrooms.

“It is unlikely that this theory literally … is being taught to K-12 students,” she said. But, she said, the term has become an umbrella for “topics that do not square with the founding of the United States of America.” Balow offered systemic racism and white privilege as examples of topics she believes are being taught in Wyoming classrooms. She said she knew these topics were being taught based on conversations with constituents.

At least in Natrona County, students receive a limited education on race. Explicit references to race in the district’s social studies curriculum are few.

The curriculum includes just three references to the word slavery or slaves — all in the same section for eighth-grade students. The word “racism” does not appear in the curriculum once.

The Star-Tribune reviewed the curriculum after a district trustee made inaccurate statements about critical race theory in a public meeting this summer.

Both Driskill and Dockstader spoke during Friday’s announcement, but neither lawmaker mentioned critical race theory. Instead, they each said the bill’s intent is to provide more information to parents and community members on what students are being taught in local schools.

“So if they’re bringing in guest speakers, they’re bringing in something from out of the country, out of the state that doesn’t fit, there’s a chance for everybody to see it,” Driskill said.

It is atypical for lawmakers to hold press conferences announcing individually-sponsored bills. Typically, there is a political motivation to do so, like when former representative Tyler Linholm brought Sen. Rand Paul to Wyoming in 2020 to support a bill restricting when the national guard can be deployed. That legislation ultimately failed.

The proposed education bill does not mention critical race theory, nor is it specific to civics education, despite the bill title. It requires that a school district list online all materials and curriculum educators use for instruction, by grade, by subject.

It also adds language requiring fourth-grade students to learn the first two paragraphs and the last sentence of the Declaration of Independence, as well as certain components of the state constitution.

Students are already required to pass exams on the U.S. and Wyoming constitutions to graduate high school, per statute.

It is unclear if educators were consulted when the bill was drafted. Driskill did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

The Wyoming Education Association has come out against the bill.

“This draft legislation is the perfect example of a problem we see time and again here in Wyoming. The legislation reflects a lack of understanding about what’s practical in Wyoming classrooms,” WEA president Grady Hutcherson said in a Tuesday statement.

While Hutcherson voiced support for efforts meant to bolster transparency, he said the bill as written would limit teachers’ ability to be flexible and creative in their approaches.

“The very best educators enhance and bolster students’ learning with countless resources and materials every single day. It’s unrealistic and limiting to expect them to keep account of every resource they incorporate into teaching,” he said, adding “The Wyoming Education Association firmly believes that all students deserve honesty in education, and it is educators — not pundits or politicians — who know how to best develop age-appropriate lessons for students.”

The state does have mechanisms to oversee what public schools are teaching. Members of the State Board of Education are appointed by the governor, and that body approves content and performance standards that guide how school districts develop local curriculum.

Hutcherson said the standards process is the preferred mechanism to address any concerns about what Wyoming students are learning.

State standards do not prescribe what materials teachers use in the classroom. In fact, statute prohibits that body from requiring specific materials or curriculum, leaving that responsibility to local school boards.

A district’s curriculum is typically developed by its own staff and then approved by the board of trustees.

Wyoming’s social studies standards are up for review in 2023, and Hutcherson said that process allows for public participation.

When the state does begin reviewing those standards, it will have its work cut out for it. The conservative-leaning Thomas Fordham Institute in June published rankings of each state’s standards in Civics and U.S. History. It recommended “a complete revision” for Wyoming.

Balow in a previous interview with the Star-Tribune said she was “enthused” by the dismal report’s call to action. When introducing the Civics Transparency Act Friday, Balow cited the state’s poor standards as the reason “inappropriate content” has crept into classrooms.

The legislature’s Joint Education Committee has already rejected a bill meant to restrict critical race theory in classrooms.

Sen. Charlie Scott in July proposed the committee sponsor a similar bill to Driskill’s, but it died on a 7-7 vote.