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Legislature prepares for socially distanced session

Legislature prepares for socially distanced session

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Swearing In

Members of the House of Representatives participate in a socially distant swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 4 at the Capitol in Cheyenne.

In most years, the first day’s schedule for the Wyoming Legislature is predictable.

The governor delivers their State of the State Address to lawmakers in the House Chambers. Members of legislative leadership are officially sworn in. Lawmakers shake hands. Hugs are shared. Speeches are made. And then legislators get to work on the first bills of the session.

This, however, is not a normal year.

On Tuesday, the Wyoming Legislature will begin what is likely to be one of the most strangest sessions in the 130-year history of the Cowboy State, expected to adjourn shortly after the opening speeches end and the transfer of power between the 65th and 66th legislatures has officially concluded. Gov. Mark Gordon, according to a spokesperson, will deliver the State of the State via video address.

Only about half of the representatives are expected to attend Tuesday’s events in person — citing concerns about COVID-19 or the long distance needed to travel for the one-day session. The Day One itinerary is slim, with only a handful of events planned before the Legislature adjourns to an all-digital, modified session that will begin sometime after March 1.

The modified process will change the way lawmaking is traditionally made. There will be no hushed meetings in the hallways, no lobbyists lined up to speak with lawmakers just outside the chamber doors and no members of the public sending in notes to their representatives for a brief one-on-one ahead of a vote. From a logistics standpoint, the changes are not expected to drastically change the way laws are made, with public comment still part of the process and with all of the committee meetings available online, similar to how the Legislature’s special session was conducted in spring 2020.

According to a session schedule released Monday by the Legislative Service Office, a limited number of bills that had already been heavily vetted at the committee level will be introduced and referred to standing committees for a modified, three-day session next week before an eight-day round of online meetings to discuss and debate those bills. If all goes as planned, the schedule will be set up to allow more complicated issues like the budget and other, more controversial bills on topics like abortion, reining in the powers of public health officers and even the criminalization of bestiality to be debated in person when lawmakers reconvene later.

“Our end goal has certainly been — the president-elect and myself — to do as much work as we can in person,” Speaker of the House Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, told Wyoming PBS this past weekend.

By saving longer, more complicated bills — and a large number of anticipated budget cuts — until later in the session, lawmakers hope the timeline could help increase the speed of the session and get more bills on the governor’s desk quicker.

“The idea is to get more bills worked and ready so that when we come back in session in March, we have more bills in the hopper ready to rock and roll,” said House Majority Floor Leader Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale.

In the days leading up to session, there has been some talk among some of the Legislature’s right-wing members to object to adjourning the session on Tuesday and pushing for the body to undergo its normal schedule in a hybrid session. LSO officials have maintained this would likely be difficult due to concerns over COVID-19, particularly at the height of flu season.

“Our session staff are primarily retirees in the Cheyenne community who view their work for the Legislature as fulfilling a civic duty,” LSO director Matt Obrecht told the Star-Tribune in an email. “These folks play a key role in the citizen legislature process, but many are unwilling currently to staff an in-person legislative session during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many session staff either are at higher risk of developing complications from COVID-19 themselves or they care for parents or spouses who are at higher risk.”

Despite legislative leadership rejecting a proposal to hold a standard, 40-day session last month for similar reasons, some lawmakers have remained firm that the session begin as scheduled, citing in-person sessions in Congress and other states.

“I’m going to be adamant that we start on time,” Sen. Tom James, R-Rock Springs, said in a Facebook Live broadcast with fellow lawmakers last week. “We have the ability to have a safe session and with all the safety measures in place, I think that we can do it. We have the masks supplied, we have the barriers set up. We have the ability.”

“For the ones who want to stay home and do the session over the computer, they have that option,” he added. “For the ones that want to go down there, they have that option as well.”

Lawmakers in the House and Senate could potentially object to adjourning on Tuesday, forcing a debate on the topic. While there is no vote scheduled on the Senate side — which is much more conservative than the House — it is unclear whether the lower chamber has the votes needed to successfully undo plans to delay the session. No plans to object have been announced publicly.

“There will be a motion to adjourn, and that could end up being a roll call,” Sommers said. “If anybody wants to, they could challenge that motion. Whether anybody is going to do that or not, I don’t know. Nobody has told me face to face if they will do that, but that very well may happen.”

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Politics Reporter

Nick Reynolds covers state politics and policy. A native of Central New York, he has spent his career covering governments big and small, and several Congressional campaigns. He graduated from the State University of New York at Brockport in 2015.

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