CHEYENNE — Despite favorable reception in the Wyoming Senate, a bill that would have allowed the state government to take over federal facilities in the case of a government shutdown or a natural disaster died before reaching the House floor last week by a 3-5 vote.
Sponsored by longtime Sen. Charlie Scott, R-Casper, Senate File 148 would have essentially codified the governor’s authority to take over federal facilities in Wyoming — like its national parks — should the federal government be unable to “successfully operate” those facilities for any reason.
If passed, the legislation would have allowed the state government to completely mobilize during a shutdown and would have given the governor express written consent to employ the state parks system and municipal governments, as well as departments like Game & Fish, local law enforcement and the National Guard, to keep the parks operating.
The language of the bill is non-specific by design, intended to allow the chief executive of Wyoming to take — or not take — any course of action they deem necessary. What they needed, Scott said, was some tough language implemented at the state level to allow Wyoming to work past the bureaucrats in Washington in the instance of roadblocks like an environmental impact statement or “some foolishness like that.”
“It’s a general authority we need,” said Scott. “You could have a natural disaster that would call for us to help the feds, these facilities could be in a seismically active area or something similar. I thought it would be better to keep this general, so we could have the flexibility to deal with these things.”
Such an instance is not without precedent; Gov. Milward Simpson in the 1950s created a Yellowstone Park Commission attempting to seize control of park concessions, causing a public relations uproar.
Scott, however, said the intent of the bill was to avoid a similar instance by encouraging the state to enter into some sort of cooperative contingency plan or memorandum of understanding with the federal government.
“That’s what we hope will happen,” he said. “The current (presidential) administration in the previous shutdown showed an inclination to minimize the negative impacts of the shutdown. So I think we could work to get permission from the highest level.”
Others didn’t see it that way.
Early critics of the bill questioned its dubious constitutionality and others, in testimony Wednesday morning, questioned the vague language in the bill, which Scott claimed would have allowed the governor of Wyoming the ultimate level of flexibility should the powers of the law be invoked.
“The way the bill is written, we think it’s going to backfire,” Wyoming Outdoor Council program director Stephanie Kessler said.
“It’s unconstitutional and may encourage our governor to take actions that are illegal,” she added, before reading the committee some of the vague language in the bill outlining the parameters of the governor’s authority as proposed in the bill.
“There’s nothing in here that says the governor needs to get the permission and work with the federal government to do any of this,” she said.
Others, like Tasha Sorenson, a lobbyist for the sportsmans group Trout Unlimited, said that they would love the state to work together with the federal government to develop some cooperative agreements similar to those utilized in Utah. However, the powers granted under the bill could lead to controversies like the seizure of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon several years ago, she said, which “tore the community apart.”
“There’s a lot of open-endedness in the bill and even with the word ‘seizure’ taken out, there’s still the intent,” she said.
While discussion of the legislation among committee members was limited throughout the hearing, Rep. Joe MacGuire, R-Casper, reminded the committee that in the early 1800s, the United States Federal Government bought the majority of Wyoming in hard cash through the Louisiana Purchase, acquiring the rest in the 1840s through treaties with the British and Mexican governments.
That recognition of ownership, he noted, has held for more than two centuries, even during the devastation of the Yellowstone wildfires of the late 1980s.
“Like it or not, our system of government has respected ownership of property for hundreds of years,” he said. “To start putting in legislation that says we can overstep or bounds and seize property, I don’t see how that is proper.
“To create legislation like this is not appropriate.”