CHEYENNE — Gov. Mark Gordon allowed a controversial bill exempting Wyoming’s private schools from local zoning regulations to become law Friday, but he did so without his signature.
During the recently completed legislative session, the bill exposed a division among lawmakers: namely whether or not local control, which legislators often tout, should take a back seat to limiting how local governments regulate land use.
In a bill-signing ceremony Friday, Gordon acknowledged that presented a strong, philosophical question but said he would allow the bill to become law — albeit, without his signature.
“This was a tough issue, and I do want to take a moment to compliment the legislature for their consideration of this bill and how it went forward,” Gordon said. “This is a challenging piece of legislation.”
Gordon said the Legislature and local governments need to find a forum to discuss the challenges exposed by the debate over the bill in an attempt to find solutions that were closer to the ground, in order to avoid having to bring local issues to a head in the legislative session.
Sponsored by Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, Senate File 49 was inspired by zoning issues Stephen Friess faced as he planned a new facility for a Teton County private school that he funds. He is the son of Foster Friess, a Republican megadonor who lost to Gordon in last year’s GOP primary.
The facility was meant to serve as a permanent home for the school when its lease with a local church expires later this year. Many of the bill’s allies in the Legislature have argued the county’s unwillingness to grant the school one of the four variances it needed has presented an existential threat to the school, often citing a golf course with a massive clubhouse across the street as an example of the arbitrary nature of local zoning law.
Others, however, have argued that the school did not need to be as large as it was planned and that passing a bill with greater land use implications for the entire state was improper. The discussion also morphed into a conversation not about zoning rights, critics say, but whether there was a constitutional argument for the state to afford private schools the same constitutional privileges as public schools.
Some of these concerns were addressed in a more than two page letter the governor wrote to legislative leadership explaining his decision not to weigh in, saying that the bill — which undeniably erodes the rights of counties across Wyoming — presented an inherent conflict between his beliefs of limited government as well as local control.
“I do not take this action to avoid making a decision,” he wrote. “In my core, I believe government is best closest to the people and when it governs least. This bill sits in the saddle between those two. Despite the potential for criticism, I do believe, after the considered work of the legislature, at heart this bill is vastly less offensive to local control than it was to begin with. The issues that came to light during its deliberation were important ones and informative to the final product which remains unfinished.”
Despite declining to veto the bill, Gordon described his reservations with the bill in strong language, describing it in his letter as flawed and setting “an unfortunate precedent” for the state heading forward, particularly in how issues of local control have been settled in recent years.
“I am disappointed because I believe it is always better when solutions can be arrived at close to home,” he wrote. “It is a bedrock conservative value that in some ways seems to have been eroded to the chagrin of county commissions and local governments all over the state. And I am sad that the hard work of the county that struggled over the past several years to put its plan together was summarily overridden in the first few months of its implementation.
“In the end, this issue is not so much about big money arrayed against liberal elites or spirituality arrayed against secularism as it is an issue of due process and respect,” he added.