Over the weekend, the Wyoming House of Representatives voted 38-20 to pass emergency legislation to assist cost-burdened workers with their rent, expand the scope of the state’s unemployment insurance benefits and provide business owners with protections for laying off workers who otherwise would not have been let go.
It was a critical bill: If it failed, workers across Wyoming whose hours had been cut to save money would have gone six more weeks without being able to apply for unemployment benefits. Dollars to assist those who can’t pay rent would have gone unallocated. And businesses across Wyoming forced to lay off workers due to COVID-19 could potentially have seen the unemployment insurance funds that had been built up over years of hard work completely obliterated.
The optics of its defeat would have been hard to defend as well: With the failure of the act, lawmakers would have pushed the most significant bill to assist workers until at least June 29, when the legislature is expected to reconvene to address its second round of funding from the federal relief bill — meaning six more weeks workers in the existing system had missed would have gone without help.
So why, then, did nearly one-third of the House of Representatives vote against it?
In the end, it came down to a rushed process lacking transparency, as well as a last-minute — and potentially unconstitutional — amendment by the Senate that put members of the House of Representatives on the defensive and nearly derailed the entire bill.
Just hours before the Legislature gaveled in Friday, Sheridan Republicans Sen. Dave Kinskey and Rep. Richard Tass introduced emergency legislation to exempt businesses from liability should one of their patrons contract COVID-19. Though mirroring pushes from the nation’s Republican administration as well as business leaders around the country — and quickly adopted by conservatives in the Wyoming Senate by a rough two-thirds majority — the legislation was introduced at the last minute and without any public comment.
Many members of the House of Representatives supported the ethic of the bill. However, the broader implications of the legislation, and a lack of time to scrutinize it, made them wary. While Tass’ bill passed an introductory vote in the House, the speed and lack of transparency in the process drew the ire of House leadership, who — using the process to their advantage — put Tass’ version of the bill in a drawer, effectively killing it.
Normally, that would be the end of the story. However, in the late hours of debate Friday night, Rock Springs Sen. Liisa Anselmi-Dalton – a Democrat and a hotel owner who favored the original bill – introduced an amendment to a bill containing programs supporting numerous programs for workers, while leaving legislation sending money to businesses and other pieces of the emergency package unmolested.
While Senate President Drew Perkins issued a ruling that the amendment was not germane to the bill — an action mirrored in the House of Representatives when a similar amendment was introduced there — his fellow members of the Senate overruled the decision, setting the stage for a battle with the House over a piece of legislation only a minority on the other side supported. When a conference committee of House and Senate members met to hash out their differences, Anselmi-Dalton — as well as Senate Vice President and fellow business owner Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower — were explicitly clear that they were willing to kill the bill over the amendment, arguing that “hundreds” of business owners around the state had contacted them to support such a law.
Even though Wyoming already has numerous liability laws on the books to protect business owners — seemingly rendering such an amendment unnecessary — members of the Senate saw the amendment as a simple ask. The Wyoming Legislature had already acted on bills in the past to protect the owners of ski resorts in similar instances, for example, and a similar bill on the books could potentially help to dissuade opportunistic attorneys from pursuing frivolous lawsuits against business owners trying to save their businesses while acting in accordance with state and local public health orders. It would increase business confidence, Driskill said, keeping business owners doing their best to follow the law from being punished for simply trying to keep themselves afloat.
For members of the House, even a compromise appeared to be a non-starter. Many believed the legislation could potentially take away one’s First Amendment right to petition their government through the courts and felt they were being forced to cave on a flawed bill, where the numerous “good” parts of the legislation were being held hostage by the “bad” parts.
Eventually, members of the House negotiating team eventually supported a toned-down version of the amendment drafted by Sen. Tara Nethercott, a Cheyenne attorney who was similarly reluctant to support the deal.
However, when the bill was brought back to the House for final approval late Saturday afternoon, members eviscerated the amendment and the process to introduce it in nearly two hours of debate, casting doubt that the legislation would pass. House Speaker Pro Tempore Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, said the amendment was potentially unconstitutional, saying that rolling over would be a “black mark” on the House of Representatives. Rep. Charles Pelkey, D-Laramie, who originally planned on voting for the bill, later announced he would be flipping his vote, calling the business immunity provisions “unnerving” — a feeling shared by several other attorneys in the House. Others expressed anxiety about the possibility of leaving a bad law on the books for the six weeks until the Legislature meets in a second special session later this year. One other Democrat, Rep. Sara Burlingame, D-Cheyenne, also joined Pelkey in opposing the bill, citing similar concerns.
“People are saying to hold my nose, and vote for this,” said Rep. Mike Greear, R-Worland. “Think about that. Do we really want to restrict more rights of our citizens?”
“If we’re uncomfortable with this,” he added. “Let’s roll up our sleeves and go to work.”
As the hour grew late and the Senate had all but concluded its business, the legislation seemed doomed to fail, even with a second conference committee prepared to convene to hash out the differences. Dozens of members of the House from all parties had risen to speak against it, all citing their discomfort with one aspect of the bill: the process in which it had been introduced. The implications for workers largely went unmentioned until the very end, until individuals like Rep. Scott Clem, R-Gillette, decided to speak up, telling members, “I don’t want the perfect to become the enemy of the good.”
As House members prepared to vote, House Majority Floor Leader Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, seemed to swing the pendulum in the opposite direction, however, giving an impassioned speech focused on those the failure of the bill would hurt worst: the state’s record levels of unemployed workers.
“For them, it’s not just sensitive,” he said. “It’s critical.”
The bill — while imperfect — passed. But it was a long and difficult road to get there.
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