State lawmakers had their hands full during 2020’s unprecedented legislative session.
Their tasks included finding a solution to Wyoming’s education funding model and agreeing on a supplemental budget, on top of debating hundreds of bills.
About 150 bills passed both the Senate and House of Representatives before the session concluded on Wednesday.
On the whole, it has been an unusual general session this year. The COVID-19 pandemic knocked the governing body’s typical schedule off course. The Legislature convened for a one-day stint in January, followed by an eight-day, mostly virtual session in February. Then, on March 1, the governing bodies gaveled in at the Capitol for a month-long, in-person session.
The Star-Tribune covered Wyoming’s session from start to finish. Here’s a rundown of what happened, and how the actions taken by lawmakers could affect the state.
Lawmakers can’t agree on education funding plan
At the heart of this year’s session sat the ongoing puzzle of how to sustainably fund Wyoming’s K-12 education system, which is running at a $300 million dollar deficit.
Ultimately, no solution came. House members hoped to find cuts while adding a conditional 0.5% sales tax that would only be activated if the state’s education funding account fell below a certain point. The Senate balked at the proposal. When explaining to his colleagues why no deal could be made, Sen. Charlie Scott called House members “tax-and-spend liberals” and decried efforts to utilize federal pandemic relief dollars to offset the proposed cuts.
The House and Senate did agree to cut about $80 million to “phantom” health insurance costs over three years, but couldn’t find common ground on whether to redirect some state investment earnings to support the school foundation program.
With no final bill passing this session, even elements lawmakers agreed on won’t go forward. This means education funding in Wyoming will remain unchanged for the time being and cuts school districts were bracing for won’t yet come.
And with no action from the Legislature, Gov. Mark Gordon is taking the matter into his own hands. He told reporters Thursday he was forming a working group to reevaluate what Wyoming’s education model looks like “from the ground up.” Details of that effort are sparse, but the governor did say he anticipates it will be a long process.
Bid to expand Medicaid dies in Senate committee
Medicaid expansion will not happen in Wyoming this year.
After passing the House, the state’s Senate Labor, Health and Social Services Committee killed a bill to expand the federal insurance program, which would have insured an estimated 25,000 additional Wyomingites.
Lawmakers have defeated similar proposals for nearly a decade. Advocates hoped this year might be different. Many House Republicans voiced a change of heart after the COVID-19 pandemic and the decline of fossil fuels rocked the state’s economy, leaving many without health coverage. This session was the first in which a bill to expand the program passed a legislative chamber.
The bill would have expanded the federal program in the state only so long as an improved federal match was maintained. Estimates from the Wyoming Department of Health said the state could save $34 million over two years because of a federal increase in the match for the state’s traditional Medicaid program.
Voters will need an ID when visiting the polls soon
A new law will require Wyoming citizens to present specific forms of photo identification when casting their ballots in elections, after House Bill 75 sailed through the Legislature.
Voters will need to present one of the following forms of identification: a Wyoming driver’s license or identification card, a tribal identification card, a valid U.S. passport, a U.S. military card, a Medicare insurance card, or a Medicaid insurance card.
Voter fraud remains exceedingly rare, with a very small number of convictions in Wyoming in the past several decades. But supporters of the bill say it’s a “proactive” measure, needed to bolster voter confidence in the election process.
Senate rejects runoff election proposal
An effort to transition Wyoming to a runoff election system failed to capture enough support from the Senate, despite support from Donald Trump Jr.
Senate File 145 sought to require a runoff election after a primary election if no single candidate captured the majority of votes.
A candidate would have needed to receive over half of the votes to be considered the winner of a primary election.
The bill ultimately failed on the third and final reading in the Senate in a narrow 14-15 vote, with one lawmaker excused.
Burial program finds some funding
A push to fund the state’s indigent burial program gained endorsement from both chambers of the Legislature. The governor signed the bill into law on March 30.
The act provides counties with reimbursements when they cover burials or cremations for individuals who pass away without known family members or money.
In recent years, Wyoming’s indigent burial program has suffered from multiple budget cuts, including a 2020 budget reduction effectively defunding the program. Some counties, particularly those without budgets for such services, have had a hard time finding enough money to bury the underserved.
Under the approved bill, funding for the state program would be collected through a $5 surcharge attached to each copy of a death certificate issued in Wyoming. The Legislative Service Office anticipates the state collecting approximately $181,000 each year.
Death penalty repeal defeated, again
Wyoming’s Senate voted to defeat a bill to repeal the state’s death penalty.
Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas, had sponsored Senate File 150 primarily on fiscal grounds. Maintaining the option to sentence convicted defendants to death costs the state about $750,000 annually.
But the state has not executed a person for nearly three decades. No individuals currently sit on death row in Wyoming, and the state has conducted one execution in the past 55 years.
Other supporters of the repeal bill called for eliminating the death penalty in the name of criminal justice reform. Nationally, 185 people who received wrongful convictions have been exonerated from death row since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
In 2019, a similar repeal bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee, but it failed.
Opponents of the repeal bill said it was important to have the option to sentence individuals convicted of the most heinous of crimes. The final vote on the bill was 11-19.
State stands firmly with coal
State lawmakers unveiled more than a half dozen bills this year to lend a hand to Wyoming’s coal sector. Most of the bills did not succeed, but three pieces of coal legislation managed to pass.
House Bill 166 will require public utilities to take additional steps before they can retire aging coal or natural gas plants in the state. Critics of the bill worry it will hike up electricity costs for Wyoming ratepayers.
The Public Service Commission — the state agency charged with regulating public utilities — would not have the authority to OK fossil fuel plant closures unless a plant owner can provide a sufficient level of proof in support of the retirement.
Wyoming is the nation’s leading producer of coal. For years, the state’s thermal coal resources have been burned to make electricity for Americans. But since peaking around 2008, coal production in Wyoming has been declining, with annual production now about half what it was just a decade ago. Inexpensive natural gas and renewable energy can also be used to create electricity and have gradually taken over the electricity market. Utilities tend to favor the commodity that is cheaper.
The drag on coal demand has hit Wyoming particularly hard. The state relies overwhelmingly on fossil fuel production to fund its budget each year.
In addition to House Bill 166, lawmakers passed a bill to provide the governor with $1.2 million to sue other states interfering with Wyoming’s coal industry. Another bill requiring state regulators to weigh reliability and socioeconomic consequences before rendering decisions also cleared the Legislature.
Tolls on I-80? Not this time.
A bill that would allow the state to charge drivers a toll when trekking across Interstate 80 failed in the House Transportation Committee after passing the Senate. Senate File 73 was one of very few tax bills seriously considered this session to help the cash-strapped state.
The lead sponsor of the bill, Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, said the proceeds generated from a toll on the state’s main east-west thoroughfare could have gone toward much-needed road and bridge maintenance, traffic safety improvements or wildlife management. The Wyoming Department of Transportation faces about $300 million in unmet needs each year.
But the House Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Committee tabled the bill on March 30.
Another bill aimed at increasing the tax on fuel, to provide an estimated $60 million in funding for road maintenance, also died before being considered in the House.
Attempt to shield Wyoming from federal gun restrictions fizzles out
A piece of legislation intended to exempt Wyomingites from future federal restrictions on gun rights passed the Senate, but the bill was not taken up by the House for a vote, effectively killing it.
Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne, sponsored Senate File 81 in an attempt to provide proactive Second Amendment protections for “law-abiding citizens” in anticipation of federal restrictions on guns coming from the Democratic administration.
After a series of amendments overhauled Bouchard’s original version of the bill, the sponsor ended up voting no on the version presented on March 24. Concerns over the bill’s constitutionality, practical enforcement and its proposal to strip legal immunity from officers who “knowingly” infringe on citizen gun rights dominated the discussion when Bouchard presented it to the Senate Judiciary Committee last week.
Another bill, sponsored by Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, aimed to repeal “gun-free” zones in the state and allow concealed carry in places like public schools, athletic events and government meetings (including the Legislature itself). It died in the House Education Committee after passing the Senate with 25 votes in favor.
Casper state office building to receive a new name
Casper will soon be home to Wyoming’s first non-university state building named after a woman.
A state office building under construction on West Collins Drive is set to be named after Thyra Thomson, a former Wyoming secretary of state and the longest-sitting elected official in state history.
Thomson served as secretary of state from 1963 to 1987, being reelected five times. No other person has held the position for more than two terms. She also cemented her legacy as the first woman to take the post. Since her retirement from public life in 1987, three women have served as secretary of state in Wyoming.
Rep. Tom Walters, R-Casper, however, proposed naming the building after longtime Casper businessman and politician John Wold, who is credited with spurring local oil and gas industries and making large contributions to various organizations. Walters said he led the effort on behalf of the building’s task force, which includes state legislators and members of the Casper community.
According to Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, this was the first attempt in Wyoming to name a state building by statute.
Online sports gambling legalized
Online sports betting will soon be legal.
House Bill 133 directs the Wyoming Gaming Commission to regulate the activity by setting up rules and imposing fees and penalties. The commission will have until September to draft the rules.
Supporters of opening up online sports betting in the Equality State said the activity already occurs in the state illicitly and Wyoming is simply missing out on needed money.
In a fiscal note, the Legislative Service Office said it was tricky to estimate exactly how much revenue legalization of sports betting would create. But the Gaming Commission estimates the state’s sports wagering market has a $449 million value in Wyoming.
The legislation will transfer a portion of any revenue generated from the gambling program to the Department of Health to provide resources for gambling addiction treatment.
Gordon signed the bill on Wednesday.
Bill that concerned solar advocates defeated
A controversial bill asking state utility regulators to review Wyoming’s system for regulating rooftop solar died after a legislative committee voted to postpone a decision on the matter following hours of impassioned public comment against the measure.
The proposed legislation would have required the Public Service Commission to conduct public hearings and establish a new net metering system that ensures utility rates stay fair for all Wyoming residents by minimizing any potential subsidies.
The state’s net metering system applies to small-scale electricity generators, such as residents with solar panels on their roofs. Excess power can be sold to utilities for credit.
To its supporters, the bill would have amended a lopsided system that subsidizes customers generating electricity from small-scale solar or wind energy.
Wyoming’s budget gets a makeover
Wyoming’s governor signed a supplemental budget passed by Wyoming’s Legislature that will carry the state through the rest of the biennium, until June 2022.
The budget reduces Wyoming’s spending by approximately $430 million and eliminates 324 state positions.
Gordon signed the final version with just over half a dozen budget line vetoes.
In a letter addressed to House Speaker Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, Gordon applauded the budget passed by the Legislature, calling it “fiscally responsible.”
Wyoming’s budget has been gradually tightened for several years. In his letter on April 1, Gordon noted the size of state government has not been this small since the early 2000s.
Many lawmakers here have called for Wyoming to “live within its means,” especially as the fossil fuel sector the state relies on continues to decline. Others worry the austerity measures will hurt already marginalized residents, especially as funding for essential public services disappear.
Revenge porn bill passes
The Legislature voted to pass a bill that would make it illegal to share explicit images or videos without the subject’s consent.
House Bill 85 addresses what’s commonly known as revenge porn. As of 2019, Wyoming was just one of four states in the U.S. without any laws concerning the practice.
Changes made to the bill in the Senate increased the penalty for distributing revenge porn from six months in prison and/or a $1,000 fine to up to one year behind bars and a $5,000 fine or both.
Gordon signed the bill on Wednesday.
Restrictions to abortion access pass
Half a dozen bills related to abortion were considered by lawmakers this session.
Two bills successfully passed the Legislature.
First, House Bill 253, will restrict University of Wyoming student health insurance from being used for abortions.
Senate File 34, known as the “born alive” bill, also passed. It will require doctors to attempt to save the lives of infants if they are born alive after abortions. The chance of infants being born alive after attempted abortions is extremely low, according to health care professionals.
Gordon signed SF 34 into law Tuesday. He had not signed HB 253 as of Friday morning.
Several other bills aimed at limiting access to abortions gained traction but ultimately did not pass.
That included a bill to outlaw medications used for early-term abortions, which physicians testified would eliminate all of the procedures in the state. It passed the Senate but was not taken up in the House. Another unsuccessful bill would have outlawed abortions after a fetal heartbeat could be detected.
Medical marijuana push fails
The House didn’t show much appetite for legalizing access to marijuana.
House leadership elected to not take up a pair of marijuana bills introduced this session.
The medical marijuana bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bill Henderson, R-Cheyenne, said when the bill was introduced that as Wyomingites become increasingly more supportive of medicinal uses of the drug, it makes sense to start learning about it now to be able to develop good policy down the road.
The study would have involved the public, he said, including those who would benefit from marijuana being available as treatment.
Property owners can now remove racist covenants in deeds
Homeowners will now have the option of removing racially restrictive covenants from housing deeds, thanks to a bill passed and signed into law by the governor.
Many real estate contracts across the country still have racial covenants, or discriminatory text barring people of color from owning or occupying houses.
The Supreme Court ruled the covenants unenforceable in 1948. But the exclusionary language remains stuck in deeds across Wyoming. Owners previously had no means to remove them.
House Bill 91 simply gives owners the option to remove restrictive covenants. It also provides owners with immunity from civil liability, if they choose to exercise their rights under the legislation.
The governor signed the bill on April 2.