Just before the close of the 2019 legislative session in Cheyenne, Rep. Landon Brown — then a 32-year-old staffer in the state’s Department of Environmental Quality — was contemplating resignation.
The Legislature was approaching concurrence on a bill to raise its $109 per diem rates for some lawmakers that, thanks to a late amendment in the Senate, would slash per diem rates for lawmakers from the Cheyenne area by $30 a day, equivalent to a roughly $1,000 loss during the session.
For Brown — away from his job and without health insurance due to a provision in his contract — this would prove to be too much. He had bills of his own to pay and, already working on the slim margins offered during the session, Brown would find service in Wyoming’s part-time “citizen legislature” to be too heavy a cost under the bill.
“I told the caucus, ‘If you guys choose to pass this and the governor does not veto this, I will not be able to afford to serve,’” Brown said. “That’s not to say I’m irreplaceable, it was for people to understand the impact something like this would actually have on someone like me.”
“There’s sacrifice, and then there’s just being silly.”
Brown stands as a representation of what we think is the average working Wyomingite: mid-to-late 30s, decent-paying job, civically engaged. But if you were to visit the Capitol, people like Brown are difficult to find.
The makeup of the people behind the polished wooden desks of the House and Senate chambers is hardly representative of the people who voted for them.
“When you look at the makeup of our legislature, you can look down from the gallery and be able to count the number of (non-gray) heads that you’ll see ... on your hands,” said Brown. “It’s a very ‘mature’ constituency making up the Legislature right now. They’re retired, they’re lawyers, they’re ranchers, and they have the time to devote to it.”
Gov. Mark Gordon acknowledged the hardship presented for people like Brown when he eventually vetoed the per diem bill, calling it “flawed but well-intentioned.” But in doing so, he also acknowledged a tradition Wyoming just can’t seem to quit: a rejection of the “professional politician.”
“Wyoming always seeks to enable any of her citizens to serve, not just those with substantial means,” Gordon wrote in his veto letter. “Moreover, Wyoming has balanced compensation so as not to discourage citizen service while simultaneously discouraging a culture of ‘professional politician.’”
Wyoming’s citizen legislature
Wyoming’s citizen legislature has always been a point of pride in the Equality State, harkening back to a simpler time in the state’s history where government was radically by the people, for the people. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, just four states — Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas — boast what can be considered “citizen legislatures,” keeping the session limits short, the pay low and legislative staff limited in order to shut out the trappings of big government.
For opponents of the per diem raise, this is something worth preserving, both in maintaining the state’s culture of conservatism and by being fiscally prudent at a time when Wyoming is grappling with its already slim budget.
“Since our founding, Wyoming has had a part-time, citizen legislature,” Rep. Chuck Gray, a Casper Republican who opposed per diem increases, wrote in an email. “A part time legislature is consistent with promoting Constitutional conservatism and limited government. The troubling pay increase effort is part of an effort to move towards a full-time legislature or a much longer session like Colorado has, which is inconsistent with our values. On top of the troubling tax increase proposals and unnecessary increases in expenditure, some legislators are now proposing wrong and unconstitutional pay raises. That is just wrong and inconsistent with our values.
“The last thing the legislature should do is be giving a pay raise on the backs of taxpayers,” he added.
Some believe, however, that the concept of Wyoming’s citizen legislature could use some updating, particularly as its members look less and less like the state they represent.
According to a Star-Tribune analysis, the average lawmaker in the Wyoming Legislature is 58 years old — 21 years older than the average Wyomingite — and male, with women making up just 16 percent of the Legislature. (The national average for female representation is just under 29 percent, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.) Nearly one in every five lawmakers is a retiree, and nearly 9 percent of the Legislature works in some capacity in the legal profession, despite the profession employing less than 6 percent of the state’s workforce, according to data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those who made their living in ranching — the second-most prevalent occupation for lawmakers — accounted for 13 percent of all members of the Legislature.
“I want our Legislature to look more like our state,” said Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie. “And right now, it doesn’t. There are far too many older white men and older white women — for the few women we do have. I want it to look differently. Representation matters.”
Lawmakers also tend to be independently wealthy, able to absorb a two-month cut in pay in order to serve — something Rep. Sara Burlingame, D-Cheyenne, said could alienate the working class from public service.
“I was horrified when that per diem conversation came up how blithely some of my colleagues spoke of having wealth as some kind of civic virtue that uniquely qualified you to serve in the Wyoming Legislature,” she said. “That’s straight-up class warfare, as though the working class doesn’t belong in seats of power. That was shocking to me, how casually people made those claims.”
Is it worth improving representation?
Numerous factors lend themselves to Wyoming’s lack of representation in the Legislature.
Much of that has to do with the culture of the pay rates — many may find it hard to cover daily hotel costs, meals and transportation costs with $109 a day during session, much less the high costs of travel and missing days of work. Making up for those costs, said Rep. Art Washut, R-Casper, could cost the state more than taxpayers are willing to front.
“It’s one thing to say we’ll raise the per diem rate by $25 or something, but even if you’re a self-employed plumber, for you to pack up and go to Cheyenne for even another $25 a day isn’t going to offset the money you can make staying at home working on water heaters,” he said. “To offset all of that ... we’re talking a big-time pay raise here, and that’s something I don’t think most of the taxpayers in Wyoming would be excited about financing.”
But there’s also a lack of an incentive for younger lawmakers — especially those with children — to spend significant amounts of time away from home, particularly as demands on lawmakers have increased exponentially in recent years. Notably, only two women with young children — Burlingame and Republican Sen. Affie Ellis — currently serve in the Legislature, and both hail from Cheyenne.
“I think it’s hard to find women in general,” said Sen. Liisa Anselmi-Dalton, D-Rock Springs. “You have to find people whose children are grown — Sen. Ellis lives in Cheyenne, so it’s a little easier, because she can see her children at night — but for most of the women in the Legislature, their children are grown. I probably wouldn’t have wanted to run when my children were in school, just because I would have missed out on my kid’s activities.”
Room for reform?
Meanwhile, the obligations of a modern Legislature are making government in Wyoming even more exclusive. At present, the Legislative Service Office is working on an analysis of state legislatures around the country to compare workloads and rates of pay to see where Wyoming currently stacks up.
Outside of states like South Dakota, Wyoming lags significantly behind the rest of the country. According to LSO Director Matt Obrecht, early indications show that Wyoming’s Legislature — despite its “part-time” status — does just as much work as any other state for less pay and with even less support.
“The workload is enormous,” Connolly said. “I either am working around the clock or should be working around the clock. It’s so much work — I’m honored to be doing it, and I want to do as well as possible for my constituents — but it’s a tremendous amount of work.”
Wyoming lawmakers are committed to keeping the costs of doing business as low as possible for taxpayers. For the states with higher levels of diversity in their representation, however, achieving that goal has come primarily by a single avenue: paying their lawmakers and offering additional, back-end support.
While some states like California and New York pay near-six figure salaries to their full-time lawmakers, other states have found more modest approaches to compensation that, in turn, have boosted representation.
States like Colorado, which pays $40,000 a year for its four-month long sessions, currently has a legislature that is 47 percent female and offers lawmakers health insurance as well as five times the number of full-time, nonpartisan staff as Wyoming. Nevada, which just elected its first majority-female legislature, offers a significantly higher per diem, a $10,000 travel allowance and a health insurance package that includes vision and dental. Even Alaska — which is similar to Wyoming in numerous ways — offers salaries, benefits and a higher per diem rate, helping to boost them to a legislature that is more than 38 percent female.
A majority of states around the country also levy less of a burden on lawmakers between sessions than Wyoming, which uses its interim period to draft and vet legislation. And interim committee meetings, which often take place in far-flung areas of the state, can often eat up three to four days of a legislator’s time, excluding the amount of uncompensated work they do between meetings.
Currently, the LSO is comparing the number of days worked in a calendar year by the average Wyoming legislator to legislators in other Western or Midwestern states. Though early in the process, Obrecht said he expects to find that despite the fact Wyoming’s legislature meets in session for a shorter time than almost any other legislature in the country, lawmakers in the Equality State work as many or more days as most legislators in states that provide greater salary and benefits.
“If we want good legislators, we need to attract them,” Connolly said. “And that comes with the terms and conditions of the work. They have to be conducive to doing the job. This isn’t 150 years ago, where ranchers would gallop in when the winter came along and stay for a month or two.”
States with demographics similar to Wyoming have managed to increase diversity in their legislative ranks through a number of reforms like maintaining part-time paid staff, offering day care or providing healthcare coverage for legislators — which a majority of states do.
“There are things other than moving to a completely professional legislature we can consider,” Connolly said.