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Wyoming lawmakers to delay start of 2021 session due to COVID-19

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Capitol Building Reopens

Crowds gather at the refurbished Capitol building in Cheyenne on July 10, Wyoming Statehood Day. The 2021 legislative session will begin late due to COVID-19.

Wyoming legislative leadership officially voted Tuesday to delay the start of the 2021 legislative session until later this spring, though a specific date for when lawmakers will convene — or what the session will even look like in the age of COVID-19 — remains an open question.

The decision to delay the two-month general session has been a topic of discussion since earlier this fall, when cases of COVID-19 began to spike around the state. Though lawmakers weighed numerous options to try and make it happen on time — including limiting the public’s access to the building — numerous logistical and health concerns ultimately proved impossible to overcome in time for the session’s scheduled start on Jan. 12.

Instead, lawmakers will meet for a single day in January to clear business mandated by the Wyoming Constitution, delaying the rest of their work until later in the spring. At this point, however, an exact start date remains uncertain.

“The plan is for an abbreviated January session and to reconvene later in the first or second quarter of 2021, depending on the public health situation and other factors,” Legislative Service Office Director Matt Obrecht wrote in an email following the vote. “[The Legislature] might set some tentative dates before January 12 or the might wait until after the adjournment of the start of the General Session to set that date. Desire was to remain as flexible as possible to respond to the public health crisis and the needs of the state.”

At the height of flu season, Obrecht told lawmakers, it would be near impossible to ensure everyone’s health and safety, particularly given the advanced age of most of the Legislature and their staff. According to an LSO memo, roughly half of lawmakers are over the age of 60, with more than a dozen aged 70 or older.

With a potential vaccine on the way in the coming months, Obrecht said the risk of a January session simply didn’t make sense, particularly given other options were on the table.

“We would be foolish if we didn’t give ourselves the opportunity to vaccinate before we meet in large numbers,” Obrecht told lawmakers.

A delay in the start of session would likely have little impact on the state’s ability to function, even as lawmakers mull over hundreds of millions in proposed cuts to the budget by Gov. Mark Gordon and the likely severe cut to the state’s K-12 education budget that is widely anticipated next session. The Joint Appropriations Committee — which sets the budget ahead of session — could still meet remotely, and various Legislative committees would still be able to meet on an interim basis to ready unfinished pieces of legislation in time for an abbreviated session this spring.

Notably, delaying the start of session would also upset the timing outlined by the framers of the Wyoming Constitution, who arranged the legislative calendar to accommodate the needs of the farmers and ranchers who once dominated the body’s membership. Several conservative-leaning lawmakers such as Senator-elect Tim French, R-Powell, and Sen. Tom James, R-Rock Springs, argued that the changeover could cause some lawmakers to lose out on income, or that delaying the session would not guarantee that everyone would be vaccinated.

“Most of us probably won’t even take [a vaccine],” said James. “And that’s our choice.”

Others, such as Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne, offered more dubious reasons for not delaying the session, promoting the unproven anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a solution for lawmakers to stay healthy during the session.

“It’s a ‘fear thing.’ Nobody wants to do what works,” he said. “How we lead is what the people do. If we live in fear and don’t think outside the box ... I don’t think we’re leading them right.”

Laramie Democratic Sen. Chris Rothfuss — a University of Wyoming professor and scientist — immediately pushed back, noting that there is currently “no evidence” of hydroxychloroquine having any demonstrable effect on COVID-19.

“These decisions need to be based on science, not hope,” he said.

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Politics Reporter

Nick Reynolds covers state politics and policy. A native of Central New York, he has spent his career covering governments big and small, and several Congressional campaigns. He graduated from the State University of New York at Brockport in 2015.

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