Legislative leaders addressed both houses of the 65th Wyoming Legislature on Tuesday afternoon, outlining the goals they hope to achieve over the next 40 days: addressing the state’s volatile revenue picture, finding reasonable solutions for health care and education and building a stable workforce that can endure into the future.
However, the path to getting there, particularly in the House, was a large and looming question hanging over the pomp and circumstance of the general session’s opening day.
Newly-elected Senate President Drew Perkins, R-Casper, addressed the 30-person body with a general speech of where the Legislature was headed: finding a solution to the state’s seemingly endless cycle of booms and busts while improving the revenue side of the state budget, an area where he and second-term Speaker of the House Steve Harshman, R-Casper, are in agreement.
While following a similar narrative in the House, Harshman – presiding over a younger body with 10 new members – made sure to emphasize themes of bipartisanship and progress as the 60-person House of Representatives begins its work.
He did so by looking back to the history of the state and the intentions of its founding fathers. He noted past successes, from the 23rd House of Representatives implementing the first sales tax in the Great Depression to Harshman’s second session, in which a proposal to create a merit-based scholarship passed after weeks of effort.
“The process of getting a majority is tough, and it can knock you down,” he said. “And I think this process really favors those that get back up.”
A fair shake
The important thing, Harshman said, was to make sure the good ideas that rise to the top get their fair shake and to consider the long-term success of the state when lawmakers cast their votes.
“People elected us to come here and solve problems,” he said. “I think it’s easy to just sit there and vote ‘no’ on everything – I’m sure we can build some kind of machine to do that. But the idea is to analyze, solve, debate and accomplish things. This whole solving and fixing, building and accomplishing is only possible with this type of selfless service for the people back home and following the golden rule. If we do that, and treat each other the right way, we’re going to be in great shape.”
That attitude, he hoped, would extend itself to the most pressing and challenging issues currently facing the Legislature. While he lauded the House for its work whittling down a roughly $1 billion shortfall facing the schools in the not-so-distant past, he noted that the system is still highly dependent – about 65 percent for grades K-12 – on the price of oil and minerals.
“It is repeatable if we don’t work to fix it, and there are things we can do to bring balance and more stability,” he said.
Harshman also outlined a number of other priorities – job creation and training, a Wyoming-based solution to fix health care and determining how to best utilize the state’s rainy day fund in the future. But addressing those challenges, he hinted, may come with some difficulties.
“At some point, we’re not going to cut our way to prosperity,” he said. “We need to be cognizant of that. We don’t have $20 billion sitting around in coffee cans – we have a billion-and-a-half in the LSRA, and a few small savings accounts for projects. There’s $20 billion from the mineral trust fund, that goes to worker’s comp, to common schools, the permanent land fund … Those are all constitutionally protected funds that are generating revenue for the state. Those aren’t things you can dip into.”
Speaking for the Democratic minority, Rep. Cathy Connolly, R-Laramie, spoke of the Legislature taking risks this session with the possibility of great reward.
Those risks included several progressive policy priorities such as the funding of early childhood education statewide, an improved tax structure, solving the state’s earnings gap, passing corrections reform and setting a benchmark for literacy by the third grade.
The biggest fight for the Democrats and Connolly in particular, however, will likely be in the passage of an anti-discrimination statute, which the state GOP has expressed it would be working to oppose vehemently this session.
“Make no mistake about it, our state and the homophobic violence associated with that violence are inexorably linked,” said Connolly.
In television interviews reflecting on the murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student whose murder inspired a wave of anti-discrimination legislation across the country, she reflected on the state’s need to do more.
This year, she emphasized in her speech, could be the year to make that happen.
“We’re losing our youth – not just our gay ones, but their friends and family who do not want to stay in a place where their loved ones live in fear. Here in this body, we need to take the risk to go home and tell our constituents proudly that Wyoming now joins the majority of the nation in doing something. And you know what? I’m pretty sure you will be rewarded for that action. Not by everyone, that’s for sure. But we’re not here for the easy votes.”
Secretary of State sets agenda
Secretary of State Ed Buchanan gave the first speech in the House on Tuesday, laying out a number of legislative priorities he had hoped to accomplish, as well as updates on his priorities entering his first elected term as secretary.
Among them, Buchanan called for legislative support to purchase new voting machines and updating the election code to incorporate changes in the political landscape stemming, in part, from social media and the “creative” use of political action committees.
He also expressed a priority by his office to maintain local control in statewide elections, in response to Democratic members of Congress pushing legislation for automatic voter registration nationwide.
“In Wyoming, we do elections right,” he said.