The first day of the 66th Wyoming Legislature was anticipated to be quick and simple, focused on assigning bills and swearing in legislative leadership before adjourning for a largely online session until the body reconvened in person in March.
Instead, the day featured a debate between House lawmakers over adopting a set of temporary rules that essentially allow state lawmakers to meet and vote remotely amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with some arguing legislators should be allowed to meet in person and in the Capitol if they chose to do so.
A delayed, in-person session has long been an accepted fact among members of legislative leadership, due both to the lack of volunteer staff needed to keep the session running smoothly as well as the lack of vaccines for lawmakers and staff. That decision was made after negotiations between legislative leadership and Gov. Mark Gordon, lawmakers said in a Tuesday press conference.
While an effort was made to acquire the vaccines and protect both legislators and staff, ultimately state lawmakers were determined to remain in a lower priority group than other essential workers, like medical professionals.
The group of dissenting legislators consisted primarily of newly elected, far-right lawmakers, who argued that hosting the session online would reduce public access and hinder people’s ability to engage in the legislative process, which has been conducted almost exclusively through platforms like Zoom since a special session last spring.
Rep. Bob Wharff — a newly elected Republican from Evanston — argued that as a public participant, participating by Zoom is “user unfriendly and a huge disservice” to members of the public, before downplaying the risk of a pandemic that has killed more than 500 Wyoming residents since it began here in March.
Others, like Rep. Bill Fortner, R-Gillette, expressed concerns the laws could set a precedent for future sessions, despite language in the bill stating that the rules were temporary and only in place for the 2021 session.
The opposing voices gained little momentum however. On the Senate side of the building, just two members — Sens. Tom James, R-Rock Springs, and Troy McKeown, R-Gillette — ultimately voted to object to the rules, and the body adjourned without incident with only six lawmakers in opposition.
Meanwhile, House Republican leadership defended its case by noting that the Legislature has seen unprecedented levels of participation during the 2020 interim session — all of which was conducted digitally — and that holding the legislative session on time would likely be a herculean task given that most of the elderly, volunteer staffers required to run a session were unwilling to participate, due to concerns for their own health.
“If we were to stay in session and come back in, I would hazard a guess we would be 20% effective without our staff,” said Rep. Mike Greear, R-Worland.
Ultimately, the rules were adopted by a 50-10 margin.
Few masks in sight
Despite Wyoming’s statewide mask mandate, few of the roughly 30 lawmakers in attendance Tuesday were wearing face-coverings on the floor of the House, even among lawmakers sitting close together.
Legislative leadership voted earlier this winter to exempt itself from state and local mask mandates, citing anticipated challenges in enforcing the mandate with some of its members.
Mask usage was inconsistent on the floor of the House. While four members of the Senate wore masks consistently throughout the day, just one lawmaker in attendance Tuesday — Rep. Landon Brown, R-Cheyenne, a public health official — kept theirs on for the entirety of the day’s proceedings. In contrast, all of the legislative staff wore masks while on the floor.
In a press conference with legislative leadership following the day’s vote, Senate President Dan Dockstader, R-Afton, told reporters that enforcing mask usage on the floor of the Senate would have been a distraction from the work needing to be done, telling WyoFile’s Andrew Graham that “to venture into whether we have a mask or not causes more problems,” he said.
House Speaker Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, told reporters that he had encouraged members to wear masks, and that he was disappointed that some members did not take the virus seriously, noting the resolution read on the floor in memory of late Gillette Republican Rep. Roy Edwards, who died after contracting COVID-19 last year.
Others — like Senate Minority Floor Leader Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie — were more critical of those who chose not to mask up, saying it showed a lack of respect for fellow lawmakers and legislative staff.
“I’m disappointed, and I know not everyone is,” he said.
Gordon delivers address
The day also featured an address from the governor himself.
Though Gordon’s official State of the State Address will be delayed until a “more appropriate time,” he told lawmakers in a virtual address, Wyoming’s chief executive walked the House and Senate through the state’s current multi-million dollar deficit and the challenges they will face in implementing his cuts without causing significant harm to the state’s most vulnerable populations.
Despite the release of more optimistic revenue projections from the state’s Consensus Revenue Estimating Group — which predicted an improvement of $132 million over the group’s October report — Wyoming’s key industries face a challenging road ahead. Overall, Wyoming’s mining employment was down by approximately 6,000 jobs between November 2019 and November 2020, according to the latest figures from the Wyoming Department of Administration & Information, signifying the 11th straight month of year-over-year declines for the state’s already struggling extraction sector.
These declines — despite a surprisingly good year for tourism and a relatively low unemployment rate — have driven the extent of the decline, requiring new revenues in order to fund services at their current levels. Without those new revenues, Gordon said, the cuts will likely be painful.
“I have already had to make deeper cuts than any other governor,” Gordon said in his address. “We have tried to do our best to protect those who are vulnerable. But cuts of this magnitude are unavoidably painful. I do not like any of this, because I know it hurts people. There simply was no other viable option. Still, I pledge to work assiduously with you to find ways to better serve those affected by the constraints of this budget. I will offer some other ideas and strategies in the days and weeks to follow. But for right now, our budget situation requires us to consider things carefully and demands us to think big and act boldly.”
Legislative leadership, however, acknowledged Tuesday many of the newest legislators elected to the body this year ran on platforms of cutting government and no new taxes, a predisposition Barlow told reporters could present a “unique opportunity” for those lawmakers to underscore the impacts of deep cuts to services within an already lean budget.
Others, like Rothfuss, called the looming budget cuts a “long-term, high interest loans on ourselves” that would ultimately cost the state more in long-term costs than they would save in the short term. That penalty, the minority argues, will likely be exacted on the state’s most at-risk populations.