Spending just about three months out of every two years in session, members of Wyoming’s citizen Legislature are considered part-time lawmakers.
The action, however, doesn’t stop at the final gavel.
As the list of bills shrank in the House and Senate Chambers’ final weeks, committee members from both chambers convened in meeting rooms around the temporary Capitol to discuss what’s next, contemplating not only what new topics to address in this year’s interim but what failures are worth revisiting in 2020.
On March 22, the Management Council — the rule-setting body for the state Legislature — will meet in Cheyenne, where it will consider a list of topics those committees wish to visit in the interim.
While the lists of specific priorities each committee will bring to the council are not made public until that meeting, interviews with more than a half-dozen lawmakers and several meetings revealed a number of themes that might be tackled by the legislature in the coming months.
After a banner year for criminal justice reform, what comes next?
Of all the state Legislature’s committees, arguably its most successful — and consequential — this session was its Joint Judiciary Committee, which managed to pass nine significant criminal justice and sentencing reforms through the House and Senate this session.
The Joint Judiciary Committee will now look to branch out on other areas of the justice system that have been neglected after years spent focusing on this year’s reforms, according to Rep. Dan Kirkbride, R-Chugwater. Among these is a study to examine why people violate their parole in the first place and why they end up back in jail or prison after already serving their time.
“As far as the criminal justice reinvestment bills, phase two for us is finding the connection between parole and substance abuse treatment,” he said. “There’s a fragile link there where not all offenders are getting the treatment they need, and I’m not sure if that’s a mix of our state’s finances or resources or what.”
Other possible reforms could include a “credit” system for inmates’ good behavior while incarcerated in county jails and studying the cost of keeping the state’s death penalty statutes on the books, which faced a failed repeal effort this year.
Notably missing from the list was marijuana sentencing reform, which died in Kirkbride’s committee this session.
For the Joint Revenue Committee, a sense of futility
Despite looming budget cuts and improving — but relatively lackluster — revenues from the energy industry, the Joint Revenue Committee saw most of its bills meant to raise money for the state fail this year. Even with clear frustration expressed at the committee’s final meeting of the 2019 session two weeks ago, committee members remained resolute that they would continue to perform their prescribed duties: namely, diversifying the state’s revenue streams.
Some potential storylines could be the return of the push for a corporate income tax — which failed after significant outside pressure — and a conversation around a state income tax, a personal interest of Democratic representative Cathy Connolly. However, a large theme for the committee this year could simply be educating the rest of the Legislature that the time may have finally come to do something about the state’s revenue picture.
“Whatever we decide to do, we have to be educating other members on it,” said Rep. JoAnn Dayton-Selman, D-Rock Springs.
Question marks remain over education
The Wyoming Legislature significantly tweaked the way it does education this year, passing a number of bills that not only tighten teacher accountability, but open the doors for non-traditional learners and technical education students to match the needs of the state’s evolving workforce.
This interim, said Joint Education Committee co-chairman Hank Coe, R-Cody, will largely be spent waiting to see how this year’s efforts pan out, leaving the committee to focus on issues like school security — which experienced setbacks this session — and implementing new programs for the state’s youngest students. These include the expansion of Medicaid-eligible special education programs and social services in the schools — which Wyoming is one of the few states not to have done — and building on a successful K-3 reading intervention bill that passed this session.
One area they won’t address will likely be the biggest issue to face the Legislature in 2020: the cost of education and the looming cuts hinted at by appropriations committee chairman Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Lander, who said education would likely be slashed after a session of failed revenue bills.
“I think there was a lot of disappointment from Sen. Bebout on the lodging tax failing, but the whole Senate turned that down,” said Coe. “I think he was disappointed in that aspect, and I was disappointed with our senators on that. That bothered me a lot.”
“We have to remember there’s an ongoing structural deficit in funding K-12,” he added. “That’s the one area in state government that is not funded adequately.”
What will become of UW’s ag funding?
The University of Wyoming’s College of Agriculture was denied a significant amount of funding this session, despite the university as a whole receiving funding increases.
In a supplemental budget request submitted to the Legislature by then-Gov. Matt Mead last year, UW requested $5 million for the College of Agriculture in anticipation of hiring a new dean this year but didn’t get it. Mead’s budget also included $2.5 million for “excellence in agricultural education” but received just $500,000.
Joint Agriculture Committee chairman, Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas, said the topic of funding for the university’s ag school will be a major focus heading into the 2020 budget session and looking at the university’s funding streams to see to “what extent” agricultural programs are funded there.
“I have no perceived biases there as to how that might end up,” he said.
Boner did, however, acknowledge it would be a priority for his committee.
“The topic that has attracted the most interest is the University of Wyoming and their land-grant university mission,” he said. “It’s important they continue to focus on the meat and potatoes of their ag research. That’s what we’re looking for. That’s what they’re there for fundamentally.”
Will local control be an issue this year?
One of the biggest storylines this session was on the topic of local control in land use decisions, many of which revolved around unresolved issues central to Teton County.
In the final meeting of the Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee two weeks ago, there were hints given by some members that this year’s legislation could have merely been the beginning. Topics broached by the committee included looking at affordable housing incentives, which were inspired by a failed bill to ban workforce housing requirements in Teton County, and a potential review of land use planning, motivated by a successful bill to prevent zoning restrictions on private schools.
Committee chair Rep. Bill Landen, R-Casper, urged caution, however.
“I think we want to be a little bit careful,” he said in an interview last week. “A lot of those issues can be handled by individual legislators in their individual districts. But I think there are some guideposts we can consider with local control or local zoning issues — taking a quick look at the statutes and seeing where we want them to be. My only caution there is moving too quickly on all the things that were suggested to us. And we have to limit (the time we spend talking about it). Otherwise, we’ll spend too long on it.”
Preparing for 2020
Facing a contentious election in 2020 and coming off a bitterly fought campaign season in 2018, the Legislature passed its first campaign finance code revisions in a long time this session. Though Landen acknowledged the bill will likely not fix all the state’s dark money problems, he said it was a start and noted his committee would be working to introduce some other reforms to the state’s election code.
The most significant changes could be to the way the state does its party nominations, which would shift the state’s election system from an open primary to the Utah methodology of a caucus system — a conservative response to the failure of a massive effort to close the state’s primaries this year.
The committee might also look at a review of voter registration and day-of voting requirements, as well as looking into some of the issues that were seen in Fremont County when tribal members tried to vote early, to discuss tribal identification and reducing the ambiguity that can sometimes be seen at the polls.
Health care issue heating up
Numerous events could potentially converge this interim that could drastically change the state’s health care system. As numerous states have already expanded Medicaid, Wyoming will not be studying the issue after narrowly being voted down in the House, despite fear of a potential ballot initiative.
Meanwhile, numerous lawsuits against the Affordable Care Act could present a fundamental threat to the way the state runs its exchange population, said Sen. Charlie Scott, R-Casper, leaving the state to pursue solutions in the interim.
“We’ve got to respond to whatever the feds do to us this time,” he said in an interview last week. “That’s been a topic one way or another ever since I’ve been down here. And it almost always produces something.”
Scott noted that several years ago, the Department of Insurance overloaded the silver plans available under the ACA in Wyoming, impacting the subsidies for gold and bronze plans offered under the ACA. If things change, individuals in Wyoming might find themselves with individual plans they can no longer afford, Scott said.
The rest of the interim for his Committee on Health, Labor and Social Services, however, will likely be spent with studies similar to a hospital cost study the legislature approved funding for this year, which will be used to evaluate where the issues are in the state’s medical pricing. The committee will also be looking at regulation and staffing problems in the state’s nursing facilities — a major concern as the state’s senior population continues to grow.
“You can’t work the solutions until you’ve qualitatively identified what the problems are,” he said.