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Wyoming Legislature wastes no time, as it convenes for in-person session

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Wyoming Legislature

The Senate discusses a bill before voting during the first day of the 66th Wyoming Legislature on Monday inside the state Capitol. The session, which the majority of legislators are attending in person, will run through April 2. 

CHEYENNE — Wyoming’s 66th Legislature gaveled in at the Capitol on Monday for the first day of a monthlong, in-person session. The COVID-19 pandemic has knocked the governing body’s typical schedule off course this year, and lawmakers appeared eager to pick up where they left off last month.

The Legislature convened for a one-day stint in January, followed by an eight-day, mostly virtual session in February. Elected officials passed nearly three dozen bills last month, but hundreds more await consideration. Monday marked the 10th day of this year’s session.

“We have a limited number of days this session, as you know, to be live in-person,” said House Speaker Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, opting to jump right into business shortly after roll call around 10 a.m. The Senate also elected to forge ahead and hear bills with limited fanfare.

Lawmakers have sent over 676 requests for bill drafts this year to the Legislative Service Office, as of Monday morning, according to Matt Obrecht, the LSO’s director. Not all bills will make it to the floor for consideration, let alone the governor’s desk to become law.

This year’s legislative proposals cover a wide spectrum of topics, from efforts to bulk up voting identification requirements to support for local meat in school lunches and tax breaks for railroad or oil and gas industries.

The persistent debate over the state’s yawning budget shortfall will be a key theme this session, in particular the $300 million gap in the state’s education system.

Testimony offered in the House on Monday morning struck a jubilant but sober tone with the job ahead.

“We are tasked with a monumental duty here,” said Rep. Mike Greear, R-Worland, during the day’s opening remarks.

“With a strong mind, a strong heart, each of us must find a vision for the future,” he continued. “That’s what we’re here for: to look out on the horizon to that future of what we want Wyoming to be.”

He encouraged lawmakers to not simply listen to the loudest voice in the room, but envision what could make Wyoming communities better.

The unrelenting downturn in energy industries has become a top concern this session. Mineral production has long showered the state with billions of dollars in revenue. But that revenue stream is quickly drying up, and replacements have yet to be cobbled together.

Meanwhile, critical services have already been whittled down to the bone, especially after the latest series of stinging budget cuts last year.

“We have challenges before us, but let’s start by being present and grateful of what Wyoming has given to us to protect its future generations,” House Minority Leader, Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie.

“To be sure, I’m not going to say that everything was simply humming along until last year,” she added. “We were struggling with profound recognition that our tax structures were obsolete and that we have a long way to go.”

She called for the Legislature “to do more” to support families and communities struggling from the economic toll of the pandemic, from prioritizing mental health services, expanding health care and supporting quality public education.

Though some bills are aimed to drum up some desperately needed revenue — including select tobacco, real estate and fuel taxes, to name a few — no single bill offers a silver bullet to Wyoming’s budget conundrum.

Some members have eschewed new taxes, but pitched methods to keep Wyoming’s traditional revenue giants afloat. Two bills introduced recently aim to extend the lives of coal-fired power plants, by instituting additional requirements before state regulators can approve unit retirements.

The Republican-led Legislature has long shown a potent aversion to any tax increases. Several freshman officials campaigned on the promise to not increase taxes. Whether they will fulfill that commitment when asked to come up with solutions for the ballooning budget crunch has yet to be seen.

“It goes without saying that we are in unprecedented times in so many ways — the COVID pandemic, political frustration and foundational policy challenges, to name a few,” Barlow said on the House floor. “However, I’m so confident in the unique combination that our individual capabilities bring to this floor. And the stability offered by this institution offers us an opportunity to do meaningful things.”

The House and Senate galleries had notably fewer members of the public due to heightened safety measures taken to slow the spread of the virus. Few of the lawmakers, who were offered the vaccine in the weeks leading up to the session, wore masks.

Lawmakers will meet in person at the Capitol for the third part of this year’s general session through April 2.

Follow the latest on Wyoming’s energy industry and the environment at @camillereports

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Energy and Natural Resources Reporter

Camille Erickson covers the state's energy industries. She received her master's degree at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Before moving to Casper in 2019, she reported on business and labor in Minneapolis, Chicago and Washington.

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