The Wyoming Legislature only convenes for a matter of weeks each year. But state lawmakers are working even when they’re not gathered together at the Capitol. They meet in committees around the state to examine issues that may produce future legislation.
The Wyoming Legislature’s Management Council recently approved the topics that legislative committees will take up during the interim session, with some panels shifting gears and others continuing past work.
The interim is the time between now and next year’s general session. During that period, the committees will hear from the public, experts and other lawmakers on some of the most pressing issues in the state.
Committees are made up of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle and both chambers of the Legislature. There are roughly 10 standing committees that address large, statewide issues. There are also a number of select committees and task forces that address more specific issues such as Wyoming’s water supply.
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Here’s what to look for as the interim session gets underway. A full list of interim topics can be found here.
Corporations and Elections
During the past year, the Corporations Committee devoted considerable time to election reform and redistricting. But neither subject is a key focus this time around.
That’s not to say they won’t be examined at all. The committee’s fifth priority is to study election changes such as open primaries and ranked-choice voting. Notably, crossover voting, the practice of re-registering as a voter of a different party on primary election day, is not on the list. An attempt to ban crossover voting, backed by former President Donald Trump, failed in the budget session.
The committee will also examine redistricting policies and procedures for the future.
Rep. Mike Yin, D-Jackson, told the Star-Tribune that he plans to start working on a bill to address major issues with the reapportioned map passed last month. If Yin and his colleagues decide to bring a bill to change the state’s map, the committee will be open to hearing the issue, said Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, who helps to oversee the committee.
Also on elections, the committee will revisit the state’s electioneering law in light of a recent ruling by Skavdahl that it “chills speech.”
As its second priority, the committee will explore the lack of workforce housing in Wyoming, including “sources of the problem and the social and economic impacts created by it.”
Members will also take a “holistic” look at liquor laws as a whole. Municipalities are selling liquor licenses for exorbitant prices, so the committee plans to examine whether it’s necessary to create a process to set fees for the retail liquor licenses at fair market value.
The Judiciary Committee will handle its usual responsibilities like reviewing recent court opinions, in addition to nine other topics.
The committee will review drug-treatment courts within the Department of Health and weigh whether putting those courts under the judicial branch would “improve the efficacy and utilization of treatment courts in Wyoming’s communities.”
Also under the substance abuse umbrella is the issue of drug use during pregnancy. Rep. Ember Oakley, R-Riverton, brought a bill in the 2022 budget session that would criminalize the use of controlled substances during pregnancy. As it stands, this is not a crime. Oakley sees this as a “gap” in the law. Others, like attorney and Judiciary Committee member Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, have their doubts.
Members will also weigh whether changes are needed to the 24/7 sobriety programs that operate in five counties. Broadly, the program administers breathalyzer or drug tests to some people who are charged with drug or alcohol crimes.
Entering into this program is a requirement of pretrial release.
Critics take issue with many aspects of the program, arguing the program is unnecessarily burdensome and imposes tough requirements on participants who haven’t been found guilty of a crime. Proponents say the program is effective at keeping people from using while out on bond.
The ACLU of Wyoming challenged the constitutionality of Teton County’s version of the program, and the matter was argued before a federal judge last week. A ruling is expected this week.
In other committee business, law enforcement requested the panel consider whether an enhanced criminal penalty should be enacted to help protect vulnerable persons and professions.
The committee spent many hours last interim on juvenile justice and ended up getting a committee-sponsored bill passed on the topic. Juvenile justice is not on the agenda for the committee this time around, but lawmakers will hear an update on the bill.
The Revenue Committee will continue much of its work from previous interim sessions.
Members will look into property taxes as their top priority. To that end, the committee will examine property tax relief programs, taxes on second homes and other topics.
“The valuation of people’s homes are going up like crazy around the state and people are very upset about that,” said chairman of the committee Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander. “And they don’t understand how their home can go up so much but the government says they have less money.”
The committee will once again examine how to stabilize the state’s K-12 education funding stream. Much of the school funding comes from volatile oil and gas federal mineral royalties, which the former Wyoming superintendent of public instruction said amounts to roughly $150 million each year.
And once again, Medicaid expansion is on the list.
Case said he is “anxious” to get it introduced for debate on the floor. The Revenue Committee’s Medicaid Expansion bill was not introduced in the 2022 budget session because behind-the-scenes conversations revealed that there would not be enough votes for it to be successful. Some proponents initially wanted to see it introduced regardless of the vote count, while others worried it would harm future expansion efforts if it failed on the first vote.
The Revenue Committee also plans to examine how the state could make money off of certain, possibly nefarious, trust funds dubbed the “Cowboy Cocktail.”
Due to weak oversight and the state’s strong privacy laws, wealthy people from across the globe have started to funnel their money into a special form of trust fund here, the Washington Post reported last year.
These secretive trust funds consist of a Wyoming-based trust with nested private companies. The Post referred to this as a “Cowboy Cocktail.” Case said he does not plan to produce legislation on the topic quite yet; the topic is still in the exploratory phase.
The Education Committee will continue its work on student literacy rates, as many children in the state still lag behind their appropriate grade-level reading.
“After grade three, [teachers] assume that the student can read, and that’s not always the case,” said committee chairman Sen. Charlie Scott, R-Casper.
Members will also tackle the issue of recruitment and retention of school district personnel. When traveling around talking to teachers, co-chairman Rep. Jerry Paxton, R-Encampment, said that retention of teachers was the “hottest topic.”
The committee will specifically explore how to stay competitive with teacher salaries. But the conversation will not be limited to educational staff. The state is also struggling to hire and keep school bus drivers, whose salaries will also be examined, the chairmen said.
While salary is key, Paxton is concerned that there’s too much “non-teaching work” for teachers.
The Legislature attempted to pass multiple bills this past session that would have added to teacher workload or changed the way they educate.
“The biggest culprit in adding responsibility to teachers might be us and the laws that we pass,” Paxton said. “We need to be cognizant moving forward.”
Travel, Recreation and Wildlife
The committee that oversees recreation in Wyoming is focusing first this interim on avenues for expanding public trails and pathways. Doing so, some hope, would boost tourism in places such as Cheyenne and Casper.
The ever-controversial Sinks Canyon via ferrata — Italian for “iron road” or “iron way” — came up as well, but the climbing project is ultimately not on the committee’s interim topic list. No members voted in favor of it, said Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, the committee’s chairwoman.
A via ferrata can come in different forms, but it’s meant to aide climbers via steel rungs in the rock face. Proponents view the via ferrata as an economic opportunity with a small footprint that won’t risk the park’s ecology, while opponents argue it’s perilous for wildlife.
While committee lawmakers don’t appear to have much enthusiasm, some in the public do.
“It’s a significant issue,” said Case, who represents Lander, which is just minutes away from Sinks Canyon. “In my community, people are very angry about this.”
The Appropriations Committee is coming off a big interim and budget session, as members had to construct and pass two important budgets: the main budget, which is reworked every other year, and a budget to allocate federal funds the state was awarded through the American Rescue Plan Act.
The budgets included pay raises for state workers, which was one of Gov. Mark Gordon’s top priorities this past session as he sought to address recruitment and retention challenges. For the 2022 interim, the committee’s top priority is monitoring the distribution of these raises.
Minerals, Business and Economic Development
The Minerals Committee’s No. 1 priority is a broad one: “energy issues.”
The Committee plans to hear from the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission on the implementation of new laws and regulations pertaining to drilling and spacing units. Members will also explore obtaining agreement-state status from the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission for regulating sourced materials and thorium. And finally, lawmakers will examine the development of hydrogen as an energy source in Wyoming.
Continuing its work from last interim, the committee will explore carbon-sequestration issues, including issues with carbon dioxide storage.
Labor, Health and Social Services
In Cheyenne Rep. Sue Wilson’s 12 years in the Legislature, the health committee has not examined maternal health in Wyoming. That’s going to change this interim, as it’s the committee’s first priority.
This topic is partly connected to the Judiciary Committee’s work on substance use during pregnancy. During the 2022 budget session, lawmakers realized that there is a severe lack of data surrounding how many infants are born to mothers who use drugs.
The committee will also investigate the “benefits of extending postpartum Medicaid coverage for additional months.”
In Wyoming, pregnant women are some of the few who qualify for the federal program.
The Select Committee on Tribal Relations will examine whether the state’s tribal members could be exempt from online sales taxes. Members are already exempt from sales tax on in-person purchases on the reservation, and likely should be exempt from online purchases under existing law.
The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled on sale tax exemptions for tribal members, but those decisions occurred before the existence of online retail. This is the first time lawmakers will seriously explore the issue, said Ellis, chairwoman of the Tribal Relations Committee and member of the Navajo Nation.
While tribal members are exempt from paying sales tax on in-person purchases on the reservation, it’s not a perfect process.
The law “really puts the burden on the retailer to look at the customer and identify whether they’re Indian or non-Indian and decide whether or not to collect the tax,” she told the Management Council.
“So when we add online sales that gets complicated,” she said.
Follow state politics reporter Victoria Eavis on Twitter @Victoria_Eavis