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Barron: What happened to the Tea Party?
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Barron: What happened to the Tea Party?

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CHEYENNE— My first exposure to a tea party member occurred about ten years ago. It was during a meeting of local officials and state health officers at Laramie County Community College. I don’t recall the specific topic but I’m sure it had to do with money or the shortage thereof.

Dr. Brent Sherard of the Department of Health led the discussion. He was interrupted by an unidentified woman in the audience who leaped up and began shouting something unflattering about government.

A man in the audience told a companion that she was a “tea bagger.” Although the man spoke softly, the woman heard the reference which apparently had some sexual connotation. Outraged, she erupted, shouted something and stormed out of the building. After she left several people in the audience said she was a member of the ‘’Tea Party.”

Sherard, totally unruffled, continued the meeting.

That, then was my first introduction to this old, new political anti-tax, anti big government movement. The political cartoonists, you may recall, had great sport with the party members, depicting them always wearing a hat with a tea bag dangling from the brim.

The movement spread. There was a tea party caucus in Congress initiated by Minnesota representative Michele Bachman.

Our new U.S. Senate-elect Cynthia Lummis was a freshman congresswoman when she visited Bachman and the Tea Party Caucus. She said later the group’s ideas made a lot of sense. Yet the label only lived in Congress for a couple of years when it morphed into the Freedom Caucus, which Lummis joined.

The tea party itself, a loose organization with no real chosen leaders and a highly diverse membership, eventually became the core of the modern Republican Party, according to Wikipedia.

The former tea party members also became a hard right wing bloc in the Wyoming Legislature who oppose all new taxes. The majority are in the House, where all revenue-raising bills must originate.

Given the state’s sorry long-range financial picture, this presents an enormous dilemma to state officials and legislators who recognize the need for new sources of money to deal with Wyoming’s sharp economic decline from the collapse of the coal industry and other misfortunes.

Legislators got some good news recently with the release of the new revenue report that was less bleak than the one issued by the group of fiscal experts in May. It reduced the original $877 million shortfall to $451 million, largely because of improved sales taxes and assorted other revenue sources, according to published reports.

Coupled with cuts in government spending already in place, the new report means the lawmakers next January will be facing a $225 million budget shortfall.

Although it doesn’t seem like it, that is good news given the current state of affairs. The downside is the new report eases the pressure somewhat on the legislators to do something about what is called the structural deficient in this forthcoming legislative session.

I’ve seen this before. It’s human nature. The report provides an out for legislators to once again postpone action on any meaningful reforms. The legislators can wait until next year or the following biennium. They can study it some more.

Meanwhile, the post-election lull will be settling in with legislative interim committees wrapping up their work for the year. The Joint Revenue Committee will be pondering various tax remedies, probably including all the ideas that have been rejected in the past few years. Who knows — perhaps the committee can concoct a plan that can worm through the House wall of resistance from the tea partiers, the alt right or whatever their movement is now called.

Wyoming has always had hard-nosed fiscally conservative Republicans in the Legislature. They, too balked at imposing new or higher taxes. Yet when the need became critical to the health of the state as it did several times in the last 50 years, they stood up and voted.

They were “old guard” Republicans —a different breed.

Perhaps that is what we need today; more pragmatists and fewer ideologues.

Joan Barron is a former longtime capitol bureau reporter. Contact her at 307-632-2534 or jmbarron@bresnan.net

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