The 2023 legislative session has been difficult to categorize. Some of the legislation passed appears farsighted and will almost certainly benefit our state for a long time. At the same time, some of the conduct we have seen in the session does not reflect well on those we have elected. As the roughly two months of activity in Cheyenne draw to a close, it is time to assess where our legislative body triumphed and where it fell short.
The most encouraging piece of legislation from the 2023 session was the supplemental budget. The legislature had approximately $2 billion of surplus funds to work with in the legislative session. When presented with significantly more resources than originally intended, the legislature did what we so often wish it would: it exercised restraint. Rather than spend all the additional funds, the legislature put some toward needed expenditures and put the rest aside. Of the nearly two billion dollars, the legislature only spent about four hundred million, and tended to do so wisely. The remaining $1.4 billion was split between permanent funds – which are permanently set aside to generate future income for the state – and reserve accounts that the legislature can access in the future if necessary.
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The reason this budget was such an encouraging development was that it was a step toward addressing some of our state’s systematic budget issues. With mineral revenues generally declining, our state is faced with questions about how we will fund our government in the future. Many of the options are undesirable, such as increasing sales or property taxes or implementing some sort of income tax. If, however, the legislature can save enough in the permanent funds, we may have an opportunity to increase our state investment income to the point where it can fill the gap caused by declining mineral revenues. This may be an optimistic outlook, but if nothing else, increased funding from state permanent funds could at least reduce future tax increases. The legislature deserves credit for voting to set money aside in a way that is likely to benefit Wyoming in the long term.
Another positive from this legislative session is that most of the really bad bills either died or were amended to such an extent that their worst parts were no longer included. With nearly five hundred bills filed this year, there are too many to individually point out each bill that was deserving of rejection. Instead, we should remember that some of the legislature’s most important work is in preventing bad policy from being enacted. Just like physicians, legislators should endeavor to “first, do no harm.” This year, it appears that they tended to abide by this maxim.
Not everything the legislature did is deserving of praise, however. The 2023 legislative session saw a continuation of the division and tribalism that has been on the rise in recent years. Even though the decorum of the legislature improved over last year, that does not mean that the body was entirely focused on problem solving. Rather, this year saw open development of competing camps and block voting. Rather than debate and consideration, much of this legislative session featured entrenched camps unwilling to listen to the points of those they disagree with. If our legislators are unwilling to consider input and opposing viewpoints, they are unlikely to be responsive to the public or the issues facing the state. This is a foreboding development that worries me for the future.
Ironically, despite the reluctance to listen to opposing viewpoints, one problem with this legislative session was a lack of appreciation of the process required for good lawmaking. This often resulted in too much debate rather than too little. Nearly a third of the legislature had not held legislative office before they took their oaths in January. As a result, the legislative process was unfamiliar to many and the nuance of when to talk and when the point has already been made was not readily apparent. The House in particular struggled with too many legislators feeling compelled to comment on every bill, which resulted in an inefficient process and slow work. Had there been a better understanding of legislative process and norms, there likely would have been more time to consider the truly meaningful bills.
As with every legislative session, this one was a bit of a mixed bag. Some very thoughtful and meaningful legislation passed. A few duds did as well. I come out of it with hope, and some trepidation, about the future. If those that focus on Wyoming’s long-term well-being maintain their position, I have faith that things will continue to turn out well for Wyoming. Whether or not that happens is up to us.
Khale Lenhart is an attorney in Cheyenne and a former Chairman of the Laramie County Republican Party. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.