As the senior member of the Wyoming Legislature, I have been asked to compare the recently ended legislative session with other I have experienced in my 45 years in the Legislature.
I am disappointed in the work of this year’s legislative session. The budget was the major success. We have a very large temporary financial surplus caused mostly by taxes on high priced oil, gas and coal. We were able to appropriately restore budget cuts we had made in previous years to balance the budget when revenues were short. Of $3.5 billion in revenue we saved $1.4 billion, half in our permanent funds and half in reserves we can spend in the future if needed. We will be able to spend the investment earnings from permanent savings forever. Wyoming is unusual – as a percent of total revenue we get more earnings from our permanent savings than most states get from their income tax. Our constitutionally protected permanent funds are our insurance policy against ever needing an income tax. They give us a degree of financial stability we need given the boom and bust nature of our economy.
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Most the rest of the work was less impressive. We passed the usual number of bills that will do a little good for the few people affected. We are not getting our money’s worth from our education system. I will have a subsequent column on what’s wrong and what’s needed. Education needs reform and little progress was made this session.
Our electric utility system is in dire trouble. We will have blackouts and big rate increases because our electric grid is being grossly mismanaged. The one major bill in this area was killed by a House committee. I will have separate column on what’s going wrong.
The Senate passed a major tax cut, but it failed in the House. We passed an anti-crossover voting bill that will do considerable harm – voters who don’t register as a member of political party will find they cannot vote in primary elections that are often the final election in Wyoming.
I identify three major causes for what happened:
First, the House of Representatives had an unusually high number of new members, 27 out of 62 members had never served in the Legislature before. Only the 1993 Legislature, where 39 out of 60 House members were new, had a high turnover. In addition, 13 members were in their second term. In my experience it takes two complete terms for most members to get enough experience with the issues to have confidence in what they are doing. In addition, some new members have not yet learned how to keep their debate speeches to the essentials, taking too much time. With too many new members, it is difficult to get major legislation passed. For example, the House Education Committee had a majority of new members so the chairman wisely put an emphasis on educating the new members on how our education system works.
Second, the Republicans in the House were sharply divided into two faction. I have never seen the degree of factionalism the House is now showing. The “moderate” faction elected three out of four positions including the speaker. The prevailing faction got all the committee chairmanships and all the appropriations committee seats. I understand the election were very close. The result was animosity that hurt legislation. In addition, the speaker killed bills he did not like by not assigning them to a committee or by sending them to a committee that would kill them. This arbitrary behavior also causes hard feelings. There is usually some of this, but this session was worse than most. The failure to assign bills to committee at all was unusual. That practice was almost never seen until recent years. The Senate had normal turnover, less factionalism and less arbitrary killing of bills.
Third, the Wyoming Democratic Party is almost dead. There are only two Democrats in the Senate and five in the House and all are from either Albany or Teton counties. The national Democratic Party has gone too far to the left both on economic issues, especially those important to Wyoming, and on social issues. The result is many Wyoming Democrats have become Republicans. They have not changed their opinions, their party left them. The lack of Democrats means less compromise, less need for Republican candidates to be concerned about the general election rather than the primary, and less disciplined among the Republicans.