Wyomingites hate being told what to do by people outside our state. We recoil at the idea of being lectured on our way of life from someone who’s never set foot on Wyoming soil. Consider the popular bumper sticker: Welcome to Wyoming. We don’t care how you did it back home.
And yet our laws make it easy for outside political interests to influence our politics with considerable anonymity. To make matters even worse, the penalties for violating those laws are exceedingly weak, so even if officials are aware of a violation, it’s unlikely that anyone will be punished.
The problems with Wyoming’s existing system were illustrated by the recent unmasking of the Wyoming Public Policy Center, a group that was created to derail legislation designed to regulate gambling here. The group used experienced lobbyists, social media and anonymous policy papers to stop the bills, which were ultimately defeated in the most recent legislative session.
The group took a variety of steps to avoid disclosing who its members were: It filed first as a limited liability company in New Mexico via a registered agent in Washington. It then filed as a foreign LLC during this winter’s legislative session and used a mail forwarding business for a mailing address and an anonymous proxy service to register its web domain.
And while the group lobbied to kill gambling regulations, it did not register with the Wyoming Secretary of State’s office – as lobbyists and lobbying groups are required to do – until late June, when the Star-Tribune began investigating. Soon, we learned the truth: a Wyoming casino had funded the group.
The episode shows how weak Wyoming’s lobbying rules are and how susceptible they are to abuse. It took little effort for a group to aggressively lobby lawmakers while maintaining their anonymity until well after the final vote was cast. And the group didn’t bother complying with registration laws until months later. And while this instance involved groups inside Wyoming, there is nothing to stop a similar entity, with no connection to our state, from influencing our political system.
Failing to register is a crime in Wyoming. But the penalty is comically weak – a mere $200 – and enforcement is left to local law enforcement agencies – not the Secretary of State’s Office. But what local law enforcement agency will have the time and training to prosecute a crime that most police officers would be unfamiliar with?
And even if a lobbyist is convicted of failing to register, it would trigger a fine that costs less than many families spend on a new television. Given how much money political operatives and lobbyists are paid, a fine of that size is hardly a concern.
Wyoming has two options going forward. We can continue with a system that will continue to be exploited, one that allows well-funded groups to influence our politics behind a veil of anonymity. Or our Legislature can pass new laws that will put the brakes on this practice and bring some badly-needed sunlight to our political system.