Legislature gears up for general session
January 10, 2019
CASPER — Over the next 40 days, members of the Wyoming Legislature will consider between 400 and 500 bills.
Some of those bills will have been talked about, poked and prodded for months, originating in committees comprised of seasoned lawmakers with serious policy chops and the institutional knowledge to understand how to dress a piece of legislation — as the popular saying goes — to get it ready for “prime time.” Other pieces of legislation might be partisan-driven, or of dubious legal merit, and may have no hope for passage. Others might attract enough attention to actually make it to the floor for debate.
“The good bills rise to the top, and the ones that aren’t so good fall to the bottom and, if they’re a good idea but still need a little more work, they’ll probably be put on pause and come back up in the next session,” said Brett Moline, a lobbyist for the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation.
Some of the 200 or so bills written into law every year merit more debate than others, with the fight involving not just lawmakers, but savvy representatives for dozens of special interest groups. Every session, these groups descend on the state capital to represent a diverse range of causes for numerous competing interests — cities and counties, large industry and conservationists, free market groups and others — fighting to ensure their perspectives are given due consideration.
Lawmakers will begin their work Tuesday. How that will go this year is somewhat unpredictable. Though this year’s Senate president — Sen. Drew Perkins, R-Casper — and the Speaker of the House, Rep. Steve Harshman, R-Casper, are both seasoned legislators, well-versed in facilitating the most prudent conversations facing the state, insiders are curious how the significant turnover experienced in the Senate over the past two years will influence the pace of this year’s deliberations.
“It’s hard to make predictions until we see all the new folks in action,” said Chris Merrill, the new executive director of the Equality State Policy Center.
Beyond the obvious question marks concerning health care and economic development in Wyoming, battle lines are already being drawn on a number of key issues around the state. Many groups, already keyed into the work accomplished throughout the interim session, have helped to shape the direction of legislation relevant to their memberships and are generally pleased with what they’ve accomplished.
They also have a sense of where to push back.
The Wyoming Outdoor Council, for example, is gearing up to oppose several pieces of legislation, particularly a bill to prosecute crimes against critical infrastructure, considered to be one of the premiere fights anticipated this session.
“We don’t see what the problem is in Wyoming,” said WOC Program Director Stephanie Kessler. “It’s overreach and intrusive government into our basic free speech.”
“A bill like this is a distraction from many more important issues before the state right now, like the budget, school funding and adequate funding for state agencies,” she added.
Revenue will be another area of focus this session. After this 2018 election resulted in many tax averse-candidates becoming lawmakers and two new chairs overseeing the Appropriations Committee, opposition to new taxes is likely to be stiff. For groups like Moline’s, several legislative attempts intended to raise money for the state — a new bill that would change the model for property taxes, another to index gas taxes to the price of inflation — are seen as flawed, with his group and others already planning opposition to both in the general session.
Even with the anticipation of a new earnings report in the coming weeks, groups looking for revenue-driven means to balance their budgets — like the Wyoming Association of Municipalities — see an upcoming challenge for new ways to generate funds.
“The one word I’d use is caution in what the revenue picture looks like, but I don’t anticipate a lot of new tools at our disposal,” said the group’s director, Rick Kaysen.
There are numerous surprises in a typical legislative session and, while many outside groups have a general idea of what their playbook will look like, the lobbyists representing them will have their hands full each day as the new bills receive file numbers.
“The vast majority of bills we’re going to deal with are not even up yet, so we’ve mostly dealt with the interim committee bills,” said Kessler. “It’s hard to anticipate what else is coming up.”
The unusual nature of this year’s Legislature — plus an entirely new executive branch taking over — should only serve to make things more unpredictable.
“It’s not only a new legislative group coming in, but new members who are being sent through the firehose to make some tough decisions,” said Kaysen. “The process is fluid, things will change, and we’re going to see amendments to bills that have already gone through a lot of committee work. We need to remain flexible, listen and communicate with legislators throughout the process.”