After a Confirmation Fight in the Senate, State Lawmakers Consider Changing Process for Service on Boards and Commissions
Committee looks for ways to make it easier for citizens to serve
- Published In: Politics
- Last Updated: Jun 22, 2023
Sen. Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne), pictured during last winter’s Legislative Session, said the state Senate’s current process for vetting and confirming gubernatorial appointees is unfair to some nominees and needs to be reworked. (Photo by Michael Smith)
By CJ Baker
Special to the Wyoming Truth
Recent conflict between Gov. Mark Gordon and state senators over who should be allowed to serve on the state’s boards and commissions have some lawmakers wondering if it’s time to revamp the process.
At a Tuesday meeting, members of the Legislature’s Management Audit Committee indicated they want to take a second look at which of the governor’s many appointees are subject to Senate confirmation — and whether there’s a better way to handle those who do go before the Legislature.
The governor is responsible for filling 850-plus positions across some 150 boards, commissions and councils, ranging from the Midwifery Board to the Enhanced Oil Recovery Commission. While Gordon can make most of those appointments on his own, over 320 must be approved by the Senate.
Historically, the process has mostly been a rubber stamp.
“The governor sent his appointments, the Senate confirmed them, it wasn’t a thing,” said Sen. Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne). “And it became a thing, and it has continued to be a major issue.”
In Nethercott’s view, objections to appointees have not only become more frequent, but have gone from legitimate policy concerns to being “very personal and partisan.”
The issue surfaced during last winter’s Legislative Session, with a public fight over the reappointment of a Powell engineer to the Industrial Siting Council. The two Republican senators who represent the Powell area, Sens. Tim French and Dan Laursen, opposed Dusty Spomer’s continued service on the council. In brief remarks on the Senate floor, Laursen and French mentioned only “concerns,” but they later said part of their opposition stemmed from Spomer’s past criticism of their work as legislators.
The Senate voted down Spomer’s nomination, 24-7, but after heavy lobbying by the governor’s office and others, the body reconsidered and approved him by a 17-13 margin. Gordon’s spokesman called the initial rejection “an unfortunate example of a local spat trumping the qualifications of a well-vetted appointee.”
In remarks to the Management Audit Committee on Tuesday, Gordon’s deputy chief of staff, Betsy Anderson, expressed frustration with how the Senate handled the dispute, saying the body should have given Spomer a chance to defend himself.
For her part, Nethercott called the current process “awful,” specifically critiquing the idea of debating a nominee’s merits on the Senate floor “live on YouTube.”
“It’s not a bill, or a policy or ideas, it is John Smith and it is the most terrible thing for John Smith, who did not choose to be elected, who just responded to a call from the governor to serve on some … board,” Nethercott said.
Rep. Landon Brown (R-Cheyenne) echoed those concerns.
“We need to do something to fix this,” he said, adding that “it’s become a slogfest to get somebody through the process.”
‘Misrepresentations were made’
Although there have been other recent disputes over appointees — including three rejections in 2021 — they remain rare. Of the more than 110 nominees considered this year, Spomer was the only one to face public opposition, while the governor withdrew a couple other names in response to concerns raised privately by Senate leaders.
In the past, governors provided their lists of candidates to the Senate before publicly announcing them. That enabled lawmakers to raise objections before the general public even knew a person was being considered for a position; Nethercott said it offered more protection for applicants.
Gordon stopped providing advance notice after coming to believe that “misrepresentations were made” by senators about the viability of some candidates he proposed in 2019, Anderson said. She added that the Senate’s vetting process appeared “very opaque.”
“Are you looking at qualifications? Are you looking at experience? Are you looking at skills? Are you looking at integrity? Or something else?” Anderson asked. “We have no idea. And it was very frustrating on our side of the equation.”
The committee plans to review how other states handle confirmations, and it may reconsider which positions are subject to approval. Sen. Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) noted the lack of consistency, with members of the Board of Barber Examiners confirmed by the Senate, but not those on the Cosmetology Board.
“I went to the barber yesterday … and I don’t know that I cared that the Senate confirmed that barber …,” Barlow laughed.
The committee also expressed interest in loosening some of the requirements for serving on some of the scores of state boards and commissions. The qualifications can include specific professions, residency within a particular part of the state and caps on how many members can be of the same political party. And meeting those combinations can be challenging.
“Oftentimes we have to find … maybe an engineer from a particular county and there might only be a handful [living there], and maybe none of those individuals are interested in serving,” said Gabi Farmer, who oversees boards and commissions for Gordon’s office.
Other positions are reserved for members of the general public, and “it is hard to find people that are, you know, ‘I’m Judy Smith and I really am interested in land surveying and engineering and I want to be a public member on that board,’” Anderson added.
Thanks to recruiting efforts, Farmer said the office has had more success filling positions in recent years, “but we still have quite a bit” of vacancies. As of April, there were 43 spots open among the more than 850 mostly unpaid posts.
Brown asked if the “political vitriol” was discouraging people from applying and others asked about pay. But Farmer said the main concern for potential candidates is that they don’t have the time to commit to the role.
The committee will revisit the topic at its Sept. 6 meeting.