LEGISLATIVE WATCH WYOMING: Divided Lawmakers to Study Hot Topics Like School Choice in Interim (Part 2)

Legislature seems unlikely to pass many controversial bills in 2024 Budget Session

  • Published In: Politics
  • Last Updated: Mar 26, 2023

By C.J. Baker

Special to the Wyoming Truth

Given the divided state of the Wyoming Legislature, there appears to be an understanding that its more controversial bills may have to wait until 2025.

Governor Mark Gordon speaks to a joint session of the 67th Legislature in the House Chambers at the Wyoming State Capitol on January 11, 2023 in Cheyenne. Photo by Michael Smith

As the body’s Management Council finalized topics to study between now and next year, committee chairmen prefaced several controversial issues by saying they know no action will be taken in the 2024 session, where it will take a two-thirds vote to introduce any non-budget related bills. In some cases, committees struggled to get a majority of members to agree on what issues to even consider. 

For instance, the “very varied” members of the Labor, Health and Social Services Committee suggested 37 divergent interim topics, co-chair Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne) said at Thursday’s meeting. The only one they agreed on, Zwonitzer said, was examining Wyoming’s unemployment insurance and worker’s compensation program — and the council assigned it to another panel. (The labor committee’s final list includes examining nursing homes and insurance matters, as well as how to recruit and retain firefighters and EMTs.)

Despite their ideological divisions, lawmakers aren’t shying away from hot-button issues in the interim.


School choice and state lands 

In addition to its annual work to adjust funding for Wyoming’s K-12 public schools, the Joint Education Committee plans to examine school choice.

In the past session, the Senate passed legislation allowing some education funding to follow the student as a “Wyoming freedom scholarship.” So if parents sent their child to a private academy, they could receive $6,000 a year toward those costs. But House Speaker Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) kept Senate File 143 in his desk — in spite of national blowback — because a similar bill had already failed.

The Senator Ogden Driskill listens to the National Anthem in the Senate Chambers at Wyoming State Capitol on January 10, 2023 in Cheyenne. The 67th Wyoming Legislation opened session today. Photo by Michael Smith

Education Committee co-chair Rep. David Northrup (R-Powell) said they’ll review the constitutionality of the freedom scholarship to “make sure that’s a worthwhile program.” 

“We’re seeing increasing pressures that people are getting dissatisfied with the public school system, and I think it’s important to have an opportunity for them to express themselves a little,” added co-chair Sen. Charlie Scott (R-Casper). “I think we can solve a lot of the problems if we can improve on our performance, particularly on the early reading [which is another priority topic].”

Additionally, the education committee wants to support the mental health of students and staff. Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) described it as “trying to return the joy of learning to the classroom” amid the pressures of homework, testing and other educational matters.

Meanwhile, the School Facilities Commission will examine the costs associated with Wyoming’s publicly funded charter schools and how major maintenance is funded at the state’s traditional K-12 schools. Senate President Driskill (R-Devils Tower) believes there’s an opportunity “to save double-digit millions, potentially” on major maintenance.

Driskill also lobbied for a dive into ways to maximize the revenue received from certain state lands. While Wyoming has traditionally leased them for grazing or allowed public recreation, he said some parcels — particularly those alongside highways and near towns — could generate significantly more money through other uses.

Representative Art Washut, R-Casper, listens during the morning session February 14, 2023 in the House Chamber. Photo by Michael Smith

“The really big giveaway we give on state grounds — … watch my computer start lighting up here — is we all recreate and hunt for free on state land,” Driskill added, suggesting some parcels should instead be leased to specific hunting groups or outfitters.

The potentially unpopular topic was assigned to the Management Audit Committee.

A learning curve 

Not all of the legislature’s interim work will be aimed at specific results. With 30 of the 93 lawmakers new to the body this year — and with many committees reshuffled — significant time will be spent getting them up to speed.

For example, the relatively green Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee’s look at the state’s elections is intended to “showcase the integrity of our elections and election systems” rather than being aimed at any specific issues, said co-chair Rep. Jared Olsen (R-Cheyenne).

The Select Committee on Blockchain, Financial Technology and Digital Innovation Technology wants to learn about the implications of artificial intelligence, alongside work that will include helping launch Wyoming’s new stable token.

The Judiciary Committee has a full plate that includes exploring the possibility of creating a pretrial diversion program for those charged with low-level offenses and offering subsidies to encourage more lawyers to practice in rural parts of Wyoming. They also intend to learn about Wyoming’s sex offender registry, internet crimes against children and the state’s unsolved murders.

Although the 2017 movie “Wind River” is set on Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation, most of the filming was actually done in Utah. State lawmakers may offer incentives to get producers to film here. (Courtesy image from Wind River)

Sen. Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne) questioned the plan, asking, “Is this just, ‘We want to hear about unsolved crimes and missing people and child exploitation?’”

But judiciary co-chair Rep. Art Washut (R-Casper) has said  he wants to examine how many unsolved murders there are in the state and how they are investigated.

The Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) can step in and assist local law enforcement agencies with cold cases. However, after reading a book about the investigation into Alice and Gerald Uden, Washut came away with the impression that “there’s no permanent staff, no full-time directed effort” on cold cases, being worked  “on a catch-as-catch-can basis.”

The investigation into a different unsolved crime, the 1985 murder of Shelli Wiley in Laramie, came under recent scrutiny in the Serial Production podcast, “The Coldest Case in Laramie.”

A host of topics 

The Select Committee on Tribal Relations also intends to hear testimony about “cold” missing and murdered indigenous persons (MMIP) cases on the Wind River Reservation.

Senator Cheri Steinmetz, R-Lingle, speaks during discussion of SF0078 at the 67th Legislature in the Senate Chambers January 12, 2023 in Cheyenne. Photo by Michael Smith

Although the Legislature has taken some action on the issue, “we’re trying to communicate to our tribal partners that we take their lives seriously,” said co-chair Sen. Affie Ellis (R-Cheyenne).

Other priorities include a look at education on the reservation — a topic spurred by “serious issues” at the K-12 St. Stephens School, Ellis said — and working on ways to ensure tribal members on the reservation are not charged state sales tax. The committee also plans to simply make time to listen to and visit with leaders and members of the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone Tribes, which Sommers praised as “a really good thing.”

Over at the Travel, Recreation and Wildlife Committee, lawmakers will again consider ways to entice TV and movie producers to film their Wyoming scenes in Wyoming and may create new rules for commercial fishing guides 

Among energy topics, the Business, Minerals and Economic Development Committee wants to see if the Legislature can encourage more oil and gas to be refined in Wyoming. The Select Federal Natural Resource Management Committee hopes to talk to the Bureau of Land Management about mineral leasing on federal land, which has slowed under the Biden Administration.

The Select Water Committee, meanwhile, will discuss the issues posed by the ongoing drought conditions in the Colorado River Basin, and alongside water-related matters, the Joint Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources Committee will revisit ways to bar foreign entities from owning ag land in the state.

The topics — which spanned 38 pages in the draft list — go alongside other duties mandated by statute and regular meetings with state departments. It’s why the Management Council sought to ensure committees weren’t biting off more than they could chew.

The fact that fewer committee-sponsored bills passed the recent General Session is “probably an indication the committees had too much to do [in 2022] and those bills weren’t all very well vetted through the committee process,” said Matt Obrecht, the director of the Legislative Service Office. “That’s really why we come here today [Thursday] and sit through 10 hours on this, is to make sure committees get manageable workloads and staff’s given manageable workloads.”

Most committees will meet two or three times before the start of the Budget Session on Feb. 12, 2024.

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