How the 66th Wyoming Legislature will convene this year will look different, but the plan approved Tuesday reflects what both houses deemed appropriate given the state of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It puts us on a good foot forward knowing that, as a majority at least, we respect the health and safety of both our staff and our public,” said Democrat Mike Yin, who represents Jackson in the Wyoming House of Representatives. “It’s a good thing that there wasn’t a ton of drama today.”
With the exception of Senate President Dan Dockstader, who presided over the first day of the session from the Capitol in Cheyenne, every legislator who represents part of Teton County dialed in remotely for what ended up being a largely ceremonial event. It was capped off by an abbreviated “state of the state” speech from Gov. Mark Gordon, who outlined his intent to bolster Wyoming’s role in the U.S. economy as an energy producer of fossil fuels, nuclear energy and renewables. He also highlighted the state’s deepening budget crisis.
“We’re in a fiscal storm that is the equivalent of the blizzard of 1949,” Gordon said. “Far more than a simple discussion between cuts and enhancements Wyoming must look for ways to stabilize the booms and busts that come from a focused revenue source.”
The governor has signed off on $250 million in budget cuts since March and is proposing another $515 million in cuts as a result of the economic slowdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The belt tightening builds on cuts that past administrations and legislatures have made as demand and prices have fallen for the fossil fuels, which generate revenue for government programs.
Though some Teton County legislators had wondered whether a group of conservative lawmakers would successfully jettison the legislative leadership’s plan to conduct its business over three months, during multiple sessions, things went smoothly. The House did debate the Legislature’s COVID-19 protocols and plan, but ultimately the Wyoming House and Senate both voted with overwhelming majorities to stick to the plan: 44-14 in the House (Yin’s Zoom video link broke down, but he said he would have supported the measure) and 22-6 in the Senate.
The idea behind breaking up the 40 or so days the Legislature typically allocates itself for general sessions is to slow things down, potentially giving lawmakers the time and ability to be vaccinated before gathering March 1 in Cheyenne.
Rep. Andy Schwartz, D-Teton, said his biggest “takeaway” from the day was the number of conservative politicians who voted against the protracted schedule.
“They got 14 votes,” Schwartz said. “So that’s not too bad.”
The Legislature will next convene Jan. 27 to deal with a handful of committee bills, with a possible measure spurred by Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Teton, among them. The bill, formally introduced by the Joint Transportation Committee, would see cameras installed on Teton Pass to capture images of overweight trucks that nonetheless choose to drive across the mountains.
“I’m not against trucks going over Teton Pass,” Gierau said. “I’m just against overweight trucks that shouldn’t be there.”
That bill will likely be debated in committee meetings next week, and Gierau encouraged Teton County residents to testify on the matter.
Other Teton County lawmakers like Schwartz and Yin shared Gov. Gordon’s fiscal focus.
“My primary focus will be ‘How do we fund our state sustainably into the future?’ ” Yin said.
The Legislature’s Joint Revenue Committee referred a few bills to the general session, including two that could lead to fuel and tobacco taxes. But Yin was disappointed in the number of bills that came out of that committee, which could lead to more state revenue.
“I believe the ones that are listed on the website are the only ones that the committee approved of, which is highly unfortunate,” Yin told the News&Guide.
Schwartz was also focused on revenue.
Freedom Caucus members have signed a “no new tax pledge,” he said. “They are committed to the notion that Wyoming doesn’t have a revenue problem, Wyoming has a spending problem.”
Schwartz doesn’t ascribe to that philosophy and said he would revive his real estate transfer tax bill. But, he said, given the fact that there are only nine Democrats in the Wyoming Legislature, two independents and 79 Republicans, he doesn’t think the bill stands a chance.