Cheyenne Confidential: How Wyo’s lawmakers spend your $3.4B

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A prayer is held before a session of the Wyoming Senate. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile — click to enlarge)
A prayer is held before a session of the Wyoming Senate. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

By Geoffrey O’Gara, WyoFile.com

Blow the trumpets! Put on a tuxedo! Declare a school holiday! Turn off “American Idol”! It’s the biggest thing since – since – since Taylor Swift, since the Twilight movies, since Zac Efron: THE WYOMING LEGISLATURE IS COMING!!!

Yawn.

How do we get you interested in the 93rd Wyoming Legislature, in which 90 mostly old, mostly male, mostly white, mostly Republican, mostly you’ve-never-heard-of-them elected representatives convene in the Capitol in Cheyenne for eight weeks of parliamentary playtime beginning in January? They gather to pass laws or defeat bills that will do everything from putting the State Treasury behind private industry pipelines, to dictating what question your teenager has to answer to prove she’s learning something in the eighth grade, to buying Wyoming an aircraft carrier.

Aircraft carrier

An enterprise class aircraft carrier. (Courtesy of the National Transportation Library — click to enlarge)

Are you interested yet?

Let’s try this: You have $3.4 billion, and you’re going to hire some guy with nothing better to do in the winter – a rancher, a bartender, a jade-digging desert rat, a lawyer – to decide how to spend it. You’re going to pay him a measly $150 a day to work 10 hours plus and gain 20 pounds at the shrimp mountains erected by lobbyists every evening. And since you won’t be there, or paying much attention (the newspapers and TV news won’t help much either) this $150 per day guy will be hearing mostly from those lobbyists telling him how to leverage that $3.4 billion to help the industry that’s paying them, in some cases, $1500 per day.

Come on, Wyoming. Pay attention. That’s real money. Supposedly, it’s yours.

Let’s get to the meat of it right away – a short list of some of the big and small things the 2013 Wyoming Legislature is going to be doing on your behalf. With $3.4 billion. (I can’t say that enough.)

Then, we’ll give a brief tutorial on how that meat is carved – how, in other words, the legislature works.

Finally, we’ll give you a little preview of WyoFile’s upcoming coverage of the legislature, some of which we’ll provide BEFORE the legislature convenes January 8. (Raw meat, you might say.)

So, while I’ve still got your attention, here’s that short list of legislative highlights, even before the lights at the Capitol are turned on.

  • After a decade of extraordinary growth in state revenues and spending, this year the budget debate will be mostly about how much to cut, and where to cut. It won’t be a full two year budget – only what we call a “supplemental” budget – but the legislature has asked the executive branch to lop 4 percent off its budgets, and Gov. Matt Mead did them one better by asking all state agencies to lop 8 percent off their projected spending.  If single-digit percentages sound minor, consider that 8 percent of the state’s budget is about $75 million. The devil will be in the details, of course – cuts are not likely to be distributed evenly across the board between the Governor’s budget (coming in December) and the surgery performed afterward by the legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee.
  • Wyoming is among the states that disdains the federal Affordable Care Act, but so far has shown little ability or appetite for tackling the question of how to provide its citizens with, let’s call it, affordable care. Sen. Charlie Scott’s (R-Casper) “Healthy Frontiers” program, which tied low-cost health insurance to work and healthy behavior, is dead after a disappointing two year run (few signed up for it). The Department of Health, and the Medicaid program it runs, is hemorrhaging red ink, but under somewhat new Director Tom Forslund, 4 percent cuts have apparently been earmarked. Health exchanges are coming now that President Obama has been reelected, but will it be a solo Wyoming version, a pool with neighbor states, or a dreaded federal program? The Governor and legislators dragged their feet on this, apparently practicing what doctors call ‘watchful waiting’ to see if Gov. Romney could get elected and “repeal” Obamacare. Not going to happen now. Uh, should we get to work on this?
  • In education, expect the legislature and Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill to continue battling over who is in charge, with the legislature reaching deep into her realm to dictate how we test and evaluate students, teachers and schools. This is partly because of disappointment that big bucks invested in education have brought Wyoming little improvement in test scores; but it’s also about fairly open antagonism between legislators and Hill. Also, the various money streams that have fed Wyoming’s manic school building in recent years are drying up – time for a fresh look at spending on school facilities.
  • The energy industry is always well represented in Cheyenne, and coal will get a particularly sympathetic ear when it likely comes offering some sensible minor adjustment to our complex severance tax system that will (just coincidentally) save the industry big bucks. Legislators say they can’t do much at the state level to help coal (under fire nationally by the carbon police) or natural gas (prices driven down by a flood of new discoveries), but watch for action on utility corridors and wind taxes. There’s talk about framing an overall state energy policy, but it’s hard to know if that would provide substance or just words, especially when the Governor reels in the rhetoric and starts calling it an energy “strategy.”
  • Wyoming’s libertarian leanings have generally stifled the more extreme efforts to intrude government into areas of personal choice like the bedroom or the gun closet. But so-called “social issues” are pushed in legislation every year, and they will be again in 2013, particularly with the election of some new members who previously advocated for social issues as lobbyists. With only precious weeks in the statute-cooking kitchen, this eats up a lot of time, because everyone has an opinion, and it doesn’t take a lot of study (like, say, leafy spurge eradication programs). Abortion, marriage equality, conceal and carry – they’ll get headlines, but probably not the necessary votes.
  • Wyoming may judge the federal economic “stimulus” to be another of the sins of the Obama Administration, but that didn’t stop the state Department of Transportation from drinking deeply (and smartly) from the stimulus trough, which has paid for a lot of pavement in recent years. It’s never enough for the road-builders, though, so you can expect a lively conversation about imposing a fuel tax. Yes, a state levy at the pump, a few more cents per gallon of gas, aimed at picking the pockets of pass-through truckers and tourists, but incidentally giving pocketbook heartburn as well to the trona miner who commutes between Rock Springs and Green River.

Other legislative topics that could be of interest during the 2013 session (some of which we’ll preview in upcoming WyoFile features): raising hunting license prices for the Game and Fish Department, funding the raises and pensions of the ever-growing state employee workforce; the treatment of juveniles who break the law and find themselves in the very grownup world of penal institutions; and preparing for more fire-fighting in another predicted dry year.

Making Sausage the Wyoming Way

There was a time when Wyoming legislators could sensibly meet for a few weeks every winter, deplete the liquor closet at the Hitching Post, and in the end wander insensibly home to tell the constituents that the state was broke, and so Thank God government wouldn’t be doing much this year.



But that changed when Gov. Stan Hathaway famously announced that Wyoming government had only $100 left in the bank, and convinced the legislature to start taxing mineral extraction. Half a century later, severance taxes are a cash cow, and Cheyenne is rolling in money; the state and its infrastructure are growing rapidly, and citizens, corporations and local governments are all clamoring for a piece of the pie. Yet the legislature remains a relic of the nothing-to-do 19th century: its elected lawmakers are paid a pittance, they work with very little support staff, and by constitutional law they must do their business in no more than 60 working days over a two year period.

Imagine a $3.4 billion corporation run by a bunch of guys who got together for a month in even years and two months in odd years. Would you buy any stock in that?

In some districts, that’s a job that no one wants, sensibly enough; legislators who I’ve never seen author a bill or utter a word in Cheyenne get reelected without opposition. In other districts, people fight for legislative seat as if it were the Tour de France – in one Fremont County race this fall, the candidates spent some $50,000 to win a $150 per day part-time job.

If you should be foolish enough to get elected to the legislature – or if you want to twist some arms as a citizen lobbyist – here, in brief, is how it works:

Brussels sprouts

(KRGJumper/Flickr — click to enlarge)

 

 

 

 

 

  1. A constituent suggests to a representative a good idea for a new law – say, a requirement that multinational energy companies using fracking to collect natural gas must serve their workers in Wyoming mancamps Brussels sprouts at least once a week. The legislator calls the folks at the Legislative Service Office, a bipartisan agency that works for the legislature, and asks them to draft a bill (bills also, and often, originate when interim legislative committees meet during the “off season” to tackle assigned topics for the upcoming session).
  2. The bill is assigned to one of the 12 “standing” committees in the House or Senate, depending on the topic, which chairman wants it, and, sometimes, the whim of the chamber’s leadership. Hearings are held, testimony heard, debates engaged, and the bill is reported out with a favorable or unfavorable recommendation. I’m not sure whether the Brussels sprouts-fracking bill would go to the Agriculture Committee or the Minerals Committee. Those are busy panels, and sometimes a bill dies because the lawmakers never get to it. (If you could get it into the Journal Committee, which appears to have almost nothing to do except rubber-stamp a journal of the Legislature’s proceedings, chances might improve).
  3. If the committee reports it favorably, the bill goes to the floor of the House or Senate, where it must pass three readings before moving on. Legislators can debate and amend bills at each reading, though many slip by without a specific vote on something called the “Consent Calendar.” In all likelihood, this bill would be fiercely debated, since someone from Worland is likely to offer an amendment substituting sugar beets for Brussels sprouts.
  4. If a bill makes it through three readings in, say, the House, it shuffles across the Capitol to the Senate, where it goes through a committee and, if reported favorably, the three-reading process on the Senate floor. (The Appropriations Committee also gets an Ebenezer Scrooge look at any bill that adds to the budget.) If it passes the second chamber with some modifications, it then goes to a conference committee, where members of Senate and House try to hash out the differences.
  5. The compromise version that comes out of the conference then goes back to each chamber for approval, and if it gets that…
  6. Downstairs goes the bill for the Governor’s signature. Or, he can veto it. At which point, it goes back to legislature, where sponsors will have to muster a 2/3 vote to over-ride.

Sound simple? Well, there are a lot of possible potholes left out of this little roadmap. The schedule is brutally tight, and if a bill doesn’t get through each step in this process on time, it will die. There are lobbyists who are buttonholing legislators every step of the way; there are discussions and deals cut among legislators at morning coffee or receptions (several every evening, all sponsored by lobbying groups); there are phone calls and emails from the district. Powerful chairmen and legislative leaders can make a bill disappear simply by running out of committee time, or listing it way down on the floor schedule, where it will languish day after day, and die without a whisper on adjournment.

It would be tough to work even a few bills through this process. At the last general session, in 2011, there were 275 bills and resolutions introduced in the House, and 162 bills introduced in the Senate. Some are two pages long. Some are 200 pages long.

And if it’s a budget year – the even numbered calendar years when the legislature produces a budget for the next two years in a four week rush – any non-budget bill requires a two-thirds vote just to get introduced.

So it’s complicated, and crazy busy.

And yet, like all levels of government in Wyoming, the legislature is extraordinarily accessible. If you’ve got a gripe, or a case to make for Brussels sprouts, you should go down to Cheyenne during the session. You can watch from the gallery, and probably get a nod or even a round of applause when your representative introduces you (it helps to bring the junior high swim team). Grab a chair in the little lobby, and send notes in to the legislators, asking them to come out and talk to you about Brussels sprouts (most of them will).

There are some rules about how to behave – you can review them at the legislature’s website, under “general information.” You can find out there when committees meet, and what bills they’re considering.

Though the legislature’s squeezed calendar is geared to a 19th century workload, its technology is moving gradually into about the 1980s. You can now listen to the floor debate live over the internet. Audio only, no visuals, so you don’t get to see the guys in the back napping through the debate about leafy spurge.

The best reason to go down, though, is the committee meetings. Committee meetings are neither broadcast nor taped. They are not often reported on either – thinly staffed Wyoming media just don’t seem to be able to find a chair in the cramped little committee rooms. The committees meet before and after the daily sessions of the full House and Senate, which is another reason, I suppose, journalists don’t much cover them – Rep. Kermit Brown cruelly started some of his House Judiciary Committee meetings at 6:58 a.m.

But this is where stuff happens. This is where bills get fine-tuned, or changed radically. This is where cabals form and sink or save important bills. Get there early if you want a seat: often, there’s only space for a selection of wide-bodied lobbyists in fine suits. But this is where the Brussels sprouts get steamed or roasted.

In The WyoFile War Room

The 2013 Wyoming legislature will meet for eight weeks – but don’t go down in Week Seven expecting to sway the decision on vegetables and fracking. The various deadlines for introducing, committee reporting, and passing bills mean that most of the decisions have been made long before the last seven days.

WyoFile coverage

In fact, lots of important issues have already been shaped by the aforementioned interim committee meetings which have been underway since shortly after the budget session ended last March. Decisions are being made now – just last week, for instance, various education committees met to work on accountability standards for Wyoming teachers, an issue so complex that it could never be handled soup-to-nuts during the two-month session that begins in January. So, like a lot of other important stuff, it’s happening now.

With that in mind, WyoFile will publish a series of features on some of the big topics to be tackled by the 2013 Legislature – highlighting and previewing what will be on the serving platter when legislators convene Jan. 8 in Cheyenne. We begin with Greg Nickerson’s article on the Supplemental Budget, because banking cash and writing checks never ends – revenue forecasts are recalculated throughout the year, agencies are investing months calculating their operating costs, the Governor’s staff has long been crafting its proposed budget, and the Joint Appropriations Committee will begin grafting its own notions onto that draft in December.

In subsequent weeks leading up to the session, WyoFile will look at education issues, health care, wildlife management, transportation, social issues, energy, and any other topics that emerge. Hopefully, this will give citizens a start in prepping themselves to watchdog and weigh-in on the issues they care about.

You may ask: is it worth it? Won’t the legislature dismay us just like the U.S. Congress? Government, after all, makes a mess of things. You might agree with what Will Rogers said about Congress: “Every time they make a joke, it’s a law, and every time they make a law it’s a joke.”

Well. You don’t have to dig deep to find the trivial (Wyoming’s Official State Cookie) or the insensitive (requiring pregnant women considering abortion to get an ultra-sound test) among the bills on the docket. Industry lobbyists are way too influential, and legislators are much too slack about policing their own conflicts of interest.

But if you are looking for bags of money in the hallway, Alaska-style, you’re not going to find them. Somehow, despite the ridiculous schedule and dim-bulb back-benchers, the Wyoming Legislature gets its job done. They waste a lot of time debating marriage equality, making speeches about the Day of the Cowboy, and meddling in education to the point of debating whether to fine the parents of truants $50 or $100. And the energy industry, which pays the severance taxes that run the state, gets much of what it wants.

But not everything – last year, an attempt to change coal valuation methods for severance taxes to favor industry was rebuffed. That’s just one of many enormously complicated issues – eminent domain for transmission lines, health risks in the ‘local food’ movement, public access to the emails of government officials – that somehow get resolved with surprising comprehension and occasional wisdom.

That’s what you’d hope for from a citizens legislature. Just don’t hope for too much – it’s still being run on a shoe string, with too little time for deliberation, and too little attention from the folks back home. Whether you care about state’s management of Medicaid, texting on cell phones, protecting sage grouse, Hathaway scholarships for your kids, safety on oil rigs, or serving Brussels sprouts to fracking engineers, you need to pay attention.

Geoff O'Gara

Geoff O’Gara

— Geoffrey O’Gara is a longtime Wyoming journalist. Geoff was a Wyoming Public Television producer and host of the influential Capitol Outlook and Wyoming Chronicle programs. He is the author of What You See in Clear Water: Indians, Whites, and a Battle Over Water in the American West (2002) and A Long Road Home, Journeys Through America’s Present in Search of America’s Past (1989) and several other books. An avid cyclist, basketballer and fly fisherman, he lives in Lander.

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