Will social issues heat up Wyoming’s winter session?

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Will social issues heat up Wyoming’s winter session?

By Gregory Nickerson, WyoFile.com
Originally published December 18, 2012

When the Wyoming Legislature convenes this January, social issues will compete for legislative attention with major topics like education accountability and appropriations.

“I anticipate that we will see all of the issues we see every session: gambling, gay marriage, abortion,” said Rep. Matt Teeters (R-Lingle). “If you look at the demographics and the values of the people of Wyoming, they expect us to have these conversations in a civil forum.”

During the legislative session, lobbyists on all sides of social issues try to connect with lawmakers to advance their agendas. Many are socially conservative. But others are more libertarian or liberal when it comes to social views.

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“I believe that much of what the legislature tries to address in terms of social issues is none of their damn business,” said Pamela Kandt, a self-described citizen activist from Casper. During the 2011 session, she ran a campaign for marriage equality from her computer in Casper.

“When it comes to who I love and who I want to make a lifelong commitment to as a partner, it’s none of their darn business,” said Kandt. “If I’m not coming over into your yard trying to dictate how to live your life, then don’t come over and tell me.”

The “live and let live” philosophy might be a key aspect of Wyoming culture and politics, but it doesn’t do much to hamper discussion of social issues in the legislature.

“There is certainly a constituency that asks the legislature to hear the bills and I think we are constitutionally obligated to address them,” said incoming Speaker of the House, Rep. Tom Lubnau (R-Gillette).

Most legislators and lobbyists will keep their proposals for hot-button social issues behind the scenes until shortly before the session.

Lubnau said he expects lawmakers to propose between 300 and 350 bills. The core of the Legislature’s work this year will be on the major questions of highway funding, compliance with the Affordable Care Act, education accountability, and dealing with declining revenues.

“You’ll see lots of meaty debates on really complicated issues,” said Lubnau. In his capacity as Speaker of the House, he’ll be charged with making sure the Legislature tends to the most important issues in the time allotted. “I told the caucuses we‘ll talk about social issues, but not to the exclusion of all the other business we have to do.”

Legislative Dynamics

The whirlwind 20-day budget session of 2012 addressed few social issues. That’s because of a rule that any non-budget bill must gain a two-thirds vote to be introduced during the short even-year sessions.

But a year earlier in 2011, the Legislature saw lively debate on measures which would require doctors to provide ultrasounds to women seeking abortions, and to ban recognition in Wyoming of same-sex unions recorded in other states. Both bills ultimately, but not inevitably, failed.

A lobby at Wyoming's state capitol.

The lobby in Wyoming’s State Capitol building stands empty. When it comes to contentious social issues bills, legislators tend to keep quiet right up to the beginning of the session. (Wikimedia Commons/© 2004Matthew Trump — click to enlarge)

Wyoming has one of the most Republican legislatures in the country, but judging from past experience, passage of conservative social issues bills is not a given.

“It’s a fairly split Senate on the social issues,” said Sen. Curt Meier (R-LaGrange). “If you have 26 representatives, they are not 26 social conservatives by any stretch of the imagination. It’s always a tough sell.” The Senate may see vote tallies of 15-15, 16-14, 14-16 for social issues, he explained.

The presence of moderate Republicans — some with libertarian social views —prevents social conservatives from having a definite majority. Liberal social bills have a slim chance of passing.

Historically, the range of positions lawmakers hold means social bills make only incremental advances each session. Less popular bills might make it out of committee and pass a reading or two in the House or Senate before failing.

But some bills nearly become law. In 2011, House Bill 74 on prohibiting the recognition of same-sex marriages from other states failed by two votes in the Senate.

Social Forecast

Marriage equality and abortion will likely be the most talked-about social issues in the Legislature this January.

“Those are the two major issues that we’ve worked on over the years, whether or not we’re ever going to make headway on them,” Meier said. “It’s always been tough (to pass such laws) or it would have been done.”

Abortion

The last major actions on abortion in Wyoming came in 2011, when Rep. Bob Brechtel (R-Casper) introduced a bill requiring doctors to offer ultrasounds to women seeking abortions.

The initial bill failed, but Brechtel, Lubnau, Meier, and 9 other lawmakers later introduced a similar proposal in House Bill 251. That bill passed through committee and a House vote and went to the Senate, where it passed out of committee on a 3-2 vote, but then failed on a 15-14 floor vote, with the deciding vote cast by Sen. Leland Christensen (R-Alta).

Sheila Leach of Wyoming Right to Life says her group plans to push for another ultrasound bill this year. Any such effort would likely be supported by the Wyoming Family Coalition, though that group hasn’t yet publicized its plans. WyWatch Family Action has lobbied for pro-life legislation in the past, but declined to be interviewed by WyoFile.

Pregnancy

Pro-life group Wyoming Right to Life will possibly promote legislation to treat the murder of a pregnant woman as a double homicide. Such legislation would establish legal recognition of the unborn child as a person. (Wikimedia — click to enlarge)

Leach says Wyoming Right to Life may also look at promoting legislation to treat the murder of a pregnant woman as a double homicide, which would recognize the unborn child as a person. Gov. Freudenthal vetoed a similar bill in 2007, and United States Senator John Barrasso introduced similar bills around 2005 when he served in the legislature.

In the future Wyoming Right to Life may work to keep assisted suicide from becoming legal in Wyoming, though Leach said they might wait to see if the issue arises in the state before acting.

Rep. Brechtel, a long-time leader in pro-life proposals, is leaving the Legislature. He vacated his House seat to run against Sen. Charlie Scott (R-Casper) but lost in a tight GOP primary election.

“We have a few vacancies of people who have carried the legislation in the past and we are looking for new people,” said Maureen Emrich of Wyoming Family Coalition. Both the House and the Senate have numerous social conservatives who could take over where Brechtel left off.

The pro-choice lobby won’t be advocating for any legislation this year. “Given the make up of the Wyoming legislature, we don’t feel that it is realistic for us to be advancing anything that’s pro-choice,” said Sharon Breitweiser, director of NARAL Pro-Choice of Wyoming. “We’ll be on the defensive as we keep an eye out for bills from those other (pro-life) groups.”

Whatever the outcome of ultrasound legislation this year, Sen. Bruce Burns (R-Big Horn) sees abortion as an issue that won’t go away any time soon. “The reason that has been a roiling issue for the past 30 years is because the Supreme Court took the issue out of the hands of elected officials. If it could be decided politically, I think the issue would settle down,” he said.

Marriage Equality

When it comes to intensity of debate, discussion of same-sex marriage may surpass abortion in the upcoming session. In the past three general sessions, Wyoming has seennumerous proposals aimed at creating a constitutional amendment defining marriage as being between one man and one woman, or prohibiting recognition of same-sex marriages from other states. Sine the early 1900s Wyoming law has defined marriage as between one man and one woman with statutes aimed at prohibiting polygamy.

In January 2011, the Senate passed a bill that would have called for a statewide referendum on a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. The bill later died in the House. A proposal to legalize civil unions died in the House Judiciary Committee.

Later in the session, a bill that would have prohibited Wyoming from recognizing same-sex marriages granted in other states nearly made it to Gov. Mead’s desk. After going through several revisions, House Bill 74 passed the House 31 to 28, but failed in the Senate on a 14 to 16 vote at the very end of the session in March.

Jeran Artery, lobbyist for Wyoming Equality, is confident that similar proposals against marriage equality will come up in the 2013 session. “I think WyWatch would like to see a ballot initiative for voters to define marriage as only a between a man and a woman,” he said. “I’m sure that they are strategizing behind the scenes equally as hard as Wyoming Equality has been strategizing.”

Artery’s group met with legislators last week to discuss drafting of bills in favor of marriage equality or civil unions.

Rep. Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie) said she will be weighing the merits of pursuing a marriage equality bill versus a civil union bill. “I think there is much more of an appetite in Wyoming for a strong civil unions bill,” she said.

Rep. Cathy Connolly

Rep. Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie) (photo by Donn Bruns/Lifestyle Photography — click to enlarge)

Sen. Burns thought marriage equality has little chance of passing in Wyoming, but lawmakers might be open to viewing civil unions as a contract that could apply to any pair of people, whether straight or gay, romantic or not. “The only way you are going to get a (civil unions) bill like this through the Legislature is (by saying) this is a contractual agreement — period — and take (away) the stigma of who is having sex with who,” he said.

Members of the WyWatch board have appeared on the KGAB radio station to discuss how civil unions are, in their view, “a Trojan horse for same-sex marriage in Wyoming and across America.”

Separately, Connolly has said she will introduce an employment non-discrimination act that would keep employees from being fired on the basis of sexual orientation or identity. In applicable Wyoming statutes that feature a protective clause prohibiting discrimination on the basis of age, sex, race, or religion, the bill would add the categories of gender identity and sexual orientation.

Rep. Connolly says the bill is needed because, “Our fair employment practices office can’t investigate a claim of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. We have had state agencies say they have had to turn away people because they didn’t have this protection, so it is really important.”

Connolly introduced a similar bill in a previous session that failed in the House 25 to 35.

In certain parts of the country, support for marriage equality may be on the rise, with statewide public votes in favor of same-sex marriage passed in Washington state, Maine, and Maryland in the last election, and a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage defeated by Minnesota voters. “Attitudes are changing, and I have no reason to think that’s any different in Wyoming,” Artery said.

A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that 47 percent of the public is in favor of allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally. That number is up from 39 percent in 2008, and 31 percent in 2004. Opposition has dropped from 60 percent to 43 percent during that time. The survey showed 65 percent of people under the age 30 favored allowing same-sex couples to marry.

However, the Pew study noted that 68 percent of Republicans opposed same-gender marriage. That number may be the bigger indicator for how the average Wyoming voter might view the issue.

Earlier this month the U.S. Supreme Court announced it will hear two cases relating to marriage equality in the upcoming months. The cases deal with California’s Proposition 8 — the voter referendum that banned same-sex marriage — and a Defense of Marriage Act case from New York in which a same-sex widow was charged hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal taxes she would not have been assessed had she had an opposite-sex spouse. The decisions made on these cases, expected by June 2013, may alter any legislative decisions made in Wyoming this session.

But like abortion, a Supreme Court ruling won’t necessarily settle the issue. “You’ve got to understand that this isn’t the first time we’ve been debating social issues,” said Rep. Lubnau. “The Legislature is the face of the state of Wyoming, so we’ll have those debates. We’ve been having those debates for generations and we’ll continue to do so. That that’s the nature of the beast.”

Guns

Gun rights arguments over the past few years have related to eliminating the permit needed for carrying concealed weapons, and restricting where weapons may or may not be carried. In February 2011, legislators passed a law to allow residents to carry a concealed weapon without a permit. It went into effect on July 1, 2011.

In the 2012 session, the Wyoming House fell two votes short of approving House Bill 60, a measure that would have kept local governments from enacting any gun control laws. The same month, House Bill 70 failed in its third reading in the House. Also known as the Wyoming Court Security Act, the bill would have prohibited the carrying of firearms into specified court buildings.

In the upcoming session the Interim Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee will sponsor a bill to allow silencers on hunting rifles for shooters with federal firearms permits. Thunder Beast Arms, a Cheyenne-based manufacturer of silencers, lobbied for the bill by setting up a shooting demonstration for committee members at a target range near Cheyenne.

Connolly, who was a member of the committee last year but is leaving the committee in 2013, said she was initially opposed to the idea because she thought hikers might not be able to hear a rifle shot nearby. She and several other committee members changed their minds when the demonstration showed that while the silencer made the gunshot less loud, it still sounded like a rifle blast.

The Wyoming Liberty Group recently published an opinion piece in support of the silencer bill.

Opposition to the bill centers around the safety concerns voiced by Rep. Connolly, and whether silencers would give an unfair advantage to the hunter, or make it easier for poachers to evade detection. The Wyoming Wildlife Federation has come out against the bill.

School Choice

Efforts to expand charter schools and provide parents with greater autonomy over their children’s education and upbringing may also be addressed in 2013. In the last session, lawmakers passed a non-binding resolution affirming the right of parents to make decisions about their children’s upbringing.

Groups such as WyWatch, the Wyoming Liberty Group, and the Wyoming Charter Schools Association have all worked to support the cause of school choice in Wyoming.

Sheridan Jr. High

Sheridan Jr. High in Sheridan, Wyoming. Education will be a high priority on the Wyoming Legislature’s agenda. Efforts to expand charter schools and school choice will likely emerge in the upcoming session. (Nate Lawson — click to enlarge)

Proposals to create a statewide authority to make it easier to set up charter schools may gain traction in the next session. Authority to create charter schools currently rests with local school boards, which charter proponents say stacks the deck against creating alternative school opportunities.

The new House chair of the Education Committee, Rep. Matt Teeters (R-Lingle), is a proponent of school choice. In the past he has worked with his colleagues on legislation to help create more charter schools in the state. But this year he says the school accountability debate will be occupying all of his attention as committee chairman.

“I’m still interested in school choice, and when things settle we’ll look at that again,” Teeters said.

Rep. Sue Wallis (R-Recluse) is a board member of the Wyoming Association of Charter Schools, an educational group that works to educate the public about the issue, but has no lobbying arm.

Trafficking and Protection Orders

A few lawmakers have announced plans for social bills that fall outside of the familiar proposals that re-emerge during each general session. For example, Rep. Connolly has said she will introduce a bill on human trafficking, a problem that advocates see evidence of around the state. This August, a report by the Polaris Project singled out Wyoming as the only state without any trafficking laws.

The bill would address sex trafficking and labor trafficking. Importantly, it would prevent victims of sex trafficking from being charged with prostitution, and aid victims with funds provided by forfeiture of property owned by traffickers.

Rep. Connolly worked on the bill with University of Wyoming student Daniel DeCecco and Susan Campbell of the Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.

Campbell said her organization asked resource centers in every county around the state if they had ever seen cases of trafficking. About 10 agencies reported that they had. Most of the cases reported involved labor trafficking, where foreign workers might be brought into a hotel and then tasked with working off their transportation fees. But the state has also seen several instances of sex trafficking.

Separately, Campbell said Sen. John Hastert (D-Green River) will introduce a bill that would allow sexual assault victims to seek a protection order against perpetrators who are not part of their household. Wyoming law currently grants protection orders only in cases where the victim and perpetrator have a domestic relationship or live in the same house.

The Key Players

Many of the individuals and groups working on social issues in Cheyenne have a long history of passionate support for their causes.

WyWatch Family Action was started in 2003 by a group of parents of home-schooled children. The group now works on issues relating to life, traditional marriage, parental rights, educational choice, and liberty.

Becky Vandeberghe, WyWatch Family Action lead lobbyist

Becky Vandeberghe, WyWatch Family Action lead lobbyist

Becky Vandeberghe has been the lead lobbyist for WyWatch Family Action since 2003. She is a resident of Carpenter, a small community southeast of Cheyenne. Other board members include Chris Adamo, a freelance political columnist, and Wally Rayl, a frequent letter-to-the-editor writer in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

In 2011 WyWatch won a lawsuit against the state after officials ordered the removal of the group’s pro-life signs from the tunnel between the capital and an adjacent underground parking garage. The Wyoming Building Commission subsequently banned all public displays from the tunnel.

In a U.S. District Court order issued by Judge Nancy Freudenthal, the State Building Commission admitted it was wrong to ban the displays, and paid WyWatch $1 in damages. The state also paid $30,000 in attorney fees to the lawyers who represented WyWatch.

The Wyoming Family Coalition has a similar platform to WyWatch, but different strategies for accomplishing its goals, and less of an emphasis on education. The coalition also pays attention to such issues as gambling and taxes. Constitutional issues also concern the group. The group regularly sends out information to about 11,000 people statewide, and has had a presence in Wyoming for about 40 years.

Right to Life Wyoming has an email list of about 6,000 people. The group works to “promote a culture of life from conception to natural death.” It also supports several crisis pregnancy centers around the state.

Wyoming Equality has about 650 members across Wyoming. The group was founded as United Gays and Lesbians of Wyoming (UGLW), and has been active in the state for about 22 years. Jeran Artery has been a lobbyist for the group for the past four years. He is a native of Wheatland and works in Cheyenne as a financial adviser for New York Life.

The Wyoming Gun Owners Association is led by Anthony Bouchard. He ran against Sen. Wayne Johnson (R-Cheyenne) in the Republican primary for Senate District 6 in Cheyenne. Out of 3,060 total votes cast, Bouchard lost by just 42. Bouchard declined to be interviewed by WyoFile for this article.

The Wyoming Liberty Group was founded in 2008 to promote the core values of freedom, property rights, limited government, personal responsibility, and individual sovereignty. The group has an active blog addressing many issues in state government. Rep. Amy Edmonds (R-Cheyenne) declined to run for re-election this year to accept a position with the Wyoming Liberty Group. Susan Gore founded the group and is one of its major financial backers. She is a Wyoming resident and member of the family that invented Gore-Tex.

Wyoming Association of Public Charter Schools is a non-profit that exists to advance charter schools and school choice in Wyoming. Rep. Sue Wallis (R-Recluse) is a board member. There are currently four charter schools in Wyoming: one in Cheyenne, two in Laramie, and one on the Wind River Indian Reservation.

With the departure of Rep. Bob Brechtel (R-Casper) from the Legislature, some observers have speculated that Representative-elect Lynn Hutchings (R-Cheyenne) might take up leadership on social issues, given her work as a lobbyist for the Wyoming Family Coalition and Wyoming Right to Life in 2011 and 2012. Hutchings did not lobby for WyWatch.

Lynn Hutchings (R-Cheyenne)

Representative-elect Lynn Hutchings (R-Cheyenne)

“(Hutchings) was one of the most outspoken lobbyists at committee meetings about the defense of marriage proposal. She was very vocal in her opposition to gay marriage,” said Jeran Artery of Wyoming Equality.

While she is known for her lobbying efforts in Cheyenne, Hutchings said, “There is more to me than social issues. I tried to study hard and learn as much as I can about coal, wind energy, farming, ranching, and glean from the constituents what was important to them, and those things that were not important to them.”

“No one has approached me to be a sponsor for anything. As a freshman, my goal is to learn as much as I can and watch what is going on so I can become an effective legislator for House District 42,” Hutchings said.

Hutchings did not receive campaign donations from Wyoming Right to Life or Wyoming Family Coalition. Sheila Leach, president of WRL and a board member on WFC, said her organizations would have liked to support Hutchings’ campaign, but the candidate said she didn’t need the money.

A retired IT specialist for the Air National Guard, Hutchings comes from an African-American family with a long history in Cheyenne going back to her mother and her grandfather.

“I’m the first Black to be elected as a conservative Republican in the state of Wyoming,” Hutchings said. “People might think our state might not be as open as other states are, but Wyoming has proved it time and time again for me, and I loved that.”

The Bottom Line

When Wyoming moves into the general session, votes on social issues probably won’t change drastically from recent sessions, though there may be some surprises in store.

Lawmakers will continue to practice their unique brand of conservative politics marked by a libertarian streak, and a pride in governing the Wyoming way.

“Wyoming’s quite a little bit different than the rest of the country,” said Curt Meier, the longtime Republican senator from LaGrange. “You see that in the last presidential election. We’ve got a different idea about what America should be than what it is right now.”

If you’d like to weigh in on the legislative debate, see WyoFile’s guide to contacting your legislators for ways to make your voice heard in the 2013 session.

Gregory Nickerson is the government and policy reporter for WyoFile, and will cover the 2013 legislative session in Cheyenne. Contact him at greg@wyofile.com.

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