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!!!
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
— 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.