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"A Whirlwind:" Freshman Democrat On Her First Session In Wyoming Legislature

Democrat Representative Karlee Provenza

The Wyoming Legislature's 2021 general session is wrapping up. It's been the first session for freshman Democrat Representative Karlee Provenza. Provenza represents Laramie and ran on her background with community organizing and her experience with criminal justice reform.

Wyoming Public Radio's Catherine Wheeler spoke with her about how her first session has gone.

Karlee Provenza: I keep describing it as a whirlwind. You know, a lot has happened. So much is just kind of going in front of us in terms of legislation and talking with folks, trying to learn as much as I can, because I am a freshman, I don't know everything walking in here. And so I'm learning a lot about the budget, learning a lot about just the process in general.

Catherine Wheeler: What have been some of the best and what have been some of the hardest parts of getting used to all of this?

KP: I think transitioning to being here in person was really beneficial. I would say that was probably the best of this process, and just getting to know my colleagues and learn from them, learn what they've gone through, and give me some shortcuts. I guess, in terms of the worst, it's a hard session. We've passed some pretty hard pills to swallow.

CW: What would you describe as those tough pills to swallow? Like, what are those bills that you're really struggling with or are upset that didn't get passed?

KP: My bill, House Bill 247, died in the Senate Judiciary Committee. And that was hard for me. I know my community is really invested in trying to ensure that we have good law enforcement and that we have some form of accountability. I had worked with agencies, so it was hard to watch that bill go down. And we just have a slew of anti-choice bills that are going through that. But I think it's unprecedented, at least in my time, in Wyoming watching the session. And we didn't raise revenues. We came here to solve problems. And I think maybe one of the hardest things I'm watching is we needed to come up with revenue, we need to come here and figure out ways to increase our budget so that we could pay for education, pay for health care services. And we haven't done that. And we failed to pass Medicaid expansion. That was kind of heartbreaking to watch that bill die a second time in Senate Labor and Health, knowing that so many people in Albany County are without health care, are struggling and so many people across the state of Wyoming who would otherwise have healthcare if we just accepted federal funds for it.

CW: Going back to your law enforcement bill, what was it like to work on that? I mean, that's a pretty hefty bill for anyone to have to work on in Wyoming, given the climate around law enforcement and being a Democrat and working with Republicans and across the aisle. What was that experience like? And were you surprised it went as far as it did?

KP: I've been working on that bill in my mind for years. That was the product of my work as an academic, as an advocate in my community for police reform in general. That was a product of my work with members of law enforcement, who know that to have good relationships with the community, you need good officer, and that some of these officers who are engaged in serious misconduct are very problematic for good law enforcement. And I was surprised that wentas far as it did. I was kind of told that it wasn't going to go anywhere because of the national conversation, that while maybe this body had an appetite for solving this issue, it might have been mixed up with what's the national conversation around police reform. But I was able to build relationships here and tell people, 'Here's what this bill is really about.' I was surprised that, just given what the process of this bill looks like if you follow that from start to finish, on third reading, it died. The first reading, it went down 20 to 40. And then in the same day, I was able to flip enough votes for a reconsideration. So we resurrected the bill and got it through the House. So it has had a long trajectory, and it was pretty incredible to be a part of.

CW: I guess my last question would be, when you're campaigning and preparing to go to the legislature and start your work, you probably have a specific view of how this is going to work, and the things that you can do, and what you'll be able to accomplish. But did any of that change for you now going through the process? Have your views changed on how you'll be able to get things done or what you'll be able to get done?

KP: You know, honestly, I think I'm more optimistic than when I was on the campaign. I really have been able to come in here and form relationships with leadership across the aisle and see that people are invested in good ideas. And as long as I bring good ideas, they're going to get heard. And so I'm optimistic that I can get more done than maybe I had thought. I thought as a freshman Democrat, particularly as someone who ran a pretty progressive campaign, that I was going to maybe not get any wind in my sails. But that has not been my experience. So I'm really looking forward to seeing what I can get accomplished and what me and my colleagues can try to bring in terms of criminal justice reform because I think there is an appetite for that. And I think that this body is learning to trust me on those issues.

Catherine Wheeler comes to Wyoming from Kansas City, Missouri. She has worked at public media stations in Missouri and on the Vox podcast "Today, Explained." Catherine graduated from Fort Lewis College with a BA in English. She recently received her master in journalism from the University of Missouri. Catherine enjoys cooking, looming, reading and the outdoors.

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