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Some of Wyoming’s leading policymakers want the legislature to be civil, unlike national politics

Wyoming State Legislature

Wyoming’s 67th legislature session has begun. Lawmakers, lobbyists and advocates have been working in Cheyenne for a couple of days already. Wyoming Public Radio’s Kamila Kudelska caught up with two policymakers in leadership positions to get a preview of what’s to come. First, she spoke with Senate Floor Leader Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower). She asked Driskill what some of his main issues were during the session.

Ogden Driskill: They're pretty varied. It's gonna be an interesting session. Seems like we've dealt more with budget cuts and budget surpluses for a number of reasons. This year, we actually are in a budget surplus. So we got almost $2 billion surplus…$1 billion of it a one time money more or less that we're probably not gonna see again. So it's really a good time for Wyoming to invest in some needs and maybe look at potential economic development things to diversify our economy, and maybe help our tax income down. My personal number one goal is getting the decorum restored fully into the Senate and getting to where everybody's on a better basis and happier. And feel free to have really good hard debates on policy issues and pull the individual end of it out of it. So we just don't have each individual urge going on. And we've talked about it, we've worked with the body and so far, it really looks like we're on a good path, we're gonna have some tough issues, and you always have some hard feelings, but I think the body understands the priority and it's going that way.

Kamila Kduelska: What are some of the hard issues and individual hurts that you were referring to?

OD: So we've ended up being personal in the body, both on the floor and on social media. I've really taken a hard line stance that you're free to go after any issues, go after it as hard as you can, but you're not free within my ability to personally attack people, personally attack the institution, go on social media and do things that are hurtful or personal, individual legislators or elected officials. I think just making the awareness of it, we're on a path that looks good.

KK: Is there any specific bill that you're focused on that you want to make sure that gets passed this year?

OD: There is. For me, last year I passed the charter school bill that authorized three charter schools in Wyoming. And we're bringing a bill that puts some fixes in as far as things we missed. The SLIB board (State Loan and Investment Board) was not overly happy being an authorized user, so we're looking at kind of moving it around. And that's a keystone bill. Charter schools, school choice, it's really intensely popular this year and it has been. Parents are itching for some alternatives for their kids. And that being said, I love our K-12 system and I think it does a great job, but I think some choices are in line and this fits quite well. And it probably will be challenged somewhat by the school districts and schools. That's fine, and school funding will be an issue on part of what we do. Obviously, property taxes is a big issue and ironically it ties directly back into education as well because any relief we do on property tax, 70 percent of property taxes go back into our education system. So if we limit or cap property taxes, we probably limit or cap education, money flowing into them. So tough tissues, but they're there, and then we've always got our perennial firearms, abortion, etc. bill that will come. I told everybody they'll come later.

KK: And as you mentioned, you feel pretty confident that it won't become personal on the floor when those kind of personal bills come up…

OD: I pray that this is a body that we can handle it amongst ourselves, keep it simple and good. The really interesting part when we get into bringing it personal, then you actually stifle debate. People are afraid to stand up. Maybe they’re going to be attacked, maybe they don't talk because they're going to get beat up. And so I think our body somewhat shuffled around and realized “I don't think I have to be a terrible authoritarian.” I hope to see the results if we police ourselves and do a good job. I look forward to that happening. We'll see if it comes true.

KK: Next, I spoke with House Minority Leader Mike Yin (D-Jackson). It’s his first year in this leadership position. I also asked Yin what some of his main issues are during this session.

Mike Yin: So I think my goal is one, that I'd like for the entire legislature, for us to work together to achieve the goals of Wyoming where everyone can live, find an opportunity to work, and raise children and have their children be able to stay in Wyoming. And so I think all of those things are ones I would think that we could work together across party lines and find solutions for Wyoming.

KK: So with that in mind, this is one of the first years that there are very few Democrats in the legislature. There's, I think, only five in the house and two in the Senate. How do you hope to achieve those goals with

such few people in your caucus in the legislature?

MY: It is about finding the problems that we have in common in each of our communities. And working with each of the individual legislators and the Republican caucus to talk about what are the problems and what are some of the solutions that we can agree on. And really just having conversations with each of those communities and in their respective legislature.

KK: And what are some of those common goals in the community? The

common issues that you think are going to be most prevalent during this session?

MY: So I think we have quite a few this session. I think economic development is going to be big given the surplus of revenue that we got this year, as well as how we spent the ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) dollars effectively to give us a surplus, as well as affordable housing. And tied into affordable housing is also property tax relief to make sure those that do have houses will be able to stay in their houses, especially if they have income. But it also means, on the flip side, those that are growing up in Wyoming could afford a house so they could stay in Wyoming and create their own equity for the future. I think those are all kinds of things that are becoming statewide problems, right? Affordable housing, I think solely used to be a Jackson, Cody problem, but it's more of a Wyoming problem now, I think across the board. And then it's just making sure that we have a solid footing, making sure we have a great education system that is great for all of Wyoming. I think our system has been really effective for ensuring that every student in Wyoming gets a great education.

KK: Any challenges that you’re worried about that may occur in the general session?

MY: I think I'm worried about national partisan politics not being as useful in Wyoming. So you have a lot of partisanship that goes on in Congress and in the national media. And really, I think a lot of those things are not as relevant to Wyoming. But making sure we have a good education and making sure that we can lower health care costs, making sure that we can lower suicide rates. Those are things that I think are important, and I don't want to sacrifice those things for national politics.

KK: That being said, the announcement of the Wyoming Freedom Caucus did occur. I think that was last week. There's also a huge amount of freshmen lawmakers. Any thoughts on that?

MY: I think it'll be very interesting. We had several days of new legislative training, and I think many of them have really taken it upon themselves to learn a lot, which is very exciting. I don't know, each of them have different constituencies. And it really is going to be having a lot of conversations with those freshmen lawmakers about what they think their constituencies need.

KK: Is there any specific bill that you're focused on?

MY: I may bring some childcare specific bills. And I'm also going to bring a real estate transfer tax and have it very focused on affordable housing this year. As well as really monitoring what concerns there are over state land. And some of those issues like state lands, they are Wyoming-wide issues, but I know that my constituency in Teton County are very interested in seeing where that ends up.

Kamila has worked for public radio stations in California, New York, France and Poland. Originally from New York City, she loves exploring new places. Kamila received her master in journalism from Columbia University. In her spare time, she enjoys exploring the surrounding areas with her two pups and husband.
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