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Wyoming Public Media reporters reflect on the 67th Wyoming Legislature

Kamila Kudelska
Wyoming Public Media

Friday, March 3 marks the last day of the 67th Wyoming legislature. It was a 40 day session and a lot happened. Many bills were introduced and many died. Governor Mark Gordon has already signed some into law and he has 15 days from the end of the session to act on bills. Wyoming Public Radio’s Kamila Kudelska spoke with Northeast Wyoming reporter Hugh Cook and Energy and Natural Resources reporter Caitlin Tan.

Kamila Kudelska: So we all have been covering the session since it started in January. We even spent a week down in Cheyenne in February. What stood out to you?

Caitlin Tan: This was my first session as a Wyoming reporter. And we all miss our former news director, Bob Beck, who single handedly did a lot of legislature coverage in past years. This year was kind of a learning curve. Things move both fast and slow, kind of depending on the bill and depending on how much public input there is. The process for a bill to become law is pretty intricate, and there were a lot of steps along the way. But luckily there were a lot of freshmen this year. So things were explained pretty often, which was helpful for me. Something notable, there was a lot of interesting dynamics in the House. House Speaker Albert Sommers, who's from my district Sublette County, received a lot of pushback, but he's managed to keep order and explain his reasoning for the choices he's made this session. Kamila, I know you've done some coverage of that.

KK: Yes, Sommers definitely got some pushback this session. And as you said, Caitlin, there's a lot of freshmen in the House this year. So it was kind of interesting to see a lot of things explained. And Sommers was pretty good at doing that. The biggest pushback that he got was about a week ago when he actually sent a press release last week explaining how he decides to introduce bills to a committee or not. So as Speaker of the House, that is his power, let's say, or that's one of the biggest roles that he has. And he said he focuses on Wyoming issues and solutions and not out of state or national influences. And so that was really interesting to hear, because there were some freshmen House members that had introduced bills that kind of had a more national, out of state influence. And even our new Wyoming U.S. Congressional Representative Harriet Hageman bashed Sommers on Twitter saying that the fact that he didn't introduce some bills was an outcry. And that was actually really new. Usually, our U.S. congressional representatives stay out of the Wyoming legislative session. So that was interesting. But my overview of the session was very similar to yours, Caitlin, it was new. We've relied so much on Bob Beck. I just don't know how he covered the session by himself. But it was something that he loved doing and did really well. How about you, Hugh?

Hugh Cook: I would echo some of those same sentiments. This was my first time as a reporter with legislative coverage. So reporting on something and watching it as a casual observer, or as a hobby or something like that, it's a bit different. Luckily, as you were saying, because of the number of freshmen, things were explained a little more than they might have been in previous legislative sessions. But it just gives you an idea, and a respect for the intricacies and the complexities of the legislative process. There are a lot of moving parts, a lot of amendments, things like that, that can make what should seem kind of cut and dry, much more difficult. And then there are the other things that play into legislation as well. There are interest groups, and there are economic and financial considerations to take into account and all that kind of stuff as well. So this was an interesting session for me.

KK: So Caitlin, as our Energy and Natural Resources reporter, you covered a lot of energy related bills, but also bills regarding hunting and environmental things. Tell me about some of the bills that you watched and what's going on with them now?

CT: Yeah, there were a lot of bills I covered, and honestly, I was going back through some of my old stories, some of these bills never even made it out of their house of origin. One was this bill dealing with commercial fly fishing boats.The bill proposed to limit the number of commercial boats that could be on Wyoming rivers on any given day. The idea was to protect the health of our rivers. This bill has the potential to be pretty contentious. Definitely some of the public testified and the decision was to hold this bill over into the interim. So this is potentially something the public can comment on this summer and a bill we might see next year.

One bill that made it out of the Senate, but actually didn't make it out of the House committee, dealt with carbon capture, and this bill was pretty widely talked about. It was 45 pages long, which is, from my understanding, pretty long for a bill. And there were hours upon hours of testimony in both committees of the Senate and the House. It basically would have required that large coal units in Wyoming that are set to retire before 2034 be made available for purchase to companies interested in installing carbon capture technology. Now, Pacific Corp, one of the main public utilities in Wyoming, would be affected as a couple of its own coal plants are set to retire in the next 15 years. Now, Pacific Corp, I should say, strongly opposes this bill. There is already a law in place that basically requires a company like Pacific Corp to put its best foot forward and to try to offer up its units for carbon capture. But this bill would have mandated it. Anyway, very contentious, it ultimately didn't make it out of the House committee. I think it's something we might see again in the coming years.

A couple of bills that I followed very closely, and I personally found very interesting being from Sublette County, they had to do withshed antler hunting seasons, and basically giving Wyomingites the upper hand and advantage. So these bills were signed into law recently by Governor Gordon and what they do is that non residents have to wait an additional seven days before they can hunt for shed antlers in areas where there are already seasons. So western and southern Wyoming. So that means residents can start hunting still on May 1 at 6 a.m. But non residents have to wait till May 8 and they also have to purchase a conservation stamp. So that costs $21.50. It'll be interesting to see how enforcement plays out with this. There were some concerns about that. But that's the new Wyoming law. Hugh, you ended up covering a wide range of things, but some of the most interesting ones were the ones related to election security. Tell us about that.

HC: Correct. I followed several election and voting related bills as they made their way through the legislature this year, some of which were signed into law and made a lot more headway than previous legislation in previous years had. The first one that comes to mind is House Bill 103. That was ananti crossover voting bill that was touted by Secretary of State Chuck Gray as a way to preserve the integrity of Wyoming elections. Supporters said that by prohibiting the times when voters could cross over to vote, that it would ultimately provide more integrity and more accurate election results in the state's elections, especially when it came to the primary. If you remember a few years ago back in 2018, that's when Foster Friess ran for governor and lost to Mark Gordon to get the [Republican] nomination. There was outcry from some with Republicans that because of Democrats crossing over or independents crossing over, you name it, that it unfairly swayed the election in favor of Gordon, who was seen as a bit more of a moderate candidate than Foster Friess. And then in 2020, when Liz Cheney was actively courting Democrats to crossover and vote for her in the primary against now Rep. Harriet Hagaman. That is something that the Hagaman campaign certainly seized upon, but a lot of Republicans in Wyoming also found fault with it once again. So this bill will go into law without Gordon's signature. He said he had some minor qualms with it, which is why he didn't officially sign it but the bill will become law and it will go into effect in July. What the bill does is it prohibits voters from affiliating with another political party 96 days prior to a primary election or 14 days before a general election. There was quite a bit of debate about the time limits. There was also just debate about the constitutionality of something like that. Critics said that it prohibits people from choosing candidates and parties that they want to support. Looking at statistics crossover voting hasn't significantly changed the outcomes of elections, despite some Republicans saying that it has.

Another bill that I watched as it made its way to the legislature wasHouse Bill 47, which was signed into law by Governor Gordon. It certifies rules from the Wyoming Secretary of State's office about election systems, of election equipment, to ensure that those systems are safe and secure. Basically, what the bill does is codify those Secretary of State rules into law for future elections. It also sets out rules that would allow the Secretary of State to decertify elections, if they determine that some impropriety happened during that election, either a primary or a general election. Those are some of the bills that I was following this legislative session. And Kamila, I know that you were following some stuff on healthcare pretty closely.

KK: Yeah, there was a lot of things happening in the healthcare world during this session. I guess I can just start with expanding Medicaid. They didn't expand it, it made it to its house of origin committee. But unlike other years, it wasn't even introduced in its house of origin. And that was really upsetting for some, so that was kind of a big failure for some in the healthcare world in Wyoming.

And then there was one bill that was touted as a success. And that one provided a framework for the 988 suicide prevention crisis line. The bill was worked on during the interim last year, and it was introduced to this session with money in a trust fund to help keep crisis lines in the state going. But the bill that ended up being signed by the governor didn't have any money in it. But it did establish a trust fund so that companies, individuals and/or nonprofits can donate if they want. And it also just officially establishes the framework for the crisis line. And that was a victory for many in the mental health care world who see the crisis line as an important prevention tool.

And then, of course, there were the two anti abortion bills and just for time’s sake, I'm gonna stick to one. The one that I'm going to stick to, it's the one that's known as, “Human Life is a Right.”So some background on that, last year, the Wyoming Legislature passed a trigger ban that went into effect when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June. And so that law is actually currently being challenged, and abortion is still legal in the state. And one of the main arguments against that ban, that trigger ban that's in the courts right now, is that it violates a certain section of the Wyoming Constitution: Article One section 38, the right to health care access. It specifically reads, “Each competent adult shall have the right to make his or her own health care decisions.” And Wyoming citizens actually voted this into law in 2012 in response to Obamacare, and so basically what the courts need to decide is if abortion is defined as healthcare. And so now coming back to this bill, known as, “Life is a Human Right Act,” it tries to answer that specific question. It literally reads in the bill, “Regarding Article One, Section 38 of the Wyoming Constitution, abortion as defined in this act is not healthcare.” So it's really trying to answer that question that the courts have. In addition to definitions, it has language that criminalizes providers who perform abortions and allows people to sue those providers. So the bill started in the House and many lawmakers struggled with supporting it, saying the way it was written is unconstitutional. So they passed an amendment that made it a trigger ban on a trigger ban, essentially meaning the bill would not become law until the Wyoming Supreme Court deemed the current abortion ban unconstitutional. But that trigger ban on a trigger ban was immediately stopped by the Senate. And then the Senate tried to make it more specific to when abortion can be performed to save a mother's life.

Overall, most lawmakers voted for it but many cited there were worries that the bill is poorly written, unconstitutional and confusing. It will become law immediately after if Governor Mark Gordon signs it into law. And if it is, that will make the current abortion ban going through the courts void. The interesting part is that most lawmakers believe it will be immediately questioned and they said that on the floor. So it wouldn't be surprising if it's signed into law, and a similar thing would happen like with last year's abortion ban, so it'd become law and then it would immediately be litigated against and abortion will remain legal until its fate is decided by the courts and most likely the Wyoming Supreme Court. Gordon is anti-abortion but it's unclear whether he will sign this. So that was some of the stuff that I covered.

Obviously, there are many more bills that have been signed into law. So make sure to tune into Wyoming Public Media and Wyofile’s podcast, the Cheyenne Roundupon Monday. We'll be discussing this session in even more detail. You can find that wherever you get your podcasts.

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.
Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.
Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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