Wyoming’s Speaker of the House recaps 2023 session: successes, controversies and the future
Wyoming lawmakers have had some time to rest and reflect on the 2023 legislative session. Several notable things happened this year – there were a lot of new lawmakers, the Republican party had some division between traditional Republicans and a newer, national party called the Freedom Caucus and there was a budget surplus.
Wyoming Public Radio (WPR) spoke with the leaders of both the House and Senate to re-cap. This interview is with WPR’s Caitlin Tan and Speaker of the House Albert Sommers (R-Sublette County). They spoke recently at Sommers’ ranch in Sublette County.
To read or listen to WPR’s interview with President of the Senate Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) click here.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Caitlin Tan: The session has wrapped up, can you give us a recap on how you think things went?
Albert Sommers: So, I think overall the session went really well. It was a new experience for me, obviously, being Speaker of the House. But then it was also the most turnover in the House in the last election that I had ever seen. So early on, a good part of the session was just new members learning the ropes and learning how much to debate.
I thought we passed some important legislation that's going to impact Wyoming for generations. We had a lot of one-time revenue because of huge jumps in oil and natural gas prices, and, frankly, some coal. And because of that surplus revenue, we were able to save $1.4 billion, and half of that was to permanent savings, which will be generational savings. The reason it's important to understand our permanent accounts is that we get nearly a third of our revenue for the state government from the investment of our permanent accounts, which is pretty incredible.
We also passed House Bill 4, which extends postpartum coverage for Medicaid mothers and their new babies. But I believe if you're pro-life, you also need to be pro-child and pro-mother.
Some interesting bills regionally, if you live in Western Wyoming, were the horn hunting bills. It gives in-state horn hunters a one week headstart on out-of-state horn hunters.
In the budget, we also put in a little more money for the Wyoming wildlife natural resource trust fund. When we've had a winter, like this winter, when we're going to see so much death to wild game, I think it's really critically important that we continue to fund Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s efforts, and the wildlife natural resource trust fund to help maintain and improve habitat for declining populations, after a winter like this.
CT: So, there were some contentious moments this session, and you received some pushback for holding certain bills back. But that's something that you as Speaker of the House are allowed to do. There was even some national pushback at times, and shortly after you released an op-ed about your choices, saying you're focused on Wyoming solutions, not out-of-state solutions. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
AS: So the issue of holding up bills in your drawer – that got national attention – but it happens every session. And really, it's a result of the lack of time. To just give you an idea between House bills and Senate files, I had 30 bills left in my drawer, the Majority Floor Leader of the House had 56 bills in his drawer. Over 100 House and Senate files were killed in House committees. So when you have hundreds of bills filed, obviously, bills are going to die and decisions are going to be made.
So, those three bills [that were held back and] that were talked about. One was a school choice bill, an educational savings account bill. I've said this over and over, but that bill was an almost exact duplicate of another bill that the House had already heard in the education committee. And so I didn't release it because it had already been heard.
There was a transgender children surgery bill – two of them. But they kind of conflicted with each other it seemed to me. The better policy bill I sent out to [the] appropriations [committee], and eventually, they brought it out of committee, but with a recommendation ‘do not pass.’ Eventually, it was not heard on the House floor.
Then the final bill was a parental rights act bill, which I felt was unconstitutional. I also talked to districts and simply it wasn't happening in Wyoming – there was no teaching of transgender issues to K-3 kids in Wyoming. And it may come back. But, the reason it was unconstitutional, is I think it was clearly two separate topics, and we have a single subject rule in our Constitution.
As I look at bills to decide which ones to keep in and which ones not, I see if there are duplicate bills. Have we already heard them this session? Also, in my mind is it constitutional? Is it solving a Wyoming problem? That's one of the most paramount things that I look at, and that's in the eye of the beholder at times. But those are some of the things that I look at.
A lot is made of what committees I send bills to. I have some real senior committees and when I have what I call ‘gnarly bills’ – bills that need a really hard look at that may be unconstitutional that may need some fix – I send them to committees that I trust that have senior members on them that have been around the horn. We had so many committees that had a substantial number of freshmen on it, and some of those bills are hard for freshmen to have to pull through on. I'd say overall they did a good job.
And then the national attention. The National Freedom Caucus didn't like what I did, they came after me with a national hit job, texted my local people, robo texts, the whole nine yards. And, you know, that's not Wyoming. I've never seen that before.
CT: With the Freedom Caucus, that was the source of some of that pushback. What do you think about the current political climate? What do you think going forward that might look like?
AS: Well, I think it's unfortunate that a national group is now into Wyoming politics in our legislature in that way, I think that's probably not productive. I've really prided myself over time on civility, civil discourse and treating people fairly. The more labeling we do with each other, the more we try to ostracize each other, it's not productive to the state of Wyoming, and it's not productive to the legislature. But right now, we're in a phase of that.
Eventually, when people are pushed and pushed, people push back. And I think you're seeing some of that, but I don’t think the public wants to see that. I don't think they like division. I don't like division. I think there's room enough for all of us to have opinions and not be rundown for who we are or what we are. Lots of terms get thrown out there – right-wingers, RiNOs, you name it. Well, in that case, we're probably all Republicans, and if we remember that that's probably a good thing.
CT: So let’s talk about the interim. For people who don't know, that's when the legislature does a lot of work before the next session, discussing Wyoming issues and trying to find solutions that might become bills for next year. One of the bills you had sponsored this year got laid back for discussion this summer. It had to do with commercial fishing on Wyoming rivers and possibly limiting the number of commercial boats on a river on a given day. Tell us a little bit about this.
AS: During the interim, several months in the spring, summer and fall, the legislature has the opportunity to dig in deep, bring in a lot of public testimony and bring in experts. And as a result, you come out often with committee bills that solve these issues.
Now, specifically, to the issue of guided boats on Wyoming rivers, more and more, we're hearing from across the state pushback about the number of guided boats that are going down rivers and the impact it has, maybe not on the fish populations, but certainly the fishing – the opportunity to fish.
In some areas, like the North Platte, you get a lot of out-of-state guides from Colorado coming in. Down on the south end of the Green River you get a lot of Utah guides coming into our waters. We've seen a real increase in the number of guided trips, which is an economy here in Sublette County and an economy certainly in Jackson. It's been brought to me by my local guides that there's points in time when the guides from Jackson pull into Sublette County in droves, and the local guides feel like they're getting pushed out. So how do we balance an industry that we like? We like to bring in those recreational dollars with the fishing opportunity that everybody loves to see here. We have blue ribbon streams, we have great fishing. And so the Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee is going to take a look at that.
CT: Obviously it's been a busy last few months with the session and you're finally back in Sublette County. You're a working rancher, so what do the next couple months look like for you just as ‘Albert Sommers the Rancher’?
AS: Well, a long time ago, my ranch partner told me I'm unreliable help. And I think that's probably accurate. And as Speaker, I'm even more unreliable because I have a lot of legislative duties. But I hope when we start calving, I hope to start being the cow feeder. Then before you know it, we'll be trailing cows to the mountain, and I like to hay so hopefully I'll be there for most of the haying. There'll be times I miss some of that – hopefully not all of it.