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The Cheyenne Roundup, a partnership of Wyoming Public Radio and WyoFile, is back for its second season

It's that time of year again time for lawmakers to assemble in Cheyenne for the legislative session. Wyoming Public Radio has partnered with WyoFile to bring you the Cheyenne Roundup, a weekly roundtable of our political reporters. Today, they're going to preview the upcoming budget session.

Editor’s Note: This transcript has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity

Chris Clements, Wyoming Public Media state government reporter: We're headed into week one of the budget session, which is only a month long. Timing is tight and lawmakers have lots to do. Maggie, you're a seasoned legislative reporter, what are the key things that people need to know?

Maggie Mullen, WyoFile state government and politics reporter: Yeah, time is definitely limited. They've just got 20 days, and those deadlines do come quickly. So far, there's more than 200 bills that have been posted. So lawmakers already have a lot to sort through. That said, there's only one bill that they absolutely, positively, are constitutionally obligated to pass, and that is the budget bill.

Lawmakers have the responsibility of crafting a two year budget, every even-numbered year. So here we are. One other thing to know about the session is there are rules that are unique to a budget session. For example, and this is a critical one to know, every bill, besides the budget bill, needs two-thirds support in an initial vote in the chamber where it's introduced. So in the House, that's 42 members. In the Senate, that's 21 members. And for better or for worse, that's also where we will most certainly see a lot of bills come to their end.

CC: And what about the budget? What will lawmakers wrestle with the most?

MM: In a lot of ways the big question will be to save or to spend, which is similar to the last budget session in 2022. But also, just last year when lawmakers crafted the supplemental budget in 2023. In fact, it might be helpful to back up to 2022, because a lot of that is actually going to inform the budgeting that will take place this year.

So the last time lawmakers had to hash out a two-year budget, mineral rebounds and stimulus funds had unexpectedly replenished state coffers after the pandemic had put Wyoming in some pretty dire straits. And while 2023 was more lucrative than state forecasters had predicted, the long term is still expected to be volatile. And I think that's going to set a lot of the tone. In fact, that was the tone of Governor Mark Gordon's budget recommendations. He made that very clear in his letter. In fact, he called on the state to live within our means. Because of that, certain cuts, in Gordon's eyes, are back on the table, and that is particularly true when it comes to the Department of Health. That's also an area where the legislature and the governor are already sort of diverging a little bit. The Joint Appropriations Committee, or what you'll hear referred to as the JC, voted to fully fund the Department of Health's budget request, while Gordon’s proposal was about $20 million less than that. Last year, the governor and the legislature really landed on the same sort of fiscal note. So it'll be interesting to see if they do that again this year.

Of course, it's worth mentioning that the Freedom Caucus is another part of this and they have made it clear that they oppose Governor Gordon's budget recommendations They recently made that clear in an opinion piece. They called his recommendations unaffordable and unsustainable. At the same time, they didn't really clarify if they would prefer those dollars to be saved. So that's another thing that remains to be seen.

CC: So looking beyond the budget, what else seems to be the top priority?

MM: Property taxes. In fact, residential property taxes will be a priority number two, just behind the budget. That's at least what leadership has said. Speaker of the House Albert Sommers and Senate President Ogden Driskoll said that much in an op-ed last month.

This is really picking up where the last session left off. Property taxes have shot up in a lot of the state because home prices, or I should say home values, have also gone up and lawmakers tried to provide some relief and some reform in the last session, but it's fair to say that almost no one was very satisfied with those results, including lawmakers. They had about a dozen bills, they landed on three. One of those expanded the refund program and the other two sort of laid the groundwork for some of these more ambitious reforms that they may take on down the road. So basically, they're going to try again. The Joint Revenue Committee also made property taxes its priority in the offseason or the interim. They settled, I think, on six different bills, including one to, once again, expand that refund program.

CC: David, you've been looking into the draft property tax bills. Can you give us a brief taste of what changes are being proposed?

David Dudley, Wyoming Public Media state government reporter: Yeah, there are a slew of property tax bills that I'm looking at. And one of the ones that's most interesting to me is House Bill 4, which would expand a refund program meant to help homeowners pay their property taxes, and the way that bill may impact education bills. I'm looking at House Bill 19, the Education Savings Account Bill, which proposes to give $40 million to low income families to help pay tuition for private and parochial schools. It also feeds into health bills like House Bill 14, which aims to streamline the prior authorization process that can delay and raise costs of care.

CC: So with all these various kinds of proposals on the table, it sounds like compromise will be key, and that's not only true for property tax reform, but for anything lawmakers want to accomplish. Maggie, what are you hearing about lawmaker's ability to work together this session?

MM: Yeah, that's actually something I'm really interested to watch, especially on the House side. And that's because, like I mentioned, we have this two-thirds rule on introduction. While the Freedom Caucus in the House side, which is this is one of the Republican camps, it's the, I would say, the more hardline group of Republicans in the legislature, they don't have the majority in the House, but they do have about 26 members, which is enough, if you do the math, to block bills on introduction. So they have this sort of newfound veto power. So it'll be interesting to see how they use that, if they're judicious with that, if they're a little bit more lavish with that. Because the other part of that is, because they don't have the majority, that means they need the support of non-Freedom Caucus members. So folks at the end of the day are truly going to have to work together if they're going to get anything done. And a lot of that will come down to the Republican Party being split between these two factions: there's the Freedom Caucus, and there's the more traditional Wyoming Caucus that recently formed in response, actually, to the Freedom Caucus. So it might spell gridlock. In fact, there are some lawmakers that have also publicly said that they would be perfectly happy with gridlock. We heard that from Representative Mark Jennings. So should be interesting. Chris, I understand that you're going to be keeping an eye on wedge issue bills. So what can you tell us about that?

CC: There's bills that regulate what students are taught in schools and that touch on issues related to LGBTQ residents, like the What is a Woman Act and others.

MM: David, what are you going to be watching this session?

DD: I'm watching a lot of education bills, a lot of health-related bills. And again, it's interesting that the property tax bills seem like a win for homeowners across the state, especially those on fixed incomes to help pay those taxes. But as I've been speaking with others, there's also some concern about the loss of local tax revenue, which helps pay for public services like roads and police, emergency care, but they also help to pay for K-12 education, and they provide subsidies to hospitals.

The education part is tricky because it may mean that the state will have to make up the difference from the general fund. They're gonna have to find a way to still fund education. But as you're aware, the Wyoming Education Association sued the state of Wyoming in 2022, alleging that the state failed to meet its constitutional obligation to fund education. And then that makes House Bill 19, the Wyoming Savings Account Act really intriguing. If that bill passes, it will provide $40 million to help low income families pay for tuition at private and parochial schools. Those could be in the state, brick and mortar, or they could be online. And I'm told that a lot of those online programs are actually outside of the state. So there are concerns about our taxpayer dollars going to fly out of the state. Of course, there are other critics that wonder why that money isn't being channeled into the public education system, especially in light of that pending lawsuit.

Then where hospitals are concerned, healthcare leaders have faced all kinds of challenges, from staffing their facilities, which they talked a lot about raising wages to recruit nurses, but they're also struggling to stay fiscally solvent, just keeping their doors open. Another one to watch is House Bill 108, that aims to provide protection to healthcare professionals. They've seen an increase in attacks over the years, especially since COVID. If passed, that bill will introduce legal consequences for those who attack healthcare workers who are caring for them. So a lot of really interesting stuff to watch. And, Chris, how about you? What will you be watching?

CC: One bill that comes to mind is House Bill 63, which will outlaw surgeries for trans kids in the state. It's one of several politically divisive bills that have been filed by lawmakers that I'll be monitoring.

Another is House Bill 50, otherwise known as the What is a Woman Act. I mentioned that before. Under Wyoming law, that bill would categorize people based on the biological sex shown on their birth certificates and would prevent transgender people from being legally recognized as any other gender. Critics say that these bills restrict the civil rights of LGBTQ residents in a state that until recently, obviously, had a long history of defeating such legislation. But, as you pointed out Maggie, these bills will need a two-thirds majority just to be introduced to the session,and that seems kind of like a steep road to climb, at this point.

I'll also be tracking bills that would change election laws and guidelines in the state like House Bill 38. It's been filed to be introduced to the House and would pretty much mean that if you want to register to vote in an election in Wyoming, you need to have already been a resident for 30 days prior to that. Some lawmakers have said that the bill could add another obstacle for voters in the state. But one clerk I spoke with said that the residency requirement could help shield them from accusations by citizens that they're not stopping nonresidents from voting. The bill wouldn't mean that voters need to bring additional identification, just that they would need to sign an updated oath when registering that indicates they've been a resident for at least 30 days. Poll workers and election officials have been under increased scrutiny in recent years following the attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

Maggie, any other interesting political dynamics you're planning to watch?

MM: It remains to be seen how much the governor will assert himself in the legislative process. Traditionally, Governor Gordon has taken a hands-off approach, and you can really see that in, for example, in his line item vetoes and previous budgets. You really only see those in the places where he felt like lawmakers were improperly legislating within the budget. However, in the last few months, some in his own party have targeted the governor pretty fiercely, particularly for his long touted energy policies. So it'll be interesting to see how that may or may not change dynamics

On the other hand, the Constitution does sort of provide some guardrails. For example, it's unconstitutional for the governor to “menace any lawmaker by the threatened use of his veto power.” So there are some limitations already in place. But it's always interesting to be there in Cheyenne and to see in person how those things play out.

The Cheyenne Round Up will come out weekly during the legislative session. It will be available as a podcast or you can listen Mondays during Morning Edition or All Things Considered on Wyoming Public Radio.

Chris Clements is a state government reporter and digital media specialist for Wyoming Public Media based in Laramie. He came to WPM from KSJD Radio in Cortez, Colorado, where he reported on Indigenous affairs, drought, and local politics in the Four Corners region. Before that, he graduated with a degree in English (Creative Writing) from Arizona State University. Chris's news stories have been featured on KUNC, NPR newscasts, and National Native News, among others.
David Dudley is an award-winning journalist who has written for The Guardian, The Christian Science Monitor, High Country News, WyoFile, and the Wyoming Truth, among many others. David was a Guggenheim Crime in America Fellow at John Jay College from 2020-2023. During the past 10 years, David has covered city and state government, business, economics and public safety beats for various publications. He lives in Cheyenne with his family.
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