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Reports on Wyoming State Government Activity

Lawmakers and advocates grapple with early fallout of committee bills during the Budget Session

Wyoming Legislature House Floor 2024
David Dudley - Wyoming Public Media
Hustle and bustle on the House floor

Every other year, the Wyoming Legislature goes into a budget session. That means lawmakers spend four weeks working to pass a state balanced budget.

From funding public schools to health care, public safety to facilities, lawmakers weigh the pros and cons of each bill with an eye toward the state's needs, as well as its funding sources.

The budget session is unique because bills require a two thirds majority to make it to the next step. But this year an unprecedented number of committee bills were killed through that two thirds majority.

The first day 

On a Wednesday evening a week and a half into this year’s budget session, Rep. Lloyd Larsen (R-Lander) stood on the House floor in Cheyenne. He voted on a bill, then ran upstairs toward a meeting room off the house gallery.

He wanted to talk about the first day of the budget session when lawmakers killed an extraordinary number of bills.

"The first day, we killed 13 committee bills," said Larsen. "Which was extremely disappointing, because I think we spent about $600,000 on legislative per diem and travel expenses.”

The number is closer to $680,000. That includes the time and effort that go into building, drafting and vetting new legislation during the interim. That's the rest of the year when lawmakers are not in session. The bills that come out of the interim are known as committee bills.

"We spent all that time putting together what those committees felt like were good bills, and we just flushed that down the toilet," Larsen added.

Larsen said the reason so many bills were killed is that the Wyoming Freedom Caucus, a hard-line faction of the GOP, has enough members and allies to defeat bills upon introduction.

"And I'm sure in their minds that they feel that for whatever reason, that was the right thing to do," he said. "I would argue that and I'd push back. And I'd say that that was a mistake."

Kitchen table ideology

Rep. John Bear (R-Gillette) is a member of the Wyoming Freedom Caucus. He acknowledged that they are a minority within the legislature, but he believes they represent a majority of Wyomingites.

"You've seen an increase in what we call the Wyoming Freedom Caucus, which is a very conservative group looking for a common sense, kitchen table type of ideology," said Bear. "Just, what are the people concerned about? That's what we're bringing to the legislature."

One of the bills that was killed on the first day by Bear and other house members was the "mental health care redesign" bill. It would have ensured that people living with a severe mental health disorder would have access to crucial services when their insurance companies wouldn't cover them.

It would have also helped low-income people who don't have insurance, and who are living at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line. Those services include treatment for substance abuse disorder, a major driver of suicide.

Bear said he voted against the bill because it was trying to solve mental health issues through government action rather than social solutions.

"Those decisions were, for me personally, based on spending and expansion of government," said Bear. "And whether or not I felt it was really a good solution for the society."

We like to take care of ourselves, but…

Andi Summerville is one of the advocates for that bill. She’s the executive director of the Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Centers.

Summerville said that even as Wyoming recently slid from first in the nation to third in per capita suicide rate, there's still a lot of work to be done.

"I think there's still some stigma around mental health," said Summerville. "I think there's some stigma about health care in general that we're still fighting as a state. Hopefully, we can move past that."

When asked why lawmakers may be reluctant to fund such programs, Summerville said Wyomingites are fiercely independent—and that's not likely to change.

"We like to take care of ourselves," Summerville said. "But one of the things that I think we forget about is that we also take care of our neighbors, we take care of our communities."

One vote

Josh Hannes is vice president of the Wyoming Hospital Association. He's fought for more than a decade to enhance laws to protect healthcare providers from assault, threats and battery. Those protections are more important than ever, as attacks on healthcare providers have spiked since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hannes said he and a team of healthcare leaders from across the state spent hundreds of hours refining a bill for this year's budget session.

"We've had about half a dozen nurse leaders from across the state who had decided that this issue was important to them," said Hannes. "And [they] wanted to be part of the strategy in the bill drafting. And were prepared to come and testify to legislators if it had gotten to a committee."

But they never got that chance. The bill failed by one vote on the first day.

"Just denying it a chance to go to committee is really frustrating for us," Hannes said.

On civics and car maintenance

Rep. Lloyd Larsen agreed with Bear's notion that lawmakers are there to serve voters. But he wasn't ready to go much further. Larsen said the two-thirds rule gives a minority group of lawmakers the power to decide which bills the majority may consider.

The solution, said Larsen, lies in getting more people involved in the process to ensure that their voices are heard. He compared that process to maintaining a car.

"If you aren't paying attention, or you just intentionally neglect that, trying to make your penny stretch a little further, that's when you have a blowout going down the icy road," said Larsen. "And that's what we don't want to have happen here."

While these committee bills died during the budget session, they may return in next year’s legislative session, when the two thirds majority isn't needed.

This reporting was made possible by a grant from the Corporation For Public Broadcasting, supporting state government coverage in the state. Wyoming Public Media and Jackson Hole Community Radio are partnering to cover state issues both on air and online.

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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