Wyoming Public Radio Reporters Discuss The Close Of The Legislative Session

Apr 5, 2021

Bob Beck: The Wyoming legislature is winding up its work and we thought we'd begin the show discussing what we've seen. Wyoming Public Radio's Catherine Wheeler and I have been covering the session. And Catherine, I think I'd like to start with you. This was actually your first session. What were your takeaways? What did you see?

Catherine Wheeler: Yeah, Bob, this was my first session. And it was a lot, there was a lot going on. And I think the added virtual element, you know, helped and kind of created a little bit more chaos. But, I thought the overwhelming theme I was kind of seeing come out, especially towards the end, when legislators are getting a little ready to get the show on the road was what are we actually accomplishing here?

Are these bills necessary? What are we doing? And how does this help people in a meaningful way? Some of the biggest bills I've been following show lawmakers are approaching more abortion regulations. We saw a couple bills on those efforts die after some debate in one of the chambers. But you know, several of them have made it through and likely will continue on their path.

We also saw efforts to create a voter identification law that will make its way to the governor. And I think those are included in the sentiment of you know, who are these helping, and who are these hindering as we move forward.

And so, Bob, you've been watching the school funding issue and where they started with $100 million cut to education. How has that bill evolved?

BB: Well, it's been interesting, the Senate is focused on cutting the education budget, when they had a bill, the House was trying to reduce education spending, but at the same time, they were trying to do it much more thoughtfully. So they had some cuts of money and then they were also looking to put revenue into the bill. And some of that was through reserve funds, in big words like diversions from some of their permanent mineral trust fund money, that sort of thing. And also a half cent sales tax that was defeated by the Senate.

So they'll now have to go into a conference committee and since the Senate has basically taken the revenue out of that bill, and I think that there could be a little bit of a disagreement and perhaps a little mess in the final couple of days.

But it's just been really interesting how we've spent a lot of time talking about money and possible reductions. And you'd hope at some point, they would get back to maybe talking about how to make education better in the state, which has not really been their discussion.

Catherine, changing gears a little bit, we both saw them battle with Medicaid expansion and pandemic concerns, starting with the pandemic, now that the Senate is insisting on amending the House bill to look like the one they passed this year. I'm thinking they may not reach a conference committee agreement on this thing, and there's a chance they will lose the whole thing. So just so everybody understands. What they've been talking about here is they want to maybe limit the health officer's abilities, they want to get either the legislature or at least the governor, as well as county commissioners in the state, more of a say so on these things. You watch this issue in the house. I'm curious, do you think Speaker Barlow really wants his bill? Or would he be willing to compromise on this?

CW: I think he really wants it, he made a really big push for it. But I think it all kind of comes down to a lot of lawmakers came into the session with so much steam of like, we need to do something about this pandemic and everything that's happened. And as it's gone on, these bills have fallen away, they've become less effective. And they got rid of the bill that would have created a pandemic task force, which probably eventually could have solved a lot of these concerns and provided some good conversation among all of the entities in the state that have major concerns with how the pandemic was handled. But I think that these bills are going to end up giving more power to the governor to be the face of these decisions. But he was pretty much already the face of all these decisions, those announcements came out of his office. So I don't know if practically we're going to see a lot of change, but it might be better in the way of local control.

BB: My guess is that the people in the state that needed to hear this discussion heard. Whether it's the state health officer or the governor, and even the local Health Officers and there may be better dialogue this next time around and even without that legislation, I think they're going to take a good look at the whole issue. I know the governor's office is planning on doing that. So they'll probably have some conversation about it. But so I don't think the issue is dead even if these bills die. But it certainly was a priority as you suggest, there's no doubt about that.

CW: Bob, you mentioned Medicaid expansion. And you've watched this issue for a long time in this state. And a similar bill had died in the Senate and then it kind of revived itself in the House and came back. And if it had passed that Senate committee, do you think it would have had a chance in front of the full Senate?

BB: No. How about that for a quick answer for you? There was no chance that there were enough votes. You know, you had the Senate President Dan Dockstader, Majority Floor Leader Ogden Driskll, they've always consistently voted against that bill. I think there could have been possibly six or seven votes for that, but it's a very conservative Senate this year. People have heard that this is a bad thing. And you know, the Republican Party, gosh, the Wyoming Liberty Group testified this time, a whole slew of people that are very important to Republicans and really helped a lot of them get elected, oppose this kind of thing. So I don't think it had much of a chance.

I think there is a little bit more of a moderate leaning, and I'll get your thoughts on this over in the House. And I think that's why it passed over there. Why did it get through the house maybe this time after not for so many years?

CW: I think I heard a lot of discussion about the point that the state hasn't come up with a solution to this problem yet. No one's come up with the answer. And so I think a lot of lawmakers came to the conclusion like, okay, maybe this is the option then if we have these federal incentives, and this is what we need to do to make people's lives better, this is the choice we have to make at this point in time.

BB: And they also don't have somebody like Sen. Scott, who has really had some speeches over the years to kill Medicaid expansion when it's come over to the Senate. And I think people like (Rep.) Albert Sommers and Speaker Eric Barlow are much more open to the idea. Over on the Senate side, that leadership, they're not as open.

CW: I guess, kind of bringing it to a close, I think when people think of this legislative session, in particular, there were a couple of big items that they wanted to hit, they wanted to hit budget cuts, they wanted to hit revenue and deal with education .Bob, what do you think they actually accomplished in this session in regards to those?

BB: Well they cut the budget. They actually did put some money back into the Department of Health thanks to some of the federal aid that's coming their way that stalled some of those cuts.

The legislature has not passed any taxes and did not bring in new revenue. And so one of the questions I have going forward is you've cut $430 million out of this budget, and I know a lot of people ran on the fact that they wanted to cut the state budget, great, you did that. Now, where do you go from here? Because there is not another $430 million for them to cut going forward. And so how do you maintain that, especially if you see energy revenues drop in the state going forward? So it's gonna be very interesting, but I certainly didn't see a lot of things that made people's lives that much better in the state of Wyoming pass the legislature this year.

CW: For good or for bad, whatever side you fall on, this session did not have the impact that I think a lot of people were expecting it to have on their lives.