The bill, Senate File 104, had been expected to be a significant topic of discussion at a Tuesday night meeting in Cody. The meeting featured local legislators hosted by Park County Republican Party leaders. The bill’s transfer of many of elected Superintendent Cindy Hill’s powers to an appointed education director has drawn criticism, while supportive legislators have said it was a necessary reform to the state’s education system.
Hill and her supporters are asking the Wyoming Supreme Court to overturn the law as unconstitutional. The superintendent — through Emblem attorney and Tea Party leader Robert DiLorenzo — also has threatened to sue legislative leaders for defamation for their criticism of her performance.
Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody, the lead sponsor of Senate File 104 and co-chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Education Interim Committee, announced at the outset of Tuesday’s meeting that the bill wouldn’t be discussed because of the ongoing litigation.
None of the six legislators present — Sens. Gerry Geis, R-Worland, and Coe and Reps. Elaine Harvey, R-Lovell, Sam Krone, R-Cody, David Northrup, R-Powell, and Nathan Winters, R-Thermopolis — spoke about it. Geis and Winters had opposed the bill; the others supported it.
“Because of the ongoing lawsuits and threats made by attorneys on both sides, we are not allowed to discuss Senate File 104,” said Harvey, when the topic was brought up during a question-and-answer period. When the citizen repeated the question, which was about where the bill originated, Harvey reiterated that, “We are not discussing Senate File 104.”
Coe then took the microphone.
“We are not discussing Senate File 104,” he said to some audience laughter, before handing back the mic.
Northrup and Krone told the Tribune afterward that Coe had passed along a message from the Legislature’s legal counsel to not speak about the bill.
Coe said that in light of Hill’s Constitutional challenge, he’d been concerned about the implications of discussing Senate File 104 further and contacted an attorney in the Legislative Service Office.
“That (bill) is exactly what the Tea Party folks want to talk about,” Coe told the Tribune Wednesday. “And so everybody followed my lead (in not talking about it) because I actually had a visit with our chief counsel in school finance and he said, ‘Don’t be talking about 104 ... because this is ongoing litigation and conceivably something could come out that could hurt the case.’”
“I was loaded for bear to talk about 104, but I took the advice of our legal counsel,” Coe added later.
Hill, Coe and others involved with the issue have criticized each other in many public statements since the bill passed in late January.
Two legislators who were not at the meeting told the Tribune they have not been given any gag orders.
State Sen. Ray Peterson, R-Cowley, was at a legislative meeting in Cheyenne on Tuesday and missed the gathering in Cody.
“I haven’t been told by anybody from the state about not talking about 104,” Peterson said. He said he’s continued to explain why he voted for the bill to concerned constituents. (Peterson did vote against the version that ultimately became law because he believed it stripped too many duties from the superintendent.)
“I guess I’m stupid,” he joked of continuing to talk about the bill. “I’m never afraid to take the hits.”
Peterson did express frustration that “when we’re asked to explain our vote and we try to explain our concern and our thought process and why we voted the way we did, we’re threatened with a lawsuit of slander.”
House Majority Whip Tim Stubson, a Casper Republican who cosponsored Senate File 104 and coauthored the report Hill claims is libelous, told the Tribune that no one from the state had told him to stop talking about the bill.
“I certainly have continued talking about it, and my constituents that have questions on it, I’m continuing to visit with them about that,” Stubson said Wednesday.
While not discussed by the legislators, Senate File 104 remained a topic at Tuesday’s night’s meeting.
As they walked in, meeting attendees were handed a flyer put together by Robin Berry, a Cody Tea Party organizer.
Berry said she put together the flyer in part because of public confusion about an effort to have a referendum on Senate File 104. She’s one of many gathering signatures to put the bill up for a statewide repeal vote next year. Berry’s flyer says shifting duties to an appointed director makes it easier for the federal government to control state education, wastes time and money and reduces voters’ voices.
“The reason the voters of Wyoming elected our Superintendent of Instruction was for the children of Wyoming: to allow them the opportunity to learn, unfettered by federal interference and the indoctrination of the ‘new’ federal morality that includes homosexuality as the norm, the destruction of the family and the institution of marriage,” the sheet says. “Wyoming voters want to prevent the introduction of inappropriate sex practices and the promotion of sex as a recreational sport as the federal ‘curriculum’ seems to present.”
South Fork resident Don Schmalz called the flyer “propaganda” and said he was disgusted with it.
“Why did somebody hand this out? Why did somebody take the time to print this all up if it’s something that we can’t even discuss?” Schmalz said during the question-and-answer period.
“I used to think that this Tea Party was a pretty good organization and I found out all they are is a fragmentation of our Republican Party and they’re tearing us apart, and I’m really getting disgusted by it,” Schmalz said. As some attendees applauded, Schmalz was reminded by the moderator that speakers were supposed to be asking questions and not making statements.
Legislators said they knew nothing about the flyer.