Gov. Mark Gordon last week signed a proclamation convening the Wyoming Legislature for a special session on Friday, to distribute federal stimulus money to Wyoming businesses, healthcare facilities …
Gov. Mark Gordon last week signed a proclamation convening the Wyoming Legislature for a special session on Friday, to distribute federal stimulus money to Wyoming businesses, healthcare facilities and workers.
Through four draft bills, lawmakers will likely deliberate distributing $500 million of the $1.25 billion the state received through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which Congress passed in March. Lawmakers are eyeing new programs that would provide loans to businesses, recompense landlords for lost rent to halt evictions and help fund healthcare facilities, among other needs.
Lawmakers will gather both online and in the State Capitol, which will be open to those legislators who wish to go there, according to an internal letter to lawmakers obtained by WyoFile. Even those lawmakers in the Capitol will debate over internet conferences that will be live-streamed to the public, according to the letter from Speaker of the House Steve Harshman and Senate President Drew Perkins (both R-Casper). Harshman and Perkins will be present to sign bills, the speaker said.
But the people’s house will be closed to the public, according to the proposed rules. Access for journalists is being worked out.
Lawmakers attending in person will “follow all appropriate guidance” from State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist, the letter says. Lawmakers will sit in committee rooms, conference rooms and the galleries if enough show up that the chamber floors are too crowded.
The Legislature is trying to balance transparency, expediency and the public health concerns of the pandemic era, Harshman said. The state is hurting, and “I don’t want to sacrifice the good for the perfect,” he said. “Give us the benefit of the doubt and let’s get this [money] out to the people of our community.”
The cornerstone measure empowers the governor to spend the federal money on the state and local governments’ response to the public health emergency and to address food insecurity.
The legislation allows the State Land and Investment Board — made up of the five statewide elected officials — to provide grants to healthcare providers both to alleviate expenses of responding to COVID-19 and to improve the “state’s health care delivery system and infrastructure,” according to a draft of one of the bills.
The CARES Act funding might spark a number of construction projects around the state. For example, lawmakers in Crook and Weston counties are talking about retrofitting a hospital in that area or building a new one. The money could also be spent building out mental health treatment capabilities in the state.
The legislation also appropriates the federal money for construction projects at the Wyoming Life Resource Center, a state-run residential treatment facility in Lander, and the Wyoming State Hospital in Evanston. The Legislature failed to fund those projects during its regular session earlier in the year after the House and Senate could not reach an agreement.
A second bill creates a program to protect renters from evictions and compensates landlords for unpaid rent. That bill also makes workers sickened by COVID-19 eligible for worker’s compensation.
A third piece of legislation gives Gordon more authority to move money between agency budgets without legislative approval. The governor can move 50% of the funding the Legislature has appropriated for any agency program within that agency’s budget to respond to the impacts of the pandemic. He can move 25% of a budget between different agencies. The new authority would last until December 2020 under the proposed language.
The Joint Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee considered a fourth draft bill on Thursday night. That bill appropriates $50 million for a state-run loan program similar to the federal Payroll Protection Program.
The committee was voting on the bill Monday.
Last week, senators held unpublicized meetings to review the proposed legislation, according to internal lawmaker communications obtained by WyoFile and confirmed with several senators.
The bills also won’t follow the normal legislative process that includes opportunities for public comment in front of the Legislature’s 12 standing committees and multiple debates in each chamber.
The Management Council, a committee made up of leaders from both chambers and political parties, crafted three of the bills. The fourth came through the Minerals Committee.
Mirror versions of the bills will be simultaneously introduced on each chamber floor — a process similar to how the Legislature considers its budget bill each year. The bills will go through three rounds of votes. Proposed rules limit debate and make it more difficult for lawmakers to bring amendments.
The rules are similar to those used in past special sessions, Harshman said, and are designed to expedite the process. The bills are broadly worded and shouldn’t be “controversial,” he said. “I don’t know who would say we shouldn’t help small businesses or renters. These are all common sense measures.”
Lawmakers will be available via text and email to hear from their constituents during the special session, Harshman said.
Not all lawmakers agree. The process is overly rushed, one senator said, at the cost of public input and more thorough bill drafting.
“The Legislature thinks this is going to be simple and we just have to cram some money out of the door,” said Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander. “I think it’s going to be more controversial than people think. People will want to debate.”
Harshman predicted all four bills would pass the three votes in each chamber on the first day of the two-day session. The second day, he predicts, will be spent in conference committees — negotiating committees assigned by leadership that hash out the differences between the chambers. The conference committees will also be live-streamed, Harshman said.
(WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy. This story has been condensed from its original version, which can be read by visiting www.wyofile.com.)