It’s a Wyoming tradition that, early in the new year, citizen legislators from across the state gather in Cheyenne to carry out the people’s business over the course of a couple winter months.
It’s a Wyoming tradition that, early in the new year, citizen legislators from across the state gather in Cheyenne to carry out the people’s business over the course of a couple winter months. However, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, “nothing is quite like it used to be,” said outgoing Speaker of the House Steve Harshman.
Legislative leaders indicated Tuesday that they plan to convene only briefly in January to conduct some essential business and then hold remote committee meetings, postponing the bulk of the work for a period of days, weeks or months.
“It’s hard … to go ahead and say, yes on Jan. 12, or yes on March 12 or yes, on May 12 we are going to meet,” Harshman said during Tuesday’s meeting of the Management Council. “There’s just simply so much that’s moving and changing.”
In a memo last week, the leader of the Legislative Service Office had recommended delaying the 2021 General Session.
Director Matt Obrecht said trying to hold the session remotely wouldn’t allow the close contact needed to “express ideas, build compromises and find solutions” in dealing with more than 500 bills. Meanwhile, he said leaders have been unable to find a way to hold an in-person session that would both protect legislators, staff and the public from COVID-19 and yet also provide public access.
Obrecht noted that hundreds of people pass through the Capitol Complex each day the Legislature is in session and said close contact between that many people “provides an ideal forum for the COVID-19 virus to spread at a potentially alarming rate.”
“As this virus continues to infect a larger share of Wyoming’s population, more and more of us have seen firsthand that COVID-19 is highly contagious and in some cases deadly,” Obrecht wrote.
Older residents are more vulnerable to becoming seriously ill from the virus, and Obrecht noted the Legislature has 45 members over the age of 60 — including a baker’s dozen who are over the age of 75; session staff also tend to be retirees. One lawmaker, Rep. Roy Edwards, R-Gillette, died earlier this month after contracting COVID-19 and Senate President Drew Perkins, R-Casper, recently fell ill with the disease.
However, delaying the session also brings challenges.
‘It’d be really tough’
Two of Park County’s legislators — Rep. Dan Laursen, R-Powell, and Sen.-elect Tim French, R-Powell — addressed the Management Council on Tuesday and expressed concern about postponing the session.
Laursen asked the council to try finding a way to meet in January, noting that plans have already been made; he mentioned putting $2,400 down on a place to stay for the two-month session.
“I am very worried,” Laursen said of a change. “There’s a lot of people out there that counted on January and February being the times that we meet, and it’d be very difficult for them to meet in April or May. The farmers and ranchers, the businessmen that work for those types of businesses, it’d be really tough.”
French is one of those farmers who plows and plants in the spring, and he said the work he does in April and May determines how much money he’ll make in a given year.
“I’m very excited to be a senator and join all you great people —- it’s exciting to me and I want to fulfill that commitment — but I also don’t want to get in financial trouble, either, by not being able to plant my crop,” French said. It would be “next to impossible,” he said, to find someone to fill in on his Heart Mountain farm.
French added that, “I know you guys have a tough decision and I really respect that, I truly do.”
State Sen. R.J. Kost, R-Powell, didn’t address the Management Council on Tuesday, but said in an interview that he believes the legislature should not meet in person in January.
“There’s too much going on that could present problems,” Kost said. “January is the real high flu season as well as this COVID stuff that’s running pretty good right now. So I think once we get a vaccine that we know is good … we might be better off then saying, ‘Ah, let’s go down anyway and we’ll just take our chances.’”
Obrecht had also cited the imminent rollout of vaccines as one reason to wait awhile, though in remarks to the Management Council, Sen. Tom James, R-Rock Springs, said that “most of us probably won’t even take it.”
“This COVID is not going to go away,” James said, arguing against a delay. “We just need to drive on, do what we were put there to do.”
While Kost supports a postponement, he thinks that pushing the session back to May — as Obrecht suggested in his memo last week — is too late. Kost noted the inconvenience for farmers and ranchers and said it wouldn’t give Wyoming school districts and businesses enough time to respond to state budget cuts.
With revenue down, Gov. Mark Gordon has recommended slashing $550 million from the state’s budget. That figure doesn’t include hundreds of millions of dollars in reductions that could come to K-12 education, but it does include cuts to the University of Wyoming, Northwest College and the state’s other community colleges.
Laursen, who believes the state government is too big, said in an interview last week that he thinks the governor is doing a pretty good job with the budget.
As for the potential of layoffs at UW, NWC and the other community colleges, “if they don’t want cuts, maybe they ought to all take a 10, 15% cut in their wage,” Laursen said. “It makes you wonder if they couldn’t figure some other stuff out; especially at the University [of Wyoming], they are well paid.”
He added that K-12 school administrators in the state are “paid plenty” as well and questioned if “we need that many of them.”
While past Wyoming Supreme Court rulings requiring equitable spending on education have encouraged some school leaders to resist attempts to reduce their budgets, “I think people are going to get fed up pretty quick,” Laursen said.
Kost, a former teacher and administrator in the Powell school district, said he expects that “everybody’s going to have to take some cuts” amid the tight state budget. He said he hopes lawmakers can find a way to “leave our teachers untouched” through the reductions, “but I’m a small voice.”
If positions are being cut in K-12 education, Kost said districts will need to know by mid-April, when they’re getting contracts in place for the 2021-2022 school year. And given that many entities start their new fiscal years on July 1, a legislative session in May would give them “little to no time to get prepared.”
Kost would prefer to convene in March, noting there’s also been some discussion about shortening this session and doing more work in 2022.
‘An interesting time’
Ultimately, it’s going to be up to the legislature’s new leaders — who will take their posts in January — to decide how the general session is handled in 2021. But Obrecht summarized on Tuesday that “all members should be prepared to meet virtually starting Jan. 12 to only conduct the essential business of the Wyoming Legislature.”
“The point being, don’t make arrangements to come to Cheyenne,” he said.
However, there will be some in-person activities; one of the essential tasks that must be completed in January is swearing in new lawmakers, including French and Rep.-elect Rachel Rodriguez-Williams, R-Cody.
“I’m looking forward to going to Cheyenne in person in early January and being sworn in and being able to invite family members there,” Williams said in a Tuesday interview, after watching the Management Council’s meeting. She added that, “It’s an interesting time.”
Referencing the concerns raised by Laursen and French, Williams said she, too, sees drawbacks to meeting in the spring and delaying the session.
However, she said, “we just have to move forward and do good work for the people in the meantime.”