Legislature begins distanced session

Bulk of session may not begin until March

Posted 1/12/21

Wyoming lawmakers will gather in Cheyenne today (Tuesday) for the start of the 2021 General Session, but it will be anything other than business as usual.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, not all of …

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Legislature begins distanced session

Bulk of session may not begin until March


Wyoming lawmakers will gather in Cheyenne today (Tuesday) for the start of the 2021 General Session, but it will be anything other than business as usual.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, not all of the state’s 90 lawmakers will be in attendance, with some participating remotely. And instead of convening for a couple of months, the Legislature will conduct only the most essential business Tuesday before adjourning.

They’ll then have a series of virtual meetings before reconvening in-person from March 1 to early April — if health metrics related to the pandemic allow, legislative leaders announced Monday.

“The continued fallout from the Coronavirus pandemic presents unique challenges during the upcoming session,” House Speaker-elect Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, said in a statement. “Our priorities are to serve the people of Wyoming effectively and ensure the health and safety of all personnel, legislators and the public. We can do both.”

However, not all lawmakers are on board with the delay and the virtual components.

“I’m going to go down [to Cheyenne on Tuesday] and kind of be a protester, just because I think we should be in session,” state Rep. Dan Laursen, R-Powell, told a gathering of about 60 local Republicans Thursday night, drawing applause.

Laursen said he thinks the Legislature should meet in-person on Monday, Jan. 18 and “get going,” with lawmakers allowed to attend virtually if they need to.

“We’ll see what happens,” he said of what rules will govern the session. Laursen said the rules had yet to be presented to the full Legislature as of last week; a vote on the final rules isn’t set until Feb. 1.

Sen.-elect Tim French, R-Powell, is also attending the start of the session in person, being sworn into office this (Tuesday) morning.

“I’m going to sit at my desk in the Senate chamber, whether they like it or not. They may try to remove me, but they’re going to have to take me out of there,” French said, jokingly pantomiming being handcuffed, “because I’m not going to leave.”

He said lawmakers need to do their work.

“I just really am mad at the way this response to COVID’s gone,” French said. “It’s got everybody so scared and everybody’s so freaked out about it that they’re putting common sense aside. I just don’t like it.”

Both he and Laursen say they’ll support legislation to limit the powers of public health officers, aiming to make the medical professionals and their health orders more accountable to elected officials.

“I’ll vote to rein them in,” French said.

Park County Republican Party Secretary Vince Vanata of Cody encouraged the lawmakers to meet in person, saying they took an oath and have a responsibility to do their jobs.

Members of the public “are at work, they’re doing their jobs and they need to; they’re essential workers,” Vanata said. “Well, the work of the people, the work of our government is essential and more so, it’s important that the work is done transparently.”

He said lawmakers should not meet remotely or out of public view, but in a way that the public can see what’s going on.

“And if going into session because of COVID-19 is going into harm’s way, well, welcome to the club,” Vanata said.

The former Marine noted many veterans have put themselves in harm’s way fighting for this country amid gunshots and bombs.

“If [legislative] leadership is afraid of getting sick, well, I’m sorry,” Vanata said, to applause.

Laursen responded he’d pass the message along in a letter to Speaker Barlow “that this county thinks that way,” drawing more applause.

One of the biggest tasks before the Legislature is passing a supplemental budget. The state is currently in a budget crunch, due in large part to a downturn in the oil and gas industry.

Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon has cut 250 positions from state government so far, said state Rep. Sandy Newsome, R-Cody, and she expects another $500 million worth of cuts this session. Newsome said that would lead to another 200 jobs being eliminated.

“And those will not be all in Cheyenne. They’ll be right here in Park County; people will lose their jobs in Park County that work for the state,” Newsome told local Republicans. “And that’s part of what we have to do in order to balance our budget, which is our constitutional duty.”

Northwest College is among the state-funded entities looking at layoffs; on Monday evening, the college’s board of trustees was set to consider a plan that would lay off 11 employees and eliminate another 13.5 positions that are either vacant or about to become vacant through retirements.

Rep. Laursen told the crowd on Thursday most of the job eliminations in the state government were either vacant positions or people who decided to enter retirement.

“That’s kind of what’s happened,” he said. “There haven’t actually been people fired.”

French, meanwhile, warned the state’s financial picture could get worse, if President-elect Joe Biden’s administration takes actions against the coal industry, rejoins a climate agreement and/or bans fracking on public lands.

“If they do that,” he said of banning fracking, “we haven’t seen nothing yet, folks.”

French said such a ban would cost the state billions of dollars.

He added that, in his opinion, the recent economic downturn showed Wyoming’s government has gotten too big and needs to be downsized.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us — tough, tough, tough decisions,” French told the Republican audience in Cody, “but that’s what you elected us to do and we’re going to go down there and do our darndest for you guys.”

Laursen said he’d heard that lawmakers were drafting more than 500 pieces of legislation heading into the session, though it’s unclear how many will ultimately be introduced or get a hearing.

“We always have a bunch,” he said.