FEATURE: POINT OF ORDER, General feelings on the session so far

By on January 27, 2015

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – The 63rd Wyoming Legislature is two-and-a-half weeks into its seven-week run and the buzz at the Capitol is all about money. Every other year (but not this one) lawmakers tackle budget issues during the budget session, which is often inundated with non-budget bills (a total of 431 bills were introduced last year).

But legislators probably wish this were a budget session year as they struggle with cuts and balances precipitated by a $200 million shortfall in state revenues due to a sagging energy market that’s plagued with plummeting oil prices and declining numbers of coal leases.

Last year’s budget session was marred by uncharacteristic infighting over fallout from the state school superintendent issue. With those contentious concerns now mainly in the rearview mirror and a bright new crop of freshmen colleagues, state lawmakers are overwhelmingly pleased with how the session is running thus far.

We asked our local electeds (Representatives Marti Halverson, Ruth Ann Petroff and Andy Schwartz; along with Senators Leland Christensen and Dan Dockstader) their feelings about the session thus far and where they stand on a few high-profile bills that could affect Teton County residents.

Halverson: Things are going very well. I’m very encouraged. After two weeks everything seems to be extraordinarily collegial. It’s a happy place in the House, I think. I’m excited and it bodes well for the next six weeks. It’s a good group of happy freshmen.

Petroff: Everything is going well, very smoothly. The biggest issue is obviously the CREG [Consensus Revenue Estimating Group] Report and having so much less revenue than what we expected. We’re having to take a harder look at some of our spending priorities.

Schwartz: It is overwhelming. Everybody said it would be and there is just not a way to prepare yourself for it. There is just a lot of stuff going on, all day long. Long days. Pretty much all your spare time on weekends is spent on legislative stuff. There’s a lot that you have to figure out.

Christensen: Maybe it’s the years of being down here but feels a little lighter with the number of bills, a little softer than years past. It’s been a good session so far.

Dockstader: No response.

HB0007: A bill co-sponsored by Petroff allowing motorists to keep game struck and killed by their vehicle under certain circumstances

Halverson: I’m torn. If you hit a deer, you ought to be able to load it up in your truck and feed your family or do with it what you want. But there is the possibility that someone will see a herd of deer on the side of the road and hit them on purpose.

Petroff: It’s doing pretty well. There will probably be excluded areas where it would be very easy for someone to intentionally hit a very expensive sheep mount. We got a great idea from a local transportation commission person who said, “Why don’t you have the ability for peace officers to be able to issue a permit on the spot if someone hits an animal?” It’s important because getting those animals off the road is problematic.

Schwartz: I’m on this committee. I think it’s a good bill. Without it, if you pick up a road kill, there is no means of getting a tag. If Game and Fish sees you, you are probably going to get arrested. It’s a safety factor. Road kill attracts other animals. [As far as the opposition argument that some people would intentionally hit an animal] it’s just not really worth it, considering the damage to your truck or yourself that could conceivably happen. The benefits outweigh that remote potential.

Christensen: I’m not familiar with the bill but in the past, the idea was to be able to utilize road kill. If people can figure out ways to use them rather than have them hauled off, I’m for it. As far as the opposition argument that some people would intentionally hit an animal, think about the odds and the chances you have to collect a trophy with your front bumper. And you would still have to work with Game and Fish.

Dockstader: I have no opinion on the possession of road kill.

HB0018: Drone protection act requiring law enforcement to produce a warrant or have probable cause before using a drone

Halverson: I love it. There should be probable cause or they need a warrant.

Petroff: I think it’s protecting people’s privacy. I’m struggling with the details, overall.

Schwartz: I supported it, kind of with reservations. There are numerous problems with the bill. I think law enforcement should not be able to use drones without a search warrant and probable cause. But the biggest problem is the restrictions it puts on Game and Fish to patrol large areas of lands.

Christensen: I don’t know what this one is.

Dockstader: I would probably support this but need to hear Judiciary’s presentation.

HB0023: Allowing the state to expend funds on the pursuit of Next Generation Science Standards [NGSS] or an alternative

Halverson: We had a footnote in the budget session that said the State Board of Education should not spend any money on NGSS. This House bill would repeal that footnote. We had a really good amendment come up yesterday saying the State Board may consider NGSS among other science standards.

Now, we’ve had a little drama here. An organization that lobbies the Legislature on certain things sent out a letter that called those people who voted for the footnote “anti-science.” That made a lot of people angry. People who were in support were so offended by this woman’s tone and name-calling that they said they will go back to vote no when they were going to vote yes. There is an amendment coming up Monday, which will probably kill the bill and it’s all the result of one bad lobbyist. They are often wonderful but this lobbyist crossed the line and was not nice and there is going to be some backlash.

Petroff: This is a very important bill if for no other reason than you cannot pass important legislation in a budget footnote. It’s also meddling too much in the Board of Education. But that budget footnote never got debated on the floor. This is way more about principle than science standards or education.

Schwartz: I am 100 percent in support. Hopefully, it will pass and go on to the Senate. There have been attempts to water it down. There are a lot of people who don’t want this thing to pass. I don’t think the Legislature has any say in education. I don’t know the NGSS is the best out there and maybe there are alternatives, but we should be able to consider it.

Christensen: I will support this.

Dockstader: I would need to hear the debate on why we should bring the funding back when it was pulled last session.

HB0024: A bill raising the state minimum wage to $9 an hour (killed)

Halverson: That died in the House committee [last week]. I would have liked to see a floor-wide debate on that.

Petroff: It was shot down. There is still room for someone to bring another bill. For us to have a higher wage than states around us is an economic disadvantage. It would reduce our competitiveness at a state level. Obviously, in Jackson, we are paying a lot more than that and it works here.

Schwartz: I was out of chamber at a meeting with the governor on the Budge slide during the debate. The bill could have used some amendments. I was fine with the $9 an hour. I had issues with part-time employees. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, so basically that means Wyoming is at $7.25.

Christensen: I think it’s a question that’s already been answered in our community. It costs more than $9 [an hour] to live here. Also, you start dancing around with server tips formulas around here. It’s tricky.

Dockstader: I would have probably not supported this. Leave it up to the individual businesses and what the market will handle.

HB0029: A bill decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana to a fine rather than jail time and a criminal record (killed)

Halverson: I voted for it. It passed out of committee on a bipartisan basis. It isn’t going away. It got 22 votes in the House. The last time it was 17. It’s making its way.

Petroff: I was really disappointed in that vote. I voted for it. It would have saved us literally millions a year according to testimony. I think a fine is a more appropriate punishment as well as an economic advantage to the state.

Schwartz: I was for it. I felt a lot of the conversation was kind of out of touch with the reality of the situation — an arrest record for small amounts of pot, the strain on law enforcement. It’s kind of like gay marriage where it builds momentum, nationally, and Wyoming will come along eventually, kicking and screaming.

Christensen: I would have had to see what happened if it came over [to the Senate].

Dockstader: This failed in the House last week.

HB0038: A bill placing a $3,000 limit on PAC contributions to a political campaign

Halverson: I’m against it. They are so worried about a party having an advantage. I just don’t see it. Americans will do what they’ll do, and politicians will just work around it. Trying to regulate human behavior when it comes to money and politics is impossible.

Petroff: In general, I almost think it’s a moot point. If someone wants to contribute, they are going to find a way to contribute. Super PACS will always pop up. You can’t control them. I don’t know how important this bill is.

Schwartz: It gets complicated because people put in amendments that completely change the way you were going to vote on it. They sometimes force you to vote against a bill that you were going to vote for. Lawmakers sometimes make mistakes.

Christensen: I’m unfamiliar with the bill.

Dockstader: I want to hear debate but generally agree with the concept.

HB0048: Requiring headlight usewhile using wipers

while using wipers

Halverson: That started in Canada. Some scientists have said technically it is needed. I’m a no vote.

Petroff: It failed and rightly so.

Schwartz: It’s fine, but most cars now work automatically. I would probably vote for it but there are so many bills to deal with I don’t care strongly about this one.

Christensen: (Laughs). There’s plenty of vehicles in Wyoming where either one might not be working.

Dockstader: I probably would not support this. I’m not sure we need to legislate something that should be general wisdom. Turn your lights on!

HB0049: Preserving confidentiality of executioners in carrying out death sentences

Halverson: I voted for that, especially if we pass a firing squad. I don’t know if you would get any volunteers for a firing squad if your name is going to be known.

Petroff: I have mixed feelings. I listened to the debate. On one hand it’s a horrible thing: putting people in the position of doing this and facing criminalization for something that is legal. But we also shouldn’t be operating in a cover of darkness. If we are trying to hide something, we should ask ourselves, “Why do [executions] at all?”

Schwartz: There was a weird thing in that bill. It said that companies that were providing the chemicals were protected as well. I think the public has the right to know the names of companies supplying the [drugs required to perform an execution].

Christensen: Being on Judiciary Committee, we work on corrections and the challenges they are facing. It’s not pleasant at all and there is a shadow over death penalty meetings like no other meeting. The bill is probably fine. I would support it if it makes it to Senate.

Dockstader: I’m all right with confidentiality, but did not support similar legislation for a firing squad.

HB0056: Would create the Wyoming Food Freedom Act, loosening restrictions on homemade food for sale

Halverson: It passed overwhelmingly last week. It was a very good bill. The House channeled the late representative Sue Wallace. It is a memorial to her. Two more readings to go.

Petroff: I was in another meeting when that came up.

Schwartz: I’m in support of it. Another freshman, Tyler Lindholm, brought that bill. He’s a good character. It creates a “buyer beware” situation. Look, these are not USDA-inspected foods. People should know that going in.

Christensen: Haven’t seen that bill. We’ll see when it crosses the aisle.

Dockstader: I would support a measure that allows small agricultural businesses to operate with less restriction. It’s our own choice to buy raw milk or purchase vegetables at a farmers’ market.

HB0083: Religious Freedom Restoration Act that would limit government interference and burdens on religious practices

Halverson: I will have to listen to the debate on this. There are anecdotes of kids being punished for saying grace before lunch at school, anecdotes about using the word Jesus. But I don’t believe we should pass statutes on anecdotes. Now if a school, for instance, were to develop a policy saying, “No freedom of religious expression,” that’s different. But to my knowledge, no district has ever passed a policy forbidding or curtailing freedom of religious expression. People are going back to that old joke: As long as there are math tests, there will always be prayer in school.

Petroff: I’m not familiar with this bill.

Schwartz: I’m not aware of this bill. If it’s like all the others, I’m voting against it. There’s a bunch of them that concern the state getting involved in religion.

Christensen: I haven’t seen this bill.

Dockstader: This bill goes before Judiciary this week. I’m supporting it as a co-sponsor because the measure allows for freedom of conscience.

HB0085 and SF0103: Bills requiring a three-foot buffer between vehicles and bikes, separating bike paths from highways

Halverson: We had first debate on that last week. I voted to support it. It’s badly needed in towns like Casper and Jackson. I’ve heard a lot of horror stories about a car being able to navigate a three-foot buffer, but what about a trailer? What if it takes the truck into oncoming traffic?

Someone told me that an amendment to require rearview mirrors on bicycles was coming in order to put some responsibility on cyclists who sometimes ride in the driving lane to avoid rumble strips, or ride two abreast.

Petroff: The important thing to remember is there is no penalty to your driver’s license. We are just setting a standard to say this is what you should be doing. Hopefully it becomes a cultural norm.

Schwartz: I have not looked at the Senate file. I thought I would, but once you get down here you can’t get to Senate bills. I voted for the three-foot one. It’s not like police are going to be measuring distances, but it will create awareness. I ride a bike a lot and every now and then I have had the feeling that people are trying to harass me as a cyclist. This will only will get enforced if a cyclist gets hit.

Christensen: In our community, we’ve pretty much been doing this. But not every community has the ability to do it and it might keep bikes off the roads in other communities.

Dockstader: I probably would support it but want to hear debate on this.

HB0114: Would repeal gun-free zones currently exempt from concealed carry without a permit

Halverson: This is going to have a great debate. Schools, churches, bars, courthouses, hospitals. I have not read the bill yet. I don’t know if it is changing a “shall” to a “may.” I think every school district and hospital should be permitted to decide for themselves. Utah took schools out and made it district by district, and I think that’s what prompted this bill. I think the bill exempts courthouses.

Petroff: It hasn’t come up before the body. The devil is always in the details. In general, I am respectful of Second Amendment rights.

Schwartz: I am going to vote against it. A perfect example of one place would be the Hirschfield Center [in Jackson]. That’s a bad place to have guns. I just think there are times and places where guns are not a good thing. There’s all these guys who want to carry their weapons into the House here. What’s the point? I’m not anti-gun. Just because guns exist doesn’t mean there should be no restrictions on them. That’s not how I read the Second Amendment.

Christensen: I haven’t had a chance to look at that. I’d have to read that pretty carefully.

Dockstader: I’ll wait for the debate on this.

HB0125: A bill that would ban the practice of traffic ticket quotas by law enforcement

Halverson: I brought this bill. Get rid of these quotas. Heck, I can fill the quota all by myself.

Petroff: Makes perfect sense to me.

Schwartz: I haven’t read the bill. I did have a conversation with a guy in State Patrol who said there is no quota. I don’t think there should be quotas.

Christensen: I’m not familiar with this House bill.

Dockstader: I need to hear the debate.

HJ0002: Allowing for a vote of the public to decide whether the state school superintendent remains an elected position or governor-appointed

Halverson: Elected.

Petroff: I’m generally not opposed to it. I’ve gotten so many comments on this both ways. When you have so much controversy, I think it makes sense to give voters the choice.

Schwartz: I’m probably with the “Let the people decide,” because why not?

Christensen: I think we leave it the way it is.

Dockstader: I have received only support and recommendation that the position remain elected.

SJ0005: Accepting a gift from the federal government of a former missile site to be used as a tourist destination

Halverson: I support it 100 percent. We have to pass a law permitting the state to accept the gift from the federal government. This could be a moneymaker.

Petroff: I’ve toured one of these sites and it is a really neat thing. It’s right off of I-25, so it’s easily accessible. We’ve got Douglas, Wyoming, where Italian prisoners of war were kept. A lot of people are on these military vacations. This would create a corridor for that.

Schwartz: I like parks and I like history. I like educational opportunities. This comes down to a budget issue. Leadership has been touting our lack of money. I’m fine with the park but if we are cutting social services because of money, I’m not sure we should be funding new parks.

Christensen: If we don’t take it, they’ll fill it with concrete in a heartbeat. I toured the thing. It’s an amazing glimpse into America’s Cold War history. The challenge is in making it a win-win for Wyoming where we are not picking up the fed’s problems.

Dockstader: I was a no. It passed 21-8. The concept is a good way to capture a period of time and Wyoming’s role in the Cold War. I was a no, however, because it was open-ended in funding. I couldn’t give an aye not knowing the ultimate cost and the fact that it would be an ongoing expense.

SF0115: An act prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity

Halverson: Put me down as a possible supporter if it is applicable only to tax-payer-funded political subdivisions like local governments, county governments, state government, school districts, etc. If it is meant to apply to private contracts as well [landlords and renters, for example] then I am opposed. In the case of private contracts, I think the conscience clause that currently applies to healthcare workers should kick in.

Petroff: This is being brought at the request of a lot of businesses, especially with the climbing revenues and competitiveness in the energy field. Those best, brightest employees want to know they have protection. Most Fortune 500 companies already have this in place. We want to make sure Wyoming has the reputation of being forward thinking on this issue, and we are not going to discriminate against you or what you do from 9 to 5.

Schwartz: I will support this.

Christensen: I’m a cosponsor. It’s all about being fair to people that are working for us.

Dockstader: I’d like to hear the full debate on this.

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