COWBOY POLITICS: It’s a wrap: Final legislative report

By on March 11, 2015

cowboypoliticsJackson Hole, Wyoming – The 2015 Wyoming Legislature left Cheyenne right on schedule March 6 with a few things to brag about and a couple of things that could fairly be termed “regrettable.”

At the ritual end-of-session news conference, legislative leaders praised passage of a supplemental budget bill of about $280 million to carry Wyoming through the second half of our biennium. The bill is balanced with about $200 million that had been earmarked for the “rainy day” savings account and with projected capital gains profiled for the first time in Wyoming’s fiscal report.

Additional accomplishments include: 

Moving forward with an accountability plan for districts, schools, administrators and teachers;

Repeal of a noxious footnote from the 2014 budget bill that targeted Next Generation Science Standards but also stalled all work on new science standards for Wyoming students;

Restoration of voting rights to non-violent felons as soon as they complete their sentences;

Defeat of an ill-considered bill to repeal the “gun-free” status of schools, college campuses and government buildings and meetings;

Protective orders for victims of sexual assault;

An $8.2 million External Cost Adjustment to keep school funding current with inflation;

Ability of county clerks to set up voting centers to accommodate several precincts in one location, in response to the growing difficulty of finding suitable voting sites and election judges;

Defeat of bills to restrict or prevent changing of party affiliation on primary election day.

Notable omissions include:

Rejection of the opportunity to provide health coverage to some 17,600 low-income adults through Medicaid, missing the final year to take advantage of 100 percent federal funding;

Defeat of a bill to add gender identity to the list of employment and public protections and accommodations.

As the governor delivered his farewell address to the 2015 Legislature, staff packed files and furniture for transfer to the Jonah Bank Building, the home of the Legislature and Legislative Service Office for the next three sessions while the Capitol and Herschler Office Building are renovated. Total cost is $290 million, including leasing space for the Legislature, elected officials and the executive agencies in Herschler.

Legislative leaders are putting as many conditions as possible on the architect, the construction manager at risk and the state’s own Construction Management Office to make sure the job doesn’t go one cent over budget, even to the extent of pushing the “go/no-go” deadline out to August, which is very unrealistic considering the leases, quarrying of stone and other commitments being made now. Also unrealistic is the thought that the renovation of the Capitol can be put off even one more year.

One of the major controversies has been who gets to move back into the Capitol when it’s done. There isn’t enough room for the Legislature, LSO, governor’s office AND the other elected officials. A four-story executive office tower will be added to the north side of Herschler, and four small ceremonial offices will remain in the Capitol. But feelings are still raw.

Information available on the LSO Web site during the interim includes: 

Interim Calendar of Events: Interim committee meetings are posted here, including agendas and draft bills. They typically are held around the state;

Interim Committee Activities: Interim work assigned by the Management Council for the 10 joint standing committees will be posted soon;

January 2015 CREG Forecast: The Consensus Revenue Estimating Group makes quarterly estimates of revenue;

All the bills and what happened to them (including roll call votes);

Audio archive of all the floor debate and Joint Appropriation Committee work.

More 2015 Session details

Elections: SF52 – County clerks have the ability now to gather several precinct voting places in one polling location, for the convenience of voters and to ease the increasing problems of finding suitable voting places or finding election judges.

Once again there was an attempt to prevent Democrats from changing their party on Election Day to participate in the GOP primary (HB131). And once again there was an attempt for open primaries (SF133). Both died early in the session. The federal Help America Vote Act requires states to have either Election Day registration or motor voter (registration at drivers’ license bureau).

Health Care: Governor Mead joined efforts in 2015 to get legislative approval for Wyoming to offer Medicaid to low-income adults without dependent children. The Wyoming Department of Health estimated about 17,600 would enroll. Business, counties and hospitals and other providers joined the effort. But it wasn’t enough to convince legislators. Two proposals – both with incentives and cost-sharing – went down to defeat. (SF66 and SF129)

Education: Over the objections of the Joint Appropriations Committee, the Legislature used $8.2 million out of the School Foundation Account to give an inflationary External Cost Adjustment to schools. This should keep up with costs, while the Legislature “recalibrates” the funding formula to make sure the categories are computed properly.

A bill to allow anyone with a concealed carry permit to carry a gun in schools, colleges and government meetings died on final reading in the Senate. It was amended to let local authorities decide. This did not satisfy the Second Amendment purists, nor did it reassure senators worried about proper training and safety.

The House and Senate clashed on how to evaluate teachers in a comprehensive education accountability plan (SF8). Reps wanted to make sure teachers were not directly accountable for state test scores and wanted districts to do their own evaluations. Senators said the state deserved accountability, considering the amount of school funding.

Rep. John Patton decided seven months before the session started to try to remove the 2014 budget bill footnote that put the Next Generation Science Standards off limits as the State Board of Education adopted new science standards for K-12 in Wyoming. A panel of Wyoming experts recommended adoption of NGSS. The Board concluded that it couldn’t work around the prohibition. Legislators acknowledged they had goofed and voted to remove the footnote with HB23, but they had to have the last word. For a period of time, they insisted on saying the standards had to be “unique to Wyoming,” which is absurd, so they ended up saying the standards had to be “excellent.”

Government: SF115 – Discrimination, produced emotionally wrenching debate for protection of civil rights without regard to gender identification. It also produced some of the most outrageous misstatements about homosexual and transgender people and what SF115 would require of people, businesses and government. The bill had support from several religious groups and churches, a wide range of business interests and human rights groups. It passed the Senate but failed the House 26-33.

Constitutional Amendment: The 2015 session approved one proposed amendment to the Wyoming Constitution – to allow the state to invest non-permanent savings accounts in the stock market, as directed by the Legislature. SJ2 will appear on the 2016 General Election ballot.

A proposed amendment to remove the superintendent of public instruction from the Wyoming Constitution was much anticipated as a way to assure professional administration of the Wyoming Department of Education, but HJ2 never got out of committee.

About Marguerite Herman

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