THE BUZZ: Bill Battle Royale

By on January 17, 2017

Welcome to Wyoming’s 2017 legislative session, where abortion, ‘anti-discrimination’ and public lands are the issues du jour.

Wyoming lawmakers take their oath ahead of the 2017 legislative session. (Photo: Wyoming Legislature)

Wyoming lawmakers take their oath ahead of the 2017 legislative session. (Photo: Wyoming Legislature)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Class is in session for state lawmakers who are considering legislation that could have critical impacts on people’s rights and the environment.

According to the Pew Research Center, Wyoming has the shortest legislative session in the country. So everything moves fast, explained Sabrina King, policy director of the Wyoming chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. But the session’s rapid pace can spell problems for constituents, she says. “People don’t always see or know about [legislation] until after it’s been voted on … they don’t always have time to mobilize their communities.”

However, Rep. Andy Schwartz, Jackson-D, calls Wyoming’s short session a good thing. “We’re truly a citizen’s legislature. When we’re not in session, we’re in our communities … and every representative truly cares about representing their community.”

Where King and Schwartz agree? They both encourage citizens to stay informed about proposed legislation and to contact their representatives.

Bills pertaining to your rights at a glance

Senate Joint Resolution 4: Wyoming Civil Rights Amendment

Sponsors: Sens. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs; Leland Christensen, R-Alta; and Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower; Reps. Tyler Lindholm, R-Sundance; David Miller, R-Riverton; and Cheri Steinmetz, R-Lingle

This bill would alter the state’s constitution to “prohibit discrimination against and to ban preferential treatment” based on race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in employment, education, or public contracts.

King called it an anti-affirmative action resolution, which could harm underrepresented communities. In addition, it does not include protections of LGBTQ or disabled citizens, an exclusion Schwartz, calls problematic.

“It’s in conflict with the US Constitution,” he said.

When changes are made to the state constitution, every future bill must align with its mandates. If this is passed, it could make future legislation related to the rights of LGBTQ or disabled citizens unconstitutional.

Rep. Dave Miller, R-Riverton, a co-sponsor of the bill, told the Casper Star Tribune that the bill would bar hiring “based on what race you are.” Sponsors argue that Cowboy State employers are hiring people and the state’s university and colleges are admitting students based on minority status.

However, Bruce Palmer, vice chair of the Wyoming Democratic Party, calls these concerns ironic and unnecessary. “It would cast a chilling effect across people who come from different backgrounds. Our Native American population would be shocked to hear they’re being treated preferentially … so would women in a state where … there’s the largest gender pay gap in the country.” Wyoming Public Media reports that women make 67 cents to every dollar earned by men. If this trend continues, Wyoming’s pay gap will be the last to close.

If the bill is ratified in the constitution, state funding that is reserved for people historically underrepresented in higher education could become unconstitutional. At University of Wyoming, there are about 10 yearly scholarships awarded to racial minorities on campus.

Senate File 32: Police Body Camera Bill

Sponsor: Joint Judiciary Interim Committee

This bill would restrict people’s access to audio and video recordings by law enforcement agencies, including footage from body cameras and vehicle cameras. In order to view any footage, citizens would have to go to court. It is filed in the context of several highly publicized instances across the country of police officers shooting black men, many of which were caught on film.

Rep. Dan Kirkbride, R-Converse, is a member of the Joint Judiciary Interim Committee, which proposed the bill. Kirkbride calls his perspective limited because the bill originated in the Wyoming Senate, and he is new to the committee. However, he sees the bill as important to protecting privacy: “There are things that could be inadvertently caught on camera that are privacy violations that have nothing to do with the issue at hand.”

Kirkbride points to the example of a police officer’s body camera running in a house where medical records are visible. In that instance, he says, the footage should not be publically accessible.

Schwartz told The Planet that during discussion of the bill, another representative used the example of cameras catching footage of expensive art on someone’s walls. If that were to become public, that representative worried about art being stolen.

In contrast, Teton County Sheriff Jim Whalen told PJH that police should err on the side of transparency: “I don’t want law enforcement to look at a bill like that and hide behind it and not disclose information that should be disclosed … in Wyoming, we believe the public have the right to know.”

Whalen sees the need to strike a balance. Footage related to an ongoing current investigation, for example, needs to remain private. In addition, Whalen says sometimes the way information is released can be frustrating. “The media will take some bits and pieces of a video and they will utilize that to the disadvantage of the police,” he said. Still, Whalen, whose department has been wearing body cameras since 2015, believes that “there should be a really good reason for footage to be withheld.”

Schwartz agreed. “One of government’s main priorities is to be transparent.”

King’s concerns are slightly broader. What has become clear during discussion of this bill, she says, is that “there are no statewide best practices about usage of body cameras.” This means, for example, “there are no requirements for disclosure to domestic violence or sexual assault victims that they’re being recorded, no guidance on when cameras should be turned on or off.” There is also no statute to prevent “body cameras from being used as general surveillance … concerning particularly for communities of color, poor communities and immigrant communities.” King sees this bill as the opening for conversations about the ethical use of body cameras. “There is a huge opportunity here for law enforcement agencies to work with their communities and organizations like the ACLU … and the Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence to put together best practices.”

House Bill 116: Abortion Amendment

Sponsors: Reps. Cheri Steinmetz, R-Lingle; Scott Clem, R-Gillette; Roy Edwards, R-Gillette; Chuck Gray, R-Casper; Marti Halverson, R-Etna; Mark Jennings, R-Sheridan; Lars Lone, R-Laramie; Garry Piiparinen, R-Evanston; Nathan Winters, R-Thermopolis; Sens. Wyatt Agar, R-Thermopolis; Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan; and Curt Meier, R-LaGrange.

HB 116 would forbid the selling of fetal body parts—already illegal at the federal level—and use pain as the measure by which to define viability. Under this regulation, women could not have an abortion after the point their fetus can feel pain. The bill does not specify how that would change the viability date, but other states that have passed this legislation have changed the viability date from the Roe v. Wade standard of 24 weeks to 20 weeks, according to an article by the University of Texas Law School.

There is contention among experts about when a fetus can feel pain. The Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that the “neurological pathways that allow for the conscious perception of pain” to not function until after 28 weeks gestation.

Sharon Breitweiser, the executive director of NARAL Wyoming, says this measure has other motives. “It’s … one more attempt to further restrict women’s access to services.” Providers in Wyoming already only do abortion early on in pregnancy. The impact may not be dramatic, but she argues it is bad policy. “Medical experts are better positioned to consider the issue of viability than politicians,” she said.

Breitweiser believes this bill would chip at reproductive rights, increase stigma and “create hostile environments for providers of legal, safe abortion.”

Due to the efforts of Breitweiser and other Wyoming choice advocates, every anti-abortion bill has been stopped since 1989. She believes this one will likely not pass constitutional muster.

Unsurprisingly, the director of Right to Life Wyoming, Sheila Leach, has a different view. “We need laws and policy to protect vulnerable humans. This should be a priority for any government … the slaughter of unborn people is a blot on our nation’s character.”

Right to Life Wyoming hopes to overturn Roe v. Wade, and sees legislation like this as “a good start.” Returning the decisions surrounding abortion to the state is its goal.

House Bill 132: Abortion Amendment

Sponsors: Reps. Scott Clem, R-Gillette; Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester; Roy Edwards, R-Gillette; Chuck Gray, R-Casper; Timothy Hallinan, R-Gillette; Dan Laursen, R-Powell; Mark Jennings, R-Sheridan; Lars Lone, R-Laramie; Garry Piiparinen, R-Evanston; Tim Salazar, R-Dubois; Cheri Steinmetz, R-Lingle; and Nathan Winters, R-Thermopolis; Sens. Paul Barnard, R-Evanston; Dan Dockstader, R-Afton; and Curt Meier, R-LaGrange

The second bill on abortion would amend reporting laws. King says its effect would be to “create criminal penalties for failing to report abortions.”

While reporting requirements already exist, the new proposals stem from fear that there are more abortions occurring than are being reported, and that there are unreported late term abortions. However, Breitweiser believes there is no evidence for this claim, and the only way to determine if it was true would be to “go rifling through medical centers,” violating patient’s right to privacy.

House Bill 135:  Government Anti-Discrimination Act

Sponsors: Reps. Cheri Steinmetz, R-Lingle,; Susan Wilson, R-Laramie; and Nathan Winters, R-Thermopolis; Sens. Paul Barnard, R-Evanston; and Curt Meier, R-LaGrange

HB 135 intends to protect “the free exercise of religious beliefs and moral convictions.” But it would protect people like Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who made news for refusing to issue a marriage license for a same-sex couple. Same-sex marriage has been legal in Wyoming since 2014, when the Supreme Court found the ban on it to be unconstitutional. Yet, the bill states that people who see marriage “as the union of one man and one woman” should not face “discriminatory action” in their places of work, for example.

The bill also includes transgender-exclusionary language, such as: “‘man’ and ‘woman’ mean an individual’s biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at the time of birth.”

Another bill related to the rights of transgender citizens will likely be proposed soon. Roy Edwards, R-Gillette, told the Casper Star Tribune that he is drafting a resolution that would require people to use bathrooms and other changing facilities that correspond with the sex listed on their birth certificate.

Major distractions?

These bills are put forth during a particularly critical legislative session. Electeds are also tasked with pressing issues, such as a $300 to $400 million dollar deficit in education funding and a highly contentious proposal regarding the transfer of federal lands to the state of Wyoming. Both Palmer and Breitweiser called the aforementioned bills unnecessary distractions during such a turbulent time.

Some of the real problems in the state are within health and human services organizations. Last year, Gov. Matt Mead cut the state budget by almost $250 million due to sluggish revenue in the energy sector. This hurt myriad state and local organizations. The Wyoming Department of Health alone cut $90 million from its budget. No bill has been filed in regard to how schools will manage the deficit, though an education funding bill will likely be proposed soon by the House Education Committee, the Casper Star Tribune reported.

If constituents have stances on any proposals, Schwartz says he welcomes feedback and encourages people to listen to discussion on bills through the Wyoming Legislature’s website. Wyoming’s legislators’ contact information is available here.

More Cowboy State bills, featuring guns, energy & money

Senate File 71: Electricity Production Standard

Sponsors: Sens. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs; Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower; Reps. Scott Clem, R-Gillette; Roy Edwards, R-Gillette; Tyler Lindholm, R-Sundance; David Miller, R-Riverton; Mark Baker, R-Rock Springs; Jim Blackburn, R-Cheyenne; Michael Madden, R-Buffalo

This bill would block the use of renewable energy. If passed, the bill would discourage the use of wind and solar energy by charging “an administrative penalty of ten dollars” for each megawatt-hour. “Eligible” resources would be: coal, hydroelectric, nuclear, oil, natural gas, and net metering systems, like rooftop solar panels for an individual home.

Public lands constitutional amendment

This highly contentious resolution would amend the Wyoming constitution “to provide for the management of and public access to lands granted by the federal government to the state.” It would add 25 million acres to Wyoming’s current 3.5 million acres under state ownership.

The amendment originated in the Select Federal Natural Resource Management Committee, which met in November. Members of the committee were slated to discuss the recent $75,000 study by Y2 Consultants of Jackson that explores the feasibility of transferring management of federal lands to the state. The study, commissioned by the Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments, determined it would be a costly endeavor for Wyoming to manage lands under federal mandates with little benefit to the state.

Though no specific transfers are on the table, the committee felt that the amendment was worth discussion, according to committee member Rep. Tim Stubson (R-Casper).

“I don’t support wholesale transfer of public lands, but I think there’s an opportunity for more responsible management,” Stubson told PJH on January 3 (The Buzz, Public Land Peril). “What we’ve seen over and over again is that we get really good input at the state level that gets ignored once it’s sent to DC.”

However, opponents of the amendment note that public lands belong to the public at large, not just Wyomingites. “When we start locking people out, we are forgetting that our second largest industry is recreation,” said Bryon Lee of the Wyoming Wilderness Association.

Proponents say the federal government is “mismanaging the land, delaying the permitting of oil, gas, and mining projects.” Wyoming’s US Congressperson, Liz Cheney, has supported the proposal, though a 2016 study by Colorado College found the majority of Wyomingites oppose a transfer.

House Bill 137: Wyoming Repeal Gun Free Zones Act

Sponsors: Reps. Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester; Mark Baker, R-Rock Springs; Scott Clem, R-Gillette; Roy Edwards, R-Gillette; Chuck Gray, R-Casper; Mark Jennings, R-Sheridan; Lars Lone, R-Laramie; Garry Piiparinen, R-Evanston; Tim Salazar, R-Dubois; Bunky Loucks, R-Casper; Sens. Curt Meier, R-LaGrange; Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne; and Cale Case, R-Lander

Sponsors seek to remove current restrictions on concealed carry laws. If passed, “persons lawfully carrying weapons in Wyoming … may carry a concealed weapon in … any meeting of a government entity, and meeting of the legislature or a committee thereof.”

House Bill 140: Minimum Wage

Sponsor: Rep. James Byrd-D, Cheyenne

This act would create protections for workers such as raising the minimum wage, providing for training wages, and increasing minimum wage for employees receiving tips. The minimum wage would be raised to $9.50 per hour. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Wyoming has the lowest minimum wage in the country at $5.15 per hour. PJH

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