Late on Feb. 27, Speaker of the House Steve Harshman (R-Casper) channeled his day job as a high school football coach and ran out the clock on a topsy turvy final evening for the Wyoming Legislature’s 2019 general session.
The hours before a 2 a.m. Feb. 28 final adjournment were at times bemusing and frustrating for lawmakers and those lobbyists unlucky enough to see legislation they were working on dragged out to the final minutes. Lawmakers alternatively milled listlessly as they waited for bills to reach the chamber and debated vigorously even up to the final moments.
The night was a fitting conclusion to a hectic legislative session where lawmakers considered, passed or dispatched 503 bills. On behalf of Wyoming, over 36 working days, 90 lawmakers adopted new laws affecting criminal justice reform, virtual education, the state’s healthcare systems, community colleges, the University of Wyoming campus, agriculture, mining and broadband internet, to name just a smattering.
Just days earlier, Gov. Mark Gordon had sent a letter to the House speaker with high praise for “hard and diligent work” for among other things, funding noxious weed and predator control. Then he turned a machine-gun veto pen to the supplemental budget bill, shooting down 14 footnotes and line items. (The Legislature overrode two of the vetoes. Neither were major. One override simply saved a minor budget correction and the other resulted in a cut of one position in the State Engineer’s Office.)
On Wednesday evening, the end came down to a handful of bills and a maneuvering up and down the chambers, hallways and meeting rooms of the temporary Capitol building that, while less of a showdown than last year’s tilt, was nonetheless entertaining until the end.
Sometime before 10 p.m., the governor was pacing the halls searching for Speaker Harshman. After at least one lap from the House side to the Senate side and back, Gordon doubtlessly located the elusive Speaker, but what they talked about is unclear. Negotiations on various bills continued as lawmakers in both chambers milled about waiting for orders.
Harshman signed some completed legislation around 11:45, watching the clock all the time. At 11:55 he paced the floor of his chamber, laughing and chatting with representatives.
At midnight the 35 business days the Legislature had allotted themselves for the 2019 session would run out. Lawmakers were waiting for their Legislative Service Office attorneys to draw up new versions of bills the House and Senate continued to negotiate.
But the clock ran out and the last night of the 2019 session ultimately stretched into the early hours of Feb. 28. The Legislature had to adjourn and gavel itself back in, using up one more of its constitutionally-limited 60 days for every two years.
At midnight the House adjourned. Just after midnight it opened a new day with a prayer delivered by Rep. Mark Kinner (R-Sheridan) and a round of handshakes and shoulder-clasping as if the representatives were just greeting each other fresh for a morning session.
After debating a final set of bills — and debate on the House and Senate floors were as rambunctious at 1:30 a.m. as at any afternoon or morning session — the Legislature adjourned. Gov. Mark Gordon took the House and Senate floors to deliver a brief congratulations to lawmakers just before 2 a.m while his tired-looking staff looked on from the lobby.
An oil tax showdown to the bitter end
Among the final inter-chamber negotiations were duels over a severance tax exemption for oil and gas companies, funding for state building projects and a Harshman bill to generate more money for education by tinkering with state investments and revenue streams.
Harshman shepherded the latter, House Bill 308 – Modernizing and balancing Wyoming’s school funding streams, aggressively. When the Senate took a vote to concur on the bill well after 10 p.m., he was outside the chamber counting votes. The bill failed an initial vote 15-13 with two members excused. To pass final votes, bills need a majority vote of the Senate — 16, not just a majority of the senators present.
Just after 10 p.m. and perhaps while the governor was seeking him out, Harshman was seen escorting Sen. Jeff Wasserburger (R-Gillette), a former teacher who normally stands as a rare advocate for increased education funding in the fiscally-conservative Senate, into an empty meeting room. Wasserburger returned to his seat on the Senate floor and at around 10:30 rose from his chair and called for a reconsideration of the concurrence vote on HB308.
Under legislative rules, lawmakers on the prevailing side of a vote are allowed to call for a second vote on the measure.
As various members of House leadership glowered at their Senate counterparts from the lobby, the senators took a new vote. This time Harshman’s bill passed, 17-11.
Senate File 134 – Severance tax exemption, a bill to create a severance tax break for oil and gas companies that rejuvenate idle wells, was the last domino to fall this session. The bill was pushed by Senate President Drew Perkins (R-Casper) and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Eli Bebout (R-Riverton), an oil businessman.
Originally a broad two-year severance tax exemption for new oil and gas wells, both House and Senate had winnowed the bill down until it applied only to rejuvenated wells that had been idle for more than a year. Harshman brought an amendment so substantive that LSO attorneys wound up writing a new bill to substitute for the original. Sticking points were over oil and gas price points at which the tax exemptions would go away and companies would pay the state’s full six percent severance tax, instead of a discounted four percent.
The House passed Harshman’s version, but the Senate rejected the new bill, pushing it to a conference committee.
That committee met at 9:30, when Bebout and Sen. Brian Boner (R-Douglas) squared off with a three-man team of representatives led by House Revenue Chairman Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne). A compromise was struck that inserted new categories of sour crude oil back into the bill as senators originally desired.
Though it passed muster in the conference room, those insertions doomed the compromise on the House floor. Harshman turned against the bill, saying it would apply the tax exemption to too many other companies. He was joined by House Appropriations Chairman Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne) and House Minerals, Business and Economic Development Chairman Mike Greear (R-Worland).
Just after 1 a.m., the House suddenly found itself in a lengthy debate about oil and gas prices. The representatives voted 31-21, with eight excused, not to concur.
If House leadership was seeking to wear down the Senate, they succeeded. At 1:30 a.m., House members crowded the Senate lobby and waited for Perkins to assign a new conference committee to negotiate on the severance tax bill. A weary-looking Senate president stuck his head out the door and asked for the speaker. “Tell him I don’t have the votes,” Perkins said. A lone lobbyist for the Powder River Basin Resource Council, which opposed the bill, smiled.
Battles over severance tax breaks for oil and gas were left to be fought another day. The senators adjourned and the House followed on their heels. The 2019 Legislative session was over.