With all the bad news on the Wyoming revenue front (such as projected shortfalls of between $555 million and $2.8 billion) and other COVID-19 developments, the Legislature may be poised to spring into action.
The leadership’s Management Council met on April 16 and began planning for two special sessions, one virtually in May, if they can pull it off, and another in late summer. The first session will be focused on the money coming from the Federal government. The second session will revisit the woefully unbalanced two-year budget and more COVID-19 issues.
On April 16, the council heard a short presentation by Gov. Mark Gordon, discussed, without deciding, the special sessions and then launched into an hours-long discussion of the interim topics for all the committees, which number about 20.
Those of us who have suffered through interim sessions know they are, in the best of times, mind numbing and not very productive.
In election years, where 75 of 90 seats are up for a vote, a special session is even less likely to be useful. This year, some of the legislators will not return for 2021, and the new legislators won’t show up until January. The inevitable committee shuffling that happens when the new leadership takes over only further complicated matters.
The governor and council have expressed the view that the priorities from last fall and the recent 2020 session remain priorities for Wyoming citizens. Maybe, but the pandemic is uprooting all assumptions about what our governments should be doing. Things that seemed pressing last fall may not even make the new priority list.
What is important? I suggest giving each committee a couple top-priority tasks that are within their areas of expertise. In addition to pandemic response, here are suggestions:
- Making sure everyone in Wyoming has enough to eat and that it is affordable. Nationwide, food insecurity affects 11% of households. That figure is likely higher in Wyoming.
- Shoring up our healthcare system and making health insurance more broadly available and affordable. This almost certainly involves Medicaid expansion.
- Addressing income and gender inequality. Increasing Wyoming’s minimum wage would help with both.
- Strengthening our unemployment insurance system.
- Retraining displaced energy workers.
- Helping energy-based communities refocus and strengthen their economies.
- Ensuring that every K-12 student has access to on-line education.
It is easy to be cynical about the Legislature. The council’s recent Zoom meeting illustrates why.
Speaker of the House Steve Harshman (R-Casper), who brings the charming optimism of a football coach after several losing seasons — we’ll get ‘em next time gang! — led a discussion on the assignments to the Revenue Committee, which will review Wyoming’s tax system. I am hard pressed to think of anything more futile than giving the Revenue Committee the task of reforming our tax system. Since the Tax Reform 2000 report, now 20 years old, the Legislature has been aware of the state’s problems, and chosen to do nothing about them.
Also, as part of the tax discussion Speaker Harshman uttered a startling pronouncement. One of the central tenants of our democracy is that we elect leaders. We expect, as do they, that those leaders will be held accountable for their actions. That is why we record votes and insist that the Legislature conducts its business in public. But, as Speaker Harshman described the Legislature’s failures to address revenues, he sought to absolve all the Legislators for their inactions. “It is no one’s fault,” he said several times.
How anti-democratic! The virus may be no one’s fault, but the revenue system certainly is. We, the citizens, can lay the blame directly on the speaker, governors, presidents of the Senate, and the heads of the various committees. They have chosen — this year, last year and years before — not to lead on tax reform, and in fact to actively oppose it. We know the difference leadership makes — an example being the lodging tax passed in 2020 when the governor supported it.
Our state is in deep, deep trouble, and our leaders are responsible for Wyoming’s almost complete reliance on the volatile mineral industry for state and local revenues. We elect leaders to make a difference, not to grant absolution nor to blame “fate” for their decisions.
It is an election year, let’s hold their feet to the fire.