Controversial education finance, anti-abortion, and gun bills remain under consideration along with a host of other legislation as the Legislature enters the final days of the 2017 general session.
Tuesday was the 29th day of the 2017 Legislature, meaning only eight dedicated work days, and three optional ones, remain before adjournment.
Time is running short for those bills that have passed their house of origin but have not been assigned to a committee by leadership in the second chamber. If the bill is not assigned and voted on by a committee by Feb. 24, it will die. A bill that passed successfully through its house of origin can be killed by leadership in the second chamber without further public discussion. This can occur even for legislation that passes the first house by a wide margin, like the 54 to 6 vote on HB242, which would eliminate a tax exemption for mineral committees. It has not been assigned to a committee by Senate President Eli Bebout.
A bill to reform the criminal justice system, HB94, faces a similar fate. It would save an estimated $7.6 million annually for the state by diverting people from prison to probation and treatment programs. The Joint Judiciary Committee worked on the bill for at least two years, said Rep. Nathan Winters (R, HD-28, Thermopolis), who sits on that committee. Bebout has not assigned it to a Senate committee.
Few tax increase bills survived the House, and almost all of those that did have since died, including a controversial half-cent sales tax in the House’s education funding omnibus bill, HB236. That tax was conditional on the state’s rainy day fund dropping below a $500 million level, which the Legislative Service Office has said is unlikely. It took a fierce battle and several attempts in the House to pass even this conditional tax increase. Tuesday, the tax was amended out of HB236 by the Senate Education Committee. House Bill 236 now involves mostly spending cuts and a draw on savings accounts, as does a similar Senate education finance bill.
A cigarette tax increase proposed by Rep. Mike Madden (R, HD-40, Buffalo) was one of few direct tax increases to survive in the anti-tax House. It was killed by the Senate Revenue Committee 3-2 on Feb 16. One exception to the anti-tax attitude was HB19 to ensure collection of a sales tax on internet vendors, which has passed both House and Senate and will soon be sent to the governor.
A Senate committee also killed a bill sponsored by freshman Rep. Jerry Obermueller (R, HD-56, Casper). House Bill 267, which would have raised annual filing fees for businesses registered in the state, drew public fire from Secretary of State Ed Murray. The majority of the Senate Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions felt the amount of the fee increase was arbitrary and decided fees could be raised more accurately next year after consideration by an interim committee.
On the spending side of the budget, the House and Senate have disagreed on various amendments to the supplemental budget bill. The budget bill is written by the Joint Appropriation Committee and begins simultaneously in both chambers, as House Bill 1 and Senate File 1. Both bills have been heavily amended, and the amendments do not match.
Starting Tuesday, a conference committee made up of the House and Senate appropriations committees began working out the differences between the amendments. Among the differences that must be sorted, the conference committee will have to decide whether the budget will provide the governor contingency funding he’s sought to pay for two looming expenses.
Gov. Mead has requested $21 million to pay for cost overruns on Title 25, Wyoming’s involuntary hospitalization program. If the Legislature chooses not to approve the use of that money, the Department of Health will have to pay cost overruns by taking money from elsewhere in its already reduced budget. Mead also asked for $19 million to cover the cost of housing prisoners out of state if the structurally troubled penitentiary in Rawlins fails. In both cases, the contingency funds would be drawn from the state’s rainy day funds, and only if needed.
The House rejected several amendments to give the governor either the full amount he asked for or close to it. The chamber settled instead on $5 million in contingency funding for Title 25 and $10 million for the potential prison emergency. The Senate adopted an amendment brought by Sen. Bruce Burns (R, SD-21, Sheridan) that gives the governor authority to use up to $34 million if needed — $15 million for Title 25 and 19 million for an emergency at the prison.
Meanwhile, bills from the House that deal with gun rights and abortion continue to move toward passing. Two bills to allow concealed carry on campuses and repeal gun free zones, brought by Rep. Bo Biteman (R, HD-51, Ranchester), passed the Senate Judiciary Committee 4-1 and will be heard next on the floor of the Senate. House Bill 194 to allow some school staffers to carry guns in schools is awaiting discussion by the Senate Education Committee. Two anti-abortion bills passed through the Senate Agricultural Committee, while a third awaits discussion by the Senate Labor, Health and Social Services committee.
Finally, a bill to sell a parcel of state land in Grand Teton National Park passed the Senate but did not pass a vote in the House Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee this morning. The bill would have built on the sale of state trust lands made at the end of 2016 to bring those lands under control of the National Park Service.