Gov. Mark Gordon Thursday signed a proclamation convening the Wyoming Legislature for a special session on May 15 to distribute federal stimulus money to Wyoming businesses, healthcare facilities and workers.
Through four draft bills, lawmakers will likely deliberate distributing $500 million of the $1.25 billion the state received through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which the U.S. Congress passed in March. Lawmakers are eyeing new programs that would provide loans to businesses, recompense landlords for lost rent to halt evictions and help fund healthcare facilities, among other needs.
Lawmakers will gather both online and in the State Capitol, which will be open to those legislators who wish to go there, according to an internal letter to lawmakers obtained by WyoFile. Even those lawmakers in the capitol will debate over internet conferences that will be live-streamed to the public, according to the letter from Speaker of the House Steve Harshman and Senate President Drew Perkins (both R-Casper). Harshman and Perkins will be present to sign bills, the Speaker said.
But the people’s house will be closed to the public, according to the proposed rules. Journalists will also be kept out, Harshman told WyoFile on Wednesday.
It’s not clear how many lawmakers will travel to Cheyenne and how many will join online but the letter suggests preparation for a significant gathering. Lawmakers attending in person will “follow all appropriate guidance” from State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist, the letter says. Lawmakers will sit in committee rooms, conference rooms and the galleries if enough show up that the chamber floors are too crowded. Lawmakers who do travel to the capitol will receive the per diem compensations they normally receive for travel days.
Transparency advocates fear excluding the state’s press will leave off-camera goings-on in the people’s house unobserved.
“Should reporters be kept out of the capitol for a session of this importance?” Casper Star-Tribune Editor Josh Wolfson asked the governor at Thursday’s press conference.
“I don’t believe it’s anybody’s intent it’s certainly not mine and I don’t believe it’s the leadership’s intent to exclude reporters or the public from being able to participate,” Gordon said.
The Wyoming Press Association emailed a letter to legislative leaders on Thursday evening after learning “late” that the press could be shut out of the capitol. “The WPA understands that public safety may behoove the Legislature to bar the public from the Capitol,” the letter read, “but this makes the presence of the media even more important so that it can serve as the ‘eyes and ears of’ citizens who cannot attend the Special Session.
Harshman responded to the WPA email. “We will make [it] work,” he wrote.
Perkins also responded. “I don’t think the press is excluded, however, there will be restrictions,” he wrote.
Legislative leaders are meeting again on Friday.
The Legislature is trying to balance transparency, expediency and the public health concerns of the pandemic era, Harshman said. The state is hurting, and “I don’t want to sacrifice the good for the perfect,” he said. “Give us the benefit of the doubt and let’s get this [money] out to the people of our community.”
What’s in bills?
The cornerstone measure empowers the governor to spend the federal money on the state and local governments’ response to the public health emergency and to address food insecurity.
The Legislation allows the State Land and Investment Board — made up of the five statewide elected officials — to provide grants to healthcare providers both to alleviate expenses of responding to COVID-19 and to improve the “state’s health care delivery system and infrastructure,” according to a draft of one of the bills.
The CARES act funding might spark a number of construction projects around the state. For example, lawmakers in Crook and Weston counties are talking about retrofitting a hospital in that area or building a new one. The money could also be spent building out mental health treatment capabilities in the state.
The legislation also appropriates the federal money for construction projects at the Wyoming Life Resource Center, a state-run residential treatment facility in Lander, and the Wyoming State Hospital in Evanston. The Legislature failed to fund those projects during its regular session earlier in the year after the House and Senate could not reach an agreement.
A second bill creates a program to protect renters from evictions and compensates landlords for unpaid rent. That bill also makes workers sickened by COVID-19 eligible for worker’s compensation.
A third piece of legislation gives Gordon more authority to move money between agency budgets without legislative approval. The governor can move 50% of the funding the Legislature has appropriated for any agency program within that agency’s budget to respond to the impacts of the pandemic. He can move 25% of a budget between different agencies. The new authority would last until December 2020 under the proposed language.
The Joint Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee considered a fourth draft bill on Thursday night. That bill appropriates $50 million for a state-run loan program similar to the federal Payroll Protection Program.
The committee will vote on the bill Monday.
The pace and practice of legislative proceedings have sparked transparency concerns beyond press exclusion.
This week, senators held unpublicized meetings to review the proposed legislation, according to internal lawmaker communications obtained by WyoFile and confirmed with several senators.
The 30-member senate was split into three groups of 10, according to an email from Senate Vice President Ogden Driskill to other senators that was obtained by WyoFile. Leading senators and Legislative Service Office attorneys were to walk the other senators through the bills and field questions and comments, according to the email. Those comments would be later considered for amendments to the bills, Driskill wrote.
“This will be your chance for input prior to the session,” Driskill wrote. “The session will be fast paced, so comments and thoughts will be appreciated.”
The Wyoming Legislature exempted itself from the Wyoming Public Meetings Act when it passed that statute.
The bills also won’t follow the normal legislative process that includes opportunities for public comment in front of the Legislature’s 12 standing committees and multiple debates in each chamber.
The Management Council, a committee made up of leaders from both chambers and political parties, crafted three of the bills. The fourth came through the Minerals Committee. Both committees took public comment, but the bills won’t get further committee treatment or likely other opportunities for public comment.
Instead, mirror versions of the bills will be simultaneously introduced on each chamber floor — a process similar to how the Legislature considers its budget bill each year. The bills will go through three rounds of votes. Proposed rules limit debate and make it more difficult for lawmakers to bring amendments.
The rules are similar to those used in past special sessions, Harshman said, and are designed to expedite the process. The bills are broadly worded and shouldn’t be “controversial,” he said. “I don’t know who would say we shouldn’t help small businesses or renters. These are all common sense measures.”
Lawmakers will be available via text and email to hear from their constituents during the special session, Harshman said.
Not all lawmakers agree. The process is overly rushed, one senator said, at the cost of public input and more thorough bill drafting.
“The Legislature thinks this is going to be simple and we just have to cram some money out of the door,” Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) said. “I think it’s going to be more controversial than people think. People will want to debate.”
The legislative process, where bills are subject to multiple votes and debates in one chamber and then move on for consideration in the other, gives lawmakers time to spot flaws and field concerns from their constituents, Case said. “Almost every bill gets better as it goes through,” he said.
Harshman predicted all four bills would pass the three votes in each chamber on the first day of the two-day session. The second day, he predicts, will be spent in conference committees — negotiating committees assigned by leadership that hash out the differences between the chambers. The conference committees will also be live-streamed, Harshman said.
A rushed process stymies both public input and debate, Case said. Chris Merrill, the director of the Equality State Policy Center, which advocates for good government issues, agreed.
“In the best of times mirror bills are a pretty terrible process for creating policy,” Merrill said. They are difficult for the public to follow as two chambers debate something simultaneously, and are vulnerable to “behind the scenes wrangling and dealing,” he said. “Under this situation with the constraints we are currently facing … there may be very little to no transparency about why decisions and choices are made.”
Despite the urgency, the Legislature should take a little longer to include the public and honor its traditional debate process, Case said. “Government is supposed to work with the people and there’s this established process that we’ve used for 100 years, and not using that process is dangerous,” he said.
The Management Council took public comment on the bills, but it did not receive a great amount, Merrill said. “The speed at which they moved and sometimes the extremely short notice of meetings and the extremely small window to sign up for public comment has made it largely impossible for most people to engage in any kind of meaningful way,” he said.
Merrill worries lawmakers haven’t taken the time or created a process to hear from people in the state who are hurting but aren’t usually engaged in the legislative process. Many industries have professional lobbyists who are well connected to lawmakers and are able to put those industries’ concerns forward quickly.
Though the bills have measures for the state’s most vulnerable citizens, not all new needs have percolated into the public conscious, he said. “The people who are being harmed the most right now tend also to be the people who legislators are least likely to hear from,” Merrill said.
Businesses need widespread assistance, Merrill said, but so do workers and needy families. “We’ll know this process was unsuccessful if the Legislature and governor only end up addressing one of these constituents’ needs and don’t try to address the full complexity of the economic damage that’s taken place,” he said. “Especially to the most vulnerable members of our community.”
UPDATE: This story was updated to include responses from Speaker Harshman and President Perkins to the Wyoming Press Association. —Ed.