A growing faction of GOP lawmakers who say voters will not accept tax increases triumphed late Friday as the House voted against raising the sales tax to solve Wyoming’s education funding crisis.
The House rejected first a two-cent increase and then a half-cent increase in sales taxes.
Taking the state sales tax from four to six cents on each dollar of sales would have generated an estimated $300 million a year, according to Rep. David Northrup (R, HD-50, Powell), chairman of the House Education Committee. The revenue would have addressed state education funding problems without deep cuts to the education system. Lawmakers who spoke against the measure said they couldn’t bring a tax increase back home to voters.
Passing a two-cent tax increase by Wyoming’s conservative representatives would have been surprising, but the narrow rejection of the half-cent tax increase showed how power has shifted further right in the House. Though the Wyoming Legislature has been dominated by the Republican party, which has held super-majorities for 20 years, a growing bloc of lawmakers opposed to any new taxes and supportive of issues like gun rights and anti-abortion legislation wields increasing influence.
Out of the 60 members of the House of Representatives, 51 are Republicans. Out of that 51, 17 to 19 members consistently align with issues important to the far-right, according to a WyoFile analysis of testimony, bills sponsored and votes cast this session.
“I cannot go back to my constituents with a 2 percent sales tax,” Rep. Tim Salazar (R, HD-34, Dubois) said Friday as the House debated an omnibus education funding bill. “I won’t do it. I refuse.”
The bloc scored another victory Monday when the House removed from the same bill a clause imposing a sales tax intended to protect the state’s rainy day fund when it drops below $500 million.
During Friday’s debate, the House took up an amendment proposed by Rep. Albert Sommers (R, HD-20, Pinedale) to knock the 2-cent sales tax increase down to a half-cent.
The amendment to change the proposed two-cent sales and use tax increase to a half-cent passed with 45 lawmakers in favor, according to a standing vote. Sommers then proposed a second amendment, this one to eliminate even the half-cent tax increase. Sommers said he brought the amendments up for discussion, and argued against his own amendment to remove the half-cent increase. The half-cent tax increase would have generated $80 million a year, Speaker of the House Steve Harshman said.
Harshman, who served nine years on the House Appropriations Committee, was in favor of the half-cent sales tax increase, though he frequently speaks against raising taxes.
“I don’t think the sky is falling,” Harshman said, but “I’m not going to stick my head in the sand and pretend it’s not happening.”
Freshman Rep. Chuck Gray spoke in favor of passing the amendment and removing the tax increase. “We’ve got 1.3 billion worth in savings to try and wait this out,” Gray (R, HD-57, Casper) said. The economy and the mineral extraction industry will come back under a Trump administration, he said, and the state should not increase taxes while that is happening.
Salazar testified against the half-cent increase as well. Vote down the tax increase, he said, and “your constituents will thank you.”
Rep. Nathan Winters (R, HD-28, Thermopolis) said he wanted to help solve the education funding problem but couldn’t accept a tax increase. “I don’t want to kick the can down the road, but the bill as it stands [with the tax increase] is something I can’t support,” he said.
The half-cent increase was removed by a 30 to 28 vote. The education funding bill faces a final vote in the House today, during which time other tax increases could be considered.
Bills that raise revenue have to begin in the House. If an education funding bill crosses to the Senate without a tax increase the Legislature will be restricted to drawing on savings and making cuts. While the Legislature will reconvene for a budget session next year, during that session a tax increase, like any other non-budget bill, must receive at least 40 votes simply to be introduced — a more formidable task than during a general session.
During their 2016 election campaigns, Gray, Winters and Salazar all signed a pledge not to increase taxes. The pledge was circulated by the libertarian Wyoming Liberty Group. The three are part of a bloc of conservatives that has shaken up the House of Representatives this session, and which some lawmakers and observers say have drawn the entire body further to the right.
This session, while tax-increases have struggled, bills to allow guns in more places and restrict abortions have passed the House after intense debate but with wide voting margins. Two gun bills were brought by Rep. Bo Biteman (R, HD-51, Sheridan), who also signed the no-new-taxes pledge. One bill, to allow concealed carry on university campuses, passed 40 to 19. Another, to repeal gun free zones at government meetings, passed 47 to 13.
Biteman told WyoFile he would “probably carry” a gun to future legislative sessions if his bills pass the Senate and he gets re-elected. He described himself as a constitutional conservative with libertarian tendencies. On certain issues, Biteman said, he sees a block of “like-minded” lawmakers.
“We do seem to coalesce around guns and life,” he said.
Three “pro-life” bills dealing with abortions passed through the House with margins similar to Biteman’s gun bills. House Bill 182 will require a doctor to offer an ultrasound to women seeking an abortion; each woman will be required to sign a statement acknowledging that she was offered the procedure. It was sponsored by Gray and passed the House 41 to 17. House Bill 116, sponsored by Rep. Cheri Steinmetz (R, HD-5, Lingle), makes it a felony to sell or trade tissue from an aborted fetus. It passed 48 to 11. Finally, HB 250, sponsored by Rep. Sue Wilson (R, HD-7, Cheyenne) also makes it a felony to trade or sell tissue of an aborted fetus, though similar language already exists elsewhere in state statute. Additionally, the measure makes it a misdemeanor with a punishment of up to six months in prison to lie on an abortion-reporting form. The measure passed 43 to 15.
In Wyoming, there are only two abortion providers, both of whom practice in Teton County, according to the non-profit group Women for Women.
Several lawmakers declined to be interviewed for this article. Steinmetz said she was too busy. Gray asked for questions to be sent in an email, to which he did not respond. Rep. Mark Jennings (R, HD-30, Sheridan) who co-sponsored bills on abortion and gun rights, said he would not speak to WyoFile in particular. He did not respond to an email requesting further explanation.
Rep. Scott Clem (R, HD-31, Gillette) described himself as a fiscal and social conservative with libertarian leanings, though he said he prefers to avoid political boxes. He said he thinks the House is growing more moderate, not more conservative. Clem did not sign the no-new-taxes pledge, and brought bills to raise the alcohol tax and impose a stricter tax on wind, neither of which made it out of committee.
Clem speaks passionately and often on the House floor in favor of gun rights and against taxes The House has always been supportive of gun rights, he said, but seems overly willing to create new regulations and bureaucratic snarls for industries and Wyoming residents.
Given the party’s domination, schisms dividing the Republican lawmakers are as influential on policy decisions as are traditional divides along party lines. Perhaps more, said Ken Decaria, a lobbyist with the Wyoming Education Association who served one year in the House of Representatives and 10 years in the Senate.
Having a more prominent minority party allowed moderate Republicans to occasionally side with Democrats and put forward more thoroughly vetted, balanced legislation, Decaria said. When he was in the Senate, there were enough Democrats for many committees to be split three to two along party lines, he said. Now, there are only three Democratic senators, and some committees meet without one. Having a strong minority meant a contradictory view had weight. It also gave Republicans more liberty to vote against their party majority, since not too many of them would have to shift sides to win a vote.
“It’s one thing to take a contrary opinion if you’re on the winning side,” he said, but when the Legislature increasingly tends to vote more conservatively, it becomes politically dangerous to take moderate stances.
Rep. Landen Brown (R, HD-9, Cheyenne), who like Salazar and Gray is a first-year lawmaker, spoke in favor of the sales and use tax increase. The Legislature is going to have to deal with the state’s revenue problems, he said on the House floor, whether it’s today or down the road. It’s not Wyoming students’ fault that mineral revenues have tanked and they shouldn’t see cuts to their education because the Legislature doesn’t want to raise taxes, he said.
“I don’t think a lot of the freshman realized what a crisis we were getting into,” he said in an interview, and as a result, many of them campaigned by pledging not to raise taxes — a challenge to the conservative credentials of incumbent candidates. Brown described many of his constituents as city, state, county government and education employees who are more aware of the state’s revenue problems. He stayed away from such pledges. The refusal to sign was used against him, he said, and he anticipates it will be used again in his campaign for reelection.
Democratic Rep. James Byrd, who has served in the House since 2009, said the House’s shift further right has been palpable during his tenure. While Brown may be willing to risk the derision of future primary candidates by voting against the far-right, many in the House are not, Byrd said.
“The character of this Legislature was our ability to look past party,” Byrd said, “emphasis on was.” Now, he said, candidates are too afraid to vote against the Republican line, or even a socially-conservative interpretation of it.
“Guys look in their rearview mirror,” he said, worried about who may come after them in their next primary election and how their voting record could be construed.
Byrd characterized much of the political philosophy on the conservative side of the House as a false conservatism, and contrary to what he sees as Wyoming values.
“Wyoming is a live-and-let-live state,” he said. Bills on abortions and HB135, a now-defunct bill that opponents characterized as anti-LGBT, deal with people’s private lives and went against that libertarian Wyoming ideal.
“They’re representing values that have their roots outside Wyoming,” he said, a reference to social-issue conservatism at the national level.
When it comes to the budget, Byrd said, those values come out in a fierce resistance to taxes and an inability to understand that “we can’t cut our way to prosperity.” He cited a mantra repeated often in debate by Gray on the House floor, that Wyoming’s government “has a spending problem, not a revenue problem.”
Byrd said Gray wasn’t around to watch the state make cuts over the last several sessions.
During debate over an increase to the cigarette tax last week, Rep. Daniel Zwonitzer (R, HD-43, Cheyenne), a moderate Republican, countered Gray’s arguments about a spending problem.
“We cut 12.5 percent of the state government over the last two years,” he said. “It’s not a spending problem at this point. It could have been four years ago. We have a revenue problem now. Hopefully more people realize that.”
Gov. Matt Mead has also warned against making further cuts, saying that Wyoming citizens have not yet felt the effects of the $250 million in cuts he made in June.
On Monday, the omnibus education bill was again amended, this time to remove the last remaining possibility of a sales and use tax increase. As drafted, the bill would create a draw on the state’s rainy day fund to bolster the education accounts. The rainy day fund currently holds $1.5 billion according to LSO estimates, which include drawdowns appropriated in legislation still being considered.
A half-cent sales tax increase would have been triggered when the rainy day fund dropped below $500 million.
Estimates by lawmakers vary, but even the least conservative projection, by House Revenue Chairman Mike Madden, is that it could take three years for the rainy day fund to drop down that low. Nevertheless, in a 32 to 26 vote, the House amended out the potential tax increase.
Votes on amendments are normally conducted by a voice vote — ayes or nays are shouted without a roll call, and thus each lawmaker’s vote is kept off the record. Before the vote on removing the tax increase, Gray called for the House to take the roll on the amendment. “We need to be on the record,” he said.
Madden has repeatedly called for moderate tax increases to offset the drop in mineral revenues and preserve the state’s savings. When it became clear that the amendment would pass, however, he changed his vote from opposing to supporting it. The record will now show that he went along with a slim majority and removed the tax increase.
Coalescing around guns
When Biteman’s gun bills came up before the House Judiciary Committee on Jan. 24, the “like-minded” group of lawmakers he referred to was largely on hand. In an earlier WyoFile story, Biteman said he was carrying bills that were originally drafted for Rep. Kendall Kroeker (R, HD-35, Casper), who resigned from the Legislature just before the session began.
Biteman sits on the Judiciary Committee, as does Salazar, Jennings, Winters and libertarian-leaning lawmaker Rep. Mark Baker (R, HD-48, Rock Springs).
In afternoon and morning committee meetings, Steinmetz, Clem and Gray all made appearances. Clem and Steinmetz both testified in favor of the bill to repeal gun free zones at government meetings. Clem uses a wheelchair and testified that carrying a gun is particularly important for him, saying he couldn’t run away if an attacker entered the Legislature.
Also present at both committee meetings was Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R, SD-6, Cheyenne), a long-time gun advocate in the Legislature.
Jan Loftus, of Sheridan, testified in favor of the bill to carry guns on campus. “This is a state where the citizens are very pro-gun,” she said, “and we know that by the number of weapons that are here. I believe the citizens are in favor of this bill, there may be institutions or organizations that oppose this bill but I believe the people support this bill.”
In the last election cycle, Loftus donated money to Bouchard, Jennings and Biteman. Loftus described herself as a “constitutional conservative,” and said she chooses to support candidates for state government who create conversations around the constitution.
Gun rights, she said, “is not the main thing,” when picking candidates to support. “It’s more a conglomeration of stances that matter to me.”
Another donor that many far-right lawmakers have in common is Daniel Brophy, a retired financier who purchased a house in Wilson, outside Jackson, in 2011. During the 2016 primaries, Brophy and his wife Carleen donated money to a slew of candidates who were taking on more moderate Republican incumbents.
The Brophys contributed to more than 30 candidates in the 2016 primary elections, donating a total close to $75,000. In many cases their choices closely aligned with the Wyoming Liberty Group’s “Liberty Index,” which ranked lawmakers based on how well their votes in previous legislative sessions either “supported or inhibited liberty.” The Liberty Group has since discontinued the Liberty Index.
Biteman, who received $3,000 from the Brophys, said the donations do not have an effect on his policy stances. Gun rights were part of what he ran on, he said, and he believes both his donors and constituents aligned with him on that issue.
“When I give money to candidates I don’t expect them to do what I say,” Biteman said. He noted that on one issue this session — a series of resolutions dealing with calling a constitutional convention of the states, either to address the national debt, add term limits to congress and/or limit federal powers — he disagreed with Dan Brophy.
“It’s not always pleasant to go against your donor,” he said.
Brophy did not respond to an email with questions about how he chose what candidates to support or how active he was in contacting them about issues during the session.
However, news editorials he has written in the past show that he wants to see laws establishing gun-free zones repealed.
This session, emails Brophy sent to Legislators show his interest in certain issues. Emails given to WyoFile were sent to members of both the House and Senate. He wrote in favor of anti-abortion bills. He also urged lawmakers to vote for HB135, a now-defunct bill that gay rights advocates said would have legalized discrimination against lesbians and gays, and that proponents said supported freedom of religion. Brophy also emailed lawmakers urging their vote against SF153, which would have made it illegal to discriminate against people in the workplace on the basis of sexual or gender identity.
“This bill would give special legal protection to people with confused sexual identities – basically awarding a new class of people with new-found special rights,” he wrote of SF 153. One part of the bill that he appeared to particularly distrust dealt with definitions of gender identity and sexual orientation as being “actual or perceived.”
“PERCEIVED? What does this mean in legal terms?” Brophy wrote. “The person who accuses you of discrimination woke up this morning and ‘perceived’ that HE would be a SHE today?” (Capitalization is Brophy’s.)
“Let’s stop creating special classes of citizens with newly discovered, newly declared rights superior to everyone else,” he concluded.
Senate File 153 died in a Senate vote, 17-13.
After Brophy wrote an earlier email asking legislators to vote for HB 135, Rep. Charles Pelkey (R, HD-45, Laramie) responded to say that he would fight the bill out of respect to those he knew in the LGBTQ community. Pelkey’s response appeared to infuriate Brophy.
“You want certain people and groups, those whom YOU choose, to have new-found special rights that override our mutual equality under the law,” he wrote. “You want these special rights reserved for groups YOU deem should have them. People like me, who hold different beliefs, won’t be included in your select group. You would use the powers of government to favor your chosen groups, and deploy its powers against people who share my views.”
Brophy went on to forward the exchange to the 59 other members of the House.
“We shall soon see what your colleagues think,” he concluded.
Wilson, Steinmetz and Winters, all of whom had sponsored HB 135, withdrew that bill Jan. 26. “With only a forty day legislative session, the bill was withdrawn to give Wyoming citizens time for more thorough consideration,” Steinmetz said in a press release.
Critiques from leadership
Legislation dealing with social issues — like HB135 and a now-dead bill making it a crime to use a public bathroom that doesn’t correspond with the gender on your birth certificate — have earned rebukes from Gov. Matt Mead and legislative leadership. In articles from K2 Radio and the Casper Star-Tribune, both Mead and Senate President Eli Bebout said that such measures distract the Legislature from pressing budget issues.
Clem said those reports may have taken Mead and Bebout’s comments out of context. “I’m a skeptic of the media,” he said. Either way, he said, the general session is just the time to deal with questions like gun rights and abortion. Even if the education funding crisis carries the most urgency, there is time to address these other questions.
“No issue is less important than another,” he said.
It remains to be seen whether freshman lawmakers will be able to grasp the intricacies of Wyoming’s complex system of revenue, savings accounts and spending policies. The House will begin working the budget bill put together by the Joint Appropriations Committee this week. Biteman said he looks forward to the challenge.
It also remains to be seen whether a large block of far-right lawmakers to whom tax increases are anathema will derail efforts to employ tax hikes to resolve budget deficits in both education and general funding. The budget bill proposes a 9 percent decrease in the size of government, and more reductions could go on the table as the bill is worked this week. Legislative leadership, including Bebout and Harshman, and not just young lawmakers, have expressed a reluctance to raise taxes before deep spending cuts are made.
On Jan. 24, Gray presented HB224 — which would have restricted supplemental budget requests from state agencies and the governor in an attempt to limit spending increases — to the House Appropriations Committee. Cosponsors Edwards and Jennings were in the room with him.
Several members of the committee told Gray the bill would unduly harm the budget-making process, though they understood the intent. The bill inspired a speech on the nature of serving in the Legislature from committee chairman Rep. Bob Nicholas (R, HD-8, Laramie).
Nicholas, a member of the House since 2011, said he wished he could control the number of bills that came through the Legislature each year. They average at around 350, and he often thinks the state would be better served if they looked at only 50, and “did it well,” he said. “It’s kind of a very painful labor of love to serve in the Legislature.”
“The government is clumsy and it’s awkward and it’s time consuming and it requires public comment and transparency and all those things that make it very cumbersome,” Nicholas said.
The committee voted 6 to 1 to kill Gray’s bill. Nicholas’s was the only yes vote, though he’d said he did not support the bill. “Aye for Gray,” he said. “He gets one.”
This story has been corrected to better describe the effects of two anti-abortion bills, House Bill 250 and House Bill 182. The original article said HB250 creates a new penalty for selling tissue from an aborted fetus, when similar punishment already exists under a separate statute prohibiting similar sales. The bill makes it a misdemeanor to make false statements on an abortion-reporting form. The original story incorrectly reported the level of the crime.
The story also incorrectly reported House Bill 182’s requirement that doctors offer a pregnant woman an ultrasound prior to an abortion. The story now clarifies that the bill requires the woman to sign a statement acknowledging that she was offered the procedure — Ed.