Legislative leaders from both parties discussed how to promote decorum last week, in response to a committee meeting in Sundance where public testimony was dominated by two hours of comments many considered hostile and “anti-gay.”
The Management Council, consisting of legislative leaders from both political parties, decided to pursue new training for the chairpersons of legislative committees before the coming legislative session. Senate President Eli Bebout and Speaker of the House Steve Harshman will review existing guidelines for committee chairpersons with staff from the Legislative Service Office, they said last week. While the exact nature of the training and review remain to be determine, the discussion preceding the announcement suggested that accounts of the Sundance meeting have caused many involved in Wyoming’s Legislature to take pause.
Sen. Cale Case phoned into the management council to explain why, as chairman of the Senate Corporations, Elections & Political Subdivisions Committee, he allowed testimony to continue in Sundance even as it veered away from discussion of the bill at hand, which was designed to update statutes to reflect the legalization of same sex marriage by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“The testimony was strong,” Case told the Management Council. He had earlier characterized it as “anti-gay” to WyoFile. However, he said, “I think it’s important to let people have their say.”
Some of Case’s fellow committee members had criticized him previously, as did Sara Burlingame, director of the LGBTQ advocacy organization Wyoming Equality, who attended the Sundance meeting. The critics said that Case should have intervened when the testimony strayed from the bill and into attacks on gay marriage and LGBTQ lifestyles.
When the first member of the public to speak described listening to Rep. Cathy Connolly present the bill as “disgusting,” Case intervened and warned him away from further personal attacks. Other speakers, however, suggested either same-sex marriage or changes to statutory gender references could lead to bestiality, incest, or even random shootings and acts of terrorism. Case did not intervene directly in those instances, choosing instead to try and move the testimony along and correct obvious errors about Wyoming law or the bill’s purpose. Testimony continued for two hours and 15 minutes that day.
Case told the management council that media accounts couldn’t capture the whole sentiment of the meeting, however. “The press accounts are all based upon the recordings,” he said, “and everything was kind of after the fact, and I think that misses a lot of nuance about what happened.”
WyoFile based its report on meeting audio provided by the Legislative Service Office, and various interviews with committee members and others who attended the meeting, including Case.
None of the other committee members attempted to halt public testimony either, Case noted last week. “My co-chairman sat next to me, others, members of the committee, members of the public … no one asked for a time out or said slow down,” he said. Since the meeting he had polled his committee, he said, and with the exception of two members who didn’t respond, all supported the way he ran the meeting. It was “the best outcome we could’ve had under the circumstances,” Case said.
Various committee members WyoFile spoke with, including Connolly, said the testimony took everyone by surprise.
Connolly spoke to management council following Case. She told her colleagues she felt much of the testimony was an assault on her and her sexuality. “And also to many of our constituents, not only gays and lesbians in the state of Wyoming but to all of you who love and care and know gays and lesbians in the state,” she said.
Even testimony that lacked direct attacks carried an implicit hostility she said. “The specificity of despicable and vile wasn’t used,” she said. “But certainly the implication was there in many, many of the comments that were made.”
Throughout the discussion, members of the management council struggled to find fault with Case’s conducting of the meeting. Almost every lawmaker who spoke took time to describe his integrity as a lawmaker and judgement as a committee chairman.
“The chairman did what I thought was a good job of handling a difficult discussion,” Senate President Eli Bebout said.
Rep. Jim Byrd, a Cheyenne Democrat who is on the corporations committee, did not attend the Sundance meeting but was listening in, he said. “There were things that were said that I was actually appalled that those were not countermanded by the chairman,” Byrd said. But when Bebout pressed him on whether the chairman had failed to maintain decorum, Byrd said Case hadn’t had other options.
Case “did the best job he could,” Byrd said. “He was walking on a proverbial razor blade.”
Decorum under threat?
With Case excused, management council members discussed the difficulty of drawing lines between open public testimony and offensive speech. They questioned how a committee chairperson can ensure certain groups aren’t targeted and keep testimony on a bill topic without stepping on people’s right to speak their minds to their elected representatives.
Rep. Mike Greear (R-Worland) favored broad public testimony. “Part of taking public comment is listening to unpopular views or unpopular ideas,” he said. Greear is chairman of the House Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee. In that committee, he said, “we listen and take public comment on views that are completely contrary to what we believe.”
Context is important, however, argued Rep. Mike Gierau. The Jackson Democrat and freshman lawmaker is not a member of management council, but had traveled to Cheyenne to push the issue in front of leadership, he said.
In response to Greear’s comments, Geirau offered the hypothetical situation of a bill designed to help the coal industry. If someone came up to testify against the bill but mostly talked about how the coal industry produces harmful greenhouse gasses, “that’s fine, that’s a difference of opinion,” he said. “But if the person comes up and says the Representative who brings this bill is a murderer because of what coal does to the atmosphere, then I think you’ve crossed a line.”
“And that line was crossed in Sundance,” he added.
After reading press coverage, Geirau listened to the meeting audio several times, he said. “I started to understand that the chair [Case] was trying his best to ask questions that would try to bring folks back to the subject,” Geirau said. “He just wasn’t having any luck.”
Some lawmakers said they believed the Sundance meeting was indicative of a new era of contentious public testimony for the Legislature, resulting from a blend of hyper-partisan politics and get-out-the-voters drives on social media.
“This was nothing more than a mob process showing up to intimidate us,” Byrd said. “We are going to encounter this more frequently, this is just the tip of the iceberg.”
That may or may not be the case, but it doesn’t let lawmakers off the hook, Marguerite Herman told the management council when they opened the floor to public comment. Herman is a lobbyist for the League of Women Voters of Wyoming, and has been a presence in the Legislature for 30 years as a reporter and then a lobbyist.
In a contentious new world, “I would expect the Legislature of Wyoming to be the last bastion of decorum,” she said.
Following Herman, Burlingame, the LGBTQ advocate, spoke about the concerns Sundance may have raised for the people she advocates for. “We want to be able to represent to our community, the LGBTQ community, that this is your Legislature,” she said.
Burlingame said LGBTQ people had contacted her to say they don’t know if they’d go to a legislative committee meeting following Sundance. She then seemed to begin asking the lawmakers for some assurances, but Bebout cut her off. “I just ask you to —” she began.
“My response to them would be ‘welcome,’” Bebout said before she could finish. “We want to hear from you, we’ll give you the proper time and opportunity to say what you want to say. I don’t think that’s gonna change, it never has changed and it will not change in the future. And you can tell them that, coming from the chairman of this council.”
Burlingame thanked the Senate President for the reassurance. Before she did so, however, she suggested that she might make a meme with the Senate President’s face and that quote to share on social medial. The idea drew laughter from those gathered in the committee room.