(Opinion) — Watching the Wyoming Legislature in action can make you cry, laugh, become comatose or hurl yourself into a brick wall to end the misery. It depends on how you react to abject stupidity.
Personally, after spending 20 days following the antics of 90 fellow Wyomingites discussing and actually voting on some of the craziest ideas possible, I prefer to cleanse mind and soul by writing about it.
It’s easy to focus on the cream of the crop — bills that overwhelmingly fail despite obvious benefit to citizens and state government (Medicaid expansion), or those that take seriously the need to declare an official state shrub (the big Wyoming sagebrush).
But state lawmakers took at least two worthwhile actions this year while also passing a $3 billion budget. More accurately, it was their inaction that killed two bills that could have had horrible impacts on people’s lives.
The first, House Bill 86, would have made most government meetings in Wyoming no longer “gun-free zones.” The thought behind the measure was apparently that participants at city council, county commission and legislative meetings would feel more comfortable if they knew anyone (or everyone) in the room might be packing heat.
Never mind the fact many meetings already have trained law enforcement professionals in attendance. Like the National Rifle Association says, it’s always best to have good guys with guns ready to eliminate bad guys with guns. Anyone caught in the crossfire would just be collateral damage, or worse yet, another infringement on our divine Second Amendment rights.
Unlike other gun rights bills that have been introduced in previous sessions, this one actually allowed anyone to have a concealed weapon at the Legislature. At least this approach avoided the hypocrisy of a similar measure advanced at Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington last week. When CPAC discussed the need for totally unrestricted gun possession nationwide, it did so in a building where all weapons were banned.
The brainchild of HB 86, Rep. Kendell Kroeker (R-Evansville), told fellow lawmakers he wanted them and others to be able to defend themselves. However, history shows us that it’s not always the unelected that legislators should fear. During the 1913 legislative session, the Speaker of the House physically assaulted the Speaker Pro Tem and threw him from the rostrum to end a long filibuster. Two years later, another House member became so angry with a colleague that he tried to hit him over the head with a composite photograph of Democratic representatives. The target blocked the blow with his hand, which broke the glass and tore the picture.
Do you still think it’s a great idea to let state legislators arm themselves? If HB 86 had been law a century ago, Wyoming might have had two less early lawmakers.
Have you ever witnessed a heated confrontation or even outright hostility at a city or county planning and zoning meeting? Is it much of a stretch to believe a resident who thinks his land is being stolen might take instant revenge?
Kroeker’s bill sailed through the conservative House by a 50-10 vote. An amendment offered by Rep. Charles Pelkey (D-Laramie) to allow local governments to opt out of the bill and maintain their gun-free meetings was shot down after Kroeker called it “a huge step backward for gun rights.”
Like several other gun proposals that have been adopted by the House in recent years — including a misguided attempt in 2015 to allow concealed-carry at schools, colleges and sporting events — the Senate refused to even consider this one. HB 86 met its rightful fate when it failed to meet the deadline for first reading in the Senate.
Anthony Bouchard, the extremely upset executive director of the far-right Wyoming Gun Owners Association, told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “It is clear that everyone in the [Senate] majority are part of a cabal of anti-gunners. This should’ve been a slam dunk.”
A cabal is actually a small group of secret plotters, but there’s nothing secret about the Wyoming Senate’s position that there’s no need to expand gun rights in the state. They’ve said it for years, and there’s no reason for the House to keep wasting its time on issues the Senate won’t even talk about, much less bring up for a vote. I say long live the cabal!
In a second bit of good news and fine decision-making, the House killed a Senate bill that would have made possession of more than 3 ounces of marijuana-laced cookies, gummy bears and other foods a felony.
Senate File 96 passed the upper chamber 23-7 and the House Judiciary Committee 5-4, but House GOP leaders decided it shouldn’t go any further and derailed it. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Wasserburger (R-Gillette) was almost universally unpopular with the public. Frankly I don’t care why it was killed. I just want to see it stay dead and buried.
While other states work sensibly to either decriminalize pot or legalize medical and recreational marijuana, the Wyoming Senate is irrationally intent on creating more felons, filling our prisons and spending our limited financial resources. The Senate is famous for its reluctance to increase drunken driving penalties, but when it comes to possession of very small amounts of a plant that is increasingly used for pain relief and other medical purposes, it can’t wait to make penalties more severe.
I won’t even raise the issue of increased tax revenue from pot purchases if Wyoming followed Colorado’s path to legalization. Lawmakers who are willing to throw away hundreds of millions of federal dollars by denying the working poor health insurance apparently don’t need the money. And if they did have a surplus in the state’s wallet, they’d probably just find a few more buildings to construct or renovate.
Wasserburger explained he’s worried about Wyoming students buying and using more marijuana edibles and drinkables from Colorado. Why isn’t he concerned about the young lives that would be ruined by a felony conviction? For possessing a minimal amount of pot contained in baked goods, candies or mixed in beverages, students would find themselves facing huge fines, legal bills and up to five years in prison. Their ability to get decent jobs and further their educations shouldn’t be wiped out because they experimented with a single serving of pot brownies.
Originally SF 96 made possession of more than one pound of edibles a felony, but the Senate amended the limit to 3 ounces. All the while the state maintained it was too costly to actually measure the amount of THC — the intoxicant in marijuana — in each item, so there was no useful way to tie potency to weight.
The bill was described by Wasserburger and other supporters as a necessary fix to a loophole in Wyoming’s existing marijuana laws. Several Wyoming judges have thrown out felony charges for possessing edibles, including a case last year when police stopped a motorist who had about two pounds of marijuana-laced cookies, brownies, bread and candy in his car. The judge ruled the state only makes it a felony to possess marijuana in plant form.
The House Judiciary Committee excised the felony provision, effectively removing the purpose of the bill, so neither side saw a need for it to proceed. Senate President Phil Nicholas (R-Laramie), who voted in favor of SF 96, still cautioned lawmakers to consider what crimes they make felonies.
“There really is concern that if you overreach, you can turn activity that was lawful in one state into a felony on this side of the border,” he told The Associated Press. “While you may feel that’s the right way, you want to be careful before you undertake to put people in prison for that type of activity.”
If you’re keeping score at home, that’s one win for the Senate’s decision-making and one for the House’s, resulting in two victories for the public. It’s not a huge slice of what the Legislature did, but it’s nice to come out on top for a change.
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