Looking solely at the issues they most wanted to see approved, it may seem like Democrats didn’t have a very productive year in the Wyoming Legislature.
Fortunately, that’s not how they feel. I attended the final House Democratic caucus of the session last week — which, unlike all of the Republican meetings, are open to everyone. Some legislators and like-minded observers were obviously disappointed about some issues, yet they were definitely upbeat overall.
Which is good for everyone in Wyoming, because when one political party has the kind of lopsided advantage the GOP does, alternative views are too often dismissed even though they are shared by a lot of people. Those who are more aligned with Wyoming’s minority parties also deserve a say in how our state government is run.
There will always be inter-party debates and quarrels, and this session saw a lot of differences of opinion between Republican moderates and extreme conservatives, whose numbers keep growing. My tally is subjective, but I believe more than a dozen House members now have more in common with Tea Partiers than traditional Republicans.
There may be only nine Democrats in the House, but they have enough members and experience to successfully counter right-wing thinking when they can form alliances with centrist Republicans. The latter actually control the power in the Legislature, but in too many instances they bow to the wishes of ideologues in their own party.
House Democrats and their four colleagues in the Senate managed to pick up some moderate Republican votes in their fight to expand Medicaid, but not enough in either chamber. The effort should have been significantly bolstered by the support of Republican Gov. Matt Mead, who finally joined the battle on the Democrats’ side for the first time after doing everything he could to block Medicaid expansion for two years.
But ultimately the governor’s support didn’t mean anything, because the majority of lawmakers in his own party willfully chose to ignore him, seemingly without regret. Republicans in the House stood and clapped and acted like Mead is their leader before adjourning Friday morning, but when it mattered most on that issue he was the man who might as well not have even been there.
The huge partisan disparity put Medicaid supporters in a hole from which they’ve been unable to climb, with 77 of the 90 state legislators belonging to the Republican Party. It didn’t matter that all of the testimony at hearings on the issue favored expansion, and the Medicaid coalition included business groups, the energy industry, hospitals, educators, clergy and elected officials from cities, towns and counties.
Democrats couldn’t get bills to raise the minimum wage out of committees in both chambers. Efforts to significantly raise OSHA fines for companies where preventable workplace fatalities occurred never got any traction.
Another bill to add gays, lesbians and transgendered workers to the classes of people protected from job discrimination had a lot of momentum after passing the Senate for the first time, but the House killed it after bigoted, offensive arguments from self-righteous, right-wing zealots who claimed protecting the LGBT population would cost others their religious freedom. But there were also notable speeches from centrist Republicans who have seen discrimination on various grounds and want it out of Wyoming.
For many, myself included, it was by far the lowest point of the session. Democrats and moderate Republicans already knew they faced uphill battles to pass Medicaid expansion and other issues to benefit workers, but were absolutely shocked by the onslaught of hatred directed at homosexuals in the House chamber.
It’s difficult to believe anyone could argue people have a right to discriminate — some even acted like it was a duty — against the LGBT community. Opponents made a complete mockery of the idea Wyoming is the “Equality State.” Those of us who believe in equal rights — and I still believe it’s a majority of our residents — should stop using that motto to describe our state until we live up to the ideals behind it. Cross it off the state seal and our state quarters.
I realize the picture I’ve painted of progressive political thinking in Wyoming sounds pretty bleak, but it should only strengthen resolve to keep fighting for issues that are part of our state’s core values. The beauty of our political system is that things can change positively if we’re willing to work at it and not concede anything simply because we’ve been one of the reddest of red states since the mid-1960s.
Sure, some members of the “baker’s dozen” of Democratic lawmakers were disappointed with the outcome of several bills, but it’s important to look at the situation as ripe for political change in just a few election cycles.
Republicans won a crushing victory nationally in the mid-term elections last November, but Wyoming was one of only four states that managed to elect more Democrats to its Legislature than two years ago. The party lost two seats but added three, for a net gain of one. This move in a positive direction is noteworthy because Republicans managed to gain 743 seats in state legislatures in the last three elections.
Democrats kept all four of their state senators, who at the beginning of the session had a combined total of 42 years in the Legislature. That experience served them well, as they worked with the other party’s centrists to pass a number of bills that strengthened our public education system, including school security, accountability and capital construction.
The same thing is true in the House, where Democrats had a total of 40 years experience entering the 63rd Legislature.
“We may not win a lot, but I think there’s a sense out there we do have an alternative vision for Wyoming,” said House Minority Floor Leader Mary Throne of Cheyenne.
It probably went unnoticed by the average voter, but Democratic perseverance helped the party find a solution to Wyoming’s falling revenues, which put state government in a $222 million hole to open the session in January.
Throne and other elected Democrats have pressed for years to get Republicans in the Legislature to consider using some of the $2 billion “rainy day” account when it’s necessary, instead of continuing to sock money away while our infrastructure deteriorates and we cut essential services to people.
The GOP listened for the first time, likely because the message was picked up by voters who realized it makes perfect sense and let Republican lawmakers know it. This is the way the party will continue to make gains in the state Legislature, by not backing down and continuing to press for common-sense solutions.
Now, Democratic party leaders need to send another important message to voters and keep it up through the 2016 election: The GOP majority blew it when they rejected Medicaid expansion, a minimum wage raise and enabling safer working conditions. Put more Democrats in those House and Senate seats, and we may be able to earn back our “Equality State” motto.
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