When Republican state legislators caucus, they convene the numbers and the power to determine Wyoming law, and they do so behind closed doors.
That is a choice. They could, if they wanted, allow the public to observe the deliberations that de facto determine the public’s business. But, in my 40-year career as a Wyoming journalist, I can’t recall a single instance of them opting to caucus anywhere other than the proverbial smoke-filled backroom.
And their penchant for privacy is getting worse.
I’m probably the outsider who has come the closest to observing a GOP caucus without actually entering the room.
It was on a long night in 1978 in the Capitol — the real one. Legislators were deciding the fate of a proposed University of Wyoming medical college. Before the idea met its end, Republicans called break after interminable break to caucus late into the evening.
I was one of three reporters who decided to break the monotony of waiting in the hallway. The head of the Associated Press bureau in Cheyenne offered me $50 if I could get a useable photo of the caucus.
The only way was to shoot through a glass-covered transom several feet above the door and well out of reach. The AP chief and another reporter boosted me up on their shoulders so I could snap the shot.
We lost the element of surprise by bumping, banging and probably muttering a few choice words in the process. When legislators saw me finally appear in the window their mixed reaction was well represented by the two faces in my viewfinder — House Speaker Nels J. Smith and Rep. Warren Morton, who would succeed Smith the next year.
Smith had a huge grin. Morton looked like he wanted to exercise his Second Amendment rights in my direction.
This story does not have a happy ending. I did not get my $50 because my photo was distorted by the transom glass. But I did get to see what the inside of a party caucus room looks like in use. From what I could tell it was pretty boring until I arrived with my camera.
I was reminded of this incident during the recently completed budget session as I tried to think of the last time Republicans caucused so many times. The medical school debate was likely the last session in which GOP lawmakers relied so heavily on ‘the shut things down and huddle’ strategy.
At one point contentious budget negotiations moved out of the official conference committee — and public view — for three days. The smart money had Senate President Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) and House Speaker Steve Harshman (R-Casper) horse trading in Gov. Matt Mead’s office, but that’s only speculation. The public never learned more than snippets of how the deal to spend their billions got done.
Wyoming’s Democrats, in contrast, always open their caucuses to anyone who wants to come. Granted, some years their numbers have been so few they could have met in the janitor’s closet and still had room to spare. But, powerful or no, at least the party has always given the public the opportunity to see how the laws that govern them are made. That’s what open government is all about.
To make certain I wasn’t off-base about the unusually high number of caucuses this year, I checked with Marguerite Herman, a veteran lobbyist who was an AP reporter before she started representing the League of Women Voters and the Parent-Teacher Association. She also serves on the school board in Cheyenne.
In Herman’s view some progress has been made on transparency issues. In response to public demand, the Management Council and Legislative Service Office will now start streaming, recording and archiving interim committee meetings. These joint panels that meet between sessions are often where much of the Legislature’s preparation for the next session takes place. Now people can learn what happened without having to spend the time or money to travel to meetings throughout Wyoming.
She noted the Legislature responded to the LWV’s request and installed cameras in front of the temporary House chamber in the Jonah Center this session so people in the gallery can now see “standing division” votes. Prior to that, standing members blocked the view, making it impossible for citizens to see how their representatives voted.
For legislative junkies who can’t get their news fast enough, the Senate and House calendars on the new LSO website now post action on bills within minutes of decisive action. The website is still a work in progress, but it has the potential to offer much more information to the public faster than the current one.
But Herman said the most glaring transparency problem remains the number of meetings behind closed doors — party caucuses, whole chamber caucuses and some of the most contentious conference committee meetings.
“I was advised that the chamber caucuses were just procedural housekeeping — not to worry,” Herman said. “Then why not admit the media and public? Those used to be so rare as to cause great comment when the whole House walked off the floor about 10 years ago to strategize rejection of a conference committee report on a major education bill. Now, they are routine.”
Routine enough that they’re even emboldened to pull the entire chamber off the floor for a private conversation without feeling compelled to justify their secrecy. That happened this year when, after standing at ease for four days, they returned to Cheyenne to complete the session, only to immediately call a caucus.
Frustrated reporters who questioned Harshman were told that the meeting was just about “scheduling” and there was no need to worry.
In a less obvious, but no less impactful, bit of opacity, the members of conference committees assigned to hammer out compromises between chambers aren’t always named in floor announcements. Likewise, their meeting places aren’t consistently announced. This leaves journalists and others to sleuth out who is on a committee and then track them — physically follow a lawmaker around wherever he or she goes — until a meeting is located.
To be clear, this legislative shell-game is all completely legal. The Legislature exempted itself from the state’s open meetings law it passed in 1973. So no one is breaking the law by making people play hide and seek to find out what’s happening at critical junctures in the process. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessary, nice or in the public interest.
The cloak of confidentiality afforded to lawmakers’ correspondence with lobbyists and others who propose legislation is also legal but ill-advised.
Yes, as many proponents argue, mandated disclosure could have a chilling effect on lobbyists and others who write to legislators with their ideas. But the public’s knowledge of how our lawmakers are influenced to support legislation, or even where legislation comes from, is more important than protecting the privacy of such proposals.
If what you write about government business in an email or letter isn’t something you are willing to be made public, then don’t write it. And don’t infringe on the public’s right to know how their laws are being written and influenced. Don’t constantly deliberate behind closed doors.
“A public audience can make some legislators self-conscious, reluctant to give a point, fearful of being out-debated or seeming too willing to compromise, especially for take-no-prisoner constituents back home,” Herman said. “Maybe it was the only way to come to consensus.”
But the problem, she added, is that the Legislature “is doing the public’s business out of the public’s ability to watch and hear them.”
“Where is the accountability or understanding of how decisions were arrived at?” Herman said. “I would settle for a transcript after the fact, so I could know how my representative and senator spoke and to explain some of the horse-trading that seemed to happen as this session progressed.”
It’s a poor way to run a Legislature. The body should be subject to the open meetings law. They repeatedly refuse to make it so.
“What does it say about lawmakers who don’t want to make an argument or exchange informed opinions within the sight and hearing of the public?” Herman said. “What does it say about their constituents?”