With one week to go before the 64th Legislature convenes for the 2017 session, there are 131 bills made public on the Legislative Service Office website.
More than 400 pieces of legislation will be introduced by Jan. 30, lawmakers say. The subjects and details of the vast majority of bills to be debated over the 40-day session remains yet unknown to the general public.
The Legislature’s transparency or lack of it directly affects the public’s ability to understand and participate in the lawmaking process. The Wyoming Press Association disagrees with the handling of draft legislation. Similarly, members of several public interest groups have raised troubling questions about the handling of a proposed constitutional amendment affecting public lands.
If a bill originates in a committee working in the months between legislative sessions, drafts of the bill will ordinarily have been debated and voted upon during meetings open to the public.
If a bill is sponsored by an individual legislator, it won’t be public until the legislator has approved a final draft version with a Legislative Service Office (LSO) attorney, and, usually, has found co-sponsors of the bill. It is then published on the Legislature’s website.
Legislative Services Manager Anthony Sara said that traditionally the office handles between 500 and 600 draft bill requests before a general session, not all of which will be introduced for consideration. In 2015, the last general session, there were 410 bills numbered for introduction.
The majority of legislation for the coming session has yet to be finalized by sponsoring lawmakers or is waiting for co-sponsors, and thus remains confidential. While one observer of the legislature finds that harmful to transparency, others say it allows lawmakers to sort out what they want to accomplish when drafting a bill.
“Feel free to ‘bounce ideas’ off the staff members since discussions with them are confidential,” reads the Legislative Handbook produced by the LSO.
The 2017 general session convenes on Jan. 10, but the last day for Senate legislation to be submitted to the LSO for introduction is Jan. 25. In the House, the deadline is Jan. 30. A lawmaker could withhold approval of a bill’s final version until the deadline – or even ask to have a bill drawn up the day before. Of course, the LSO handbook asks legislators to try and avoid last-minute requests, noting that preparing complex legislation is difficult on short notice. Additionally, the handbook says, “experience shows that bills drafted and introduced late in the process are more likely to ‘die in committee.’”
Rep. Eric Barlow (R, HD-3, Gillette), a third-term legislator and chairman of the House Labor, Health and Social Services Committee, described how he navigates the process. In December, he had three bills public and ready for introduction. He started generating bills after discussions with his constituents on the campaign trail, and got them to the LSO fairly early, he said.
“Part of it is just trying to beat the holiday rush, if you will,” he said, referring to the crush of draft legislation requested as a session nears.
Barlow noted that legislators have the choice of whether to keep their deliberations on draft legislation open or closed to the public. He generally elects to keep his closed, but sends drafts to interested parties. “I certainly get the proponents, and any obvious detractors, informed,” he said.
Jim Angell, the executive director of the Wyoming Press Association, finds it limiting to public discussion that draft versions of bills are kept secret.
As is, Angell said, “a bill will just spring, fully born, into the pre-filing section,” of the LSO website. Pre-filing refers to bills that are finalized for introduction before the legislative session convenes.
A lawmaker can choose, as Barlow said he does, to send draft legislation to selected constituents. But the majority of people will have no knowledge of what legislation a lawmaker is working on and won’t know what to ask about, Angell said.
The worry, he said, is less for the press, but for average citizens, who unlike reporters are not trained in how to gather information from government.
Public feels left out of one committee process
As the recent activities of the Select Federal Natural Resource Management Committee have shown, even bills drafted in committee can raise the public ire over process.
At the Dec. 14 meeting of a subcommittee on a proposed constitutional amendment dealing with the transfer of federal lands to the state, some opponents who showed up to testify were surprised to find the amendment had been approved. The vote to approve the amendment had happened weeks ago in Riverton, on Nov. 9, subcommittee chair Rep. Tim Stubson (R, HD-56, Casper), told them.
But at least three conservation advocates — Jessi Johnson with the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, Steff Kessler with the Wyoming Outdoor Council and Richard Garrett with The Nature Conservancy — said at the time they believed the vote in Riverton had been to form a subcommittee to take more public testimony on the amendment, and not to sponsor it.
On Thursday, seven weeks after the Nov. 9 meeting, the LSO released draft minutes from Riverton. They have yet to be approved by the committee chairman, Sen. Eli Bebout.
In the draft minutes, the vote is described as follows: “The Select Committee voted to create a subcommittee to take testimony on and revise the draft constitutional amendment.”
At the subcommittee meeting, Stubson told WyoFile that he thought the vote in Riverton had been clear in its purpose. On Dec. 30, after hearing the language contained in the draft minutes, he reiterated his belief that the vote in Riverton meant the amendment would move forward and the subcommittee would work with the public on its language.
The minutes, he noted, will be approved the next time the committee meets. “They’ll decide what was meant and what wasn’t,” he said.
Earl DeGroot, a retired management consultant who often worked with the state of Wyoming, opposes the amendment and runs a Facebook group called Wyoming Sportsmen for Federal Lands. He was disappointed a draft of the amendment was made public just a week before the committee meeting in Riverton.
“It was very quickly announced that they were considering this, and even though there were more than a hundred people [in opposition to the amendment] that showed up at the meeting in Riverton, they went ahead and voted for it anyway,” DeGroot said.
At the Dec. 14 meeting in Cheyenne, Stubson reminded the public that if lawmakers had wanted, the bill could have been brought much later, even after the legislative session had begun.
The full committee has since voted electronically to approve the language worked out by the subcommittee and move the bill forward. As of press time, the amendment with the new language had not been posted on the LSO website, but Stubson provided it to WyoFile.
Rep. JoAnn Dayton (D, HD-17, Rock Springs) has been the lone dissenting vote against the amendment. She worries it could wind up before the Senate Agriculture, State and Public Lands & Water Resources Committee, chaired by amendment proponent Sen. Larry Hicks (R, SD-11, Baggs).
Dayton wants the public, particularly those who oppose the amendment, to remember that the bill will now go through public readings in both chambers of the Legislature before it can be passed. It must receive the approval of two-thirds of the members of both the Senate and the House to go on the general election ballot in November 2018.
“It’s not a done deal until November of 2018,” Dayton said. “I hope people aren’t so disillusioned that they won’t lobby.”