(Opinion) — A lot of Wyoming lawmakers hate the federal government, but Rep. Harlan Edmonds (R-Cheyenne) tops them all.
I can’t say for sure, however. He wouldn’t consent to an interview with me during the first week of the budget session, and after he reads this I’m pretty certain he won’t be answering my questions anytime soon.
During a brief hallway conversation at the temporary Capitol at the Jonah Business Center in Cheyenne last week, I told Edmonds I wanted to get his opinion on a half-dozen issues, including the proposed Medicaid expansion and a Western legislative movement to transfer management of federal public lands to the states.
The lawmaker said if he found time and could think of anything he wanted to say about those issues he would get back to me. Despite repeated messages to Edmonds — at one point I was afraid I’d be arrested for stalking — his call never came.
Last Friday I discovered that Edmonds probably really had been too busy to talk to me. He obviously needed the time to drum up support for the trio of House Joint Resolutions (HJR) he filed that were written to correct “mistakes” by other branches of government. Keep in mind that these proposals were the only pieces of legislation he sponsored this year. Keep in mind also, that joint resolutions are only declarative statements, with no legal or statutory repercussions.
My favorite was HJR 7, which would have given the Legislature the power to overturn Wyoming Supreme Court decisions. Edmonds explained how the integrity of our entire state is at risk of imploding because “activist judges” are deliberately changing our character, values and morals. Edmonds told his colleagues that with a two-thirds vote in both chambers and the concurrence of the governor, the Legislature could throw out any of the high court’s horrific handiwork.
“The rationale behind this is to restore the checks and balances between our branches of government that have arguably been disrupted by an increasingly activist judiciary,” he explained to his colleagues from the floor of the House chamber. “Many of the framers of our Constitution wrote eloquently about their fears in this regard, and all of these have come to pass.”
Edmonds said the high court is “increasingly willing to dictate expenditures, overturn electoral majorities, levy taxes and even alter the laws of God and nature at a whim regardless of the will of the people.”
If you don’t understand what he’s talking about, that last bit was a jab at same-sex marriage. It usually is when the far right mentions the laws of God and nature. “Wyoming needs a check on undue concentrations of despotic power in the judicial branch,” Edmonds said.
Wow! “Undue concentrations of despotic power” may be the single best sound bite I’ve ever heard in the Legislature. I wonder if the five state Supreme Court justices know exactly how much respect they’re shown in the House?
“We have a remedy now, it’s called to make a new law,” countered Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne), who added “our founders got it right.”
The House sank the resolution by a 14-45 vote. It needed 40 yes votes to win introduction.
Edmonds’ attempt to reinstate term limits in Wyoming died by the same vote total. He said several lawmakers thought term limits were OK for the state’s five elected officials but the Legislature should be exempted. The sponsor said he was willing to discuss an amendment to exempt lawmakers if his resolution was introduced. Their hesitation to include themselves isn’t surprising because Wyoming legislators have always liked term limits and open meeting laws as long as they don’t have to obey them.
Edmonds’ final amendment, HJR 8, was the boldest of the bunch. Section 36 of the Wyoming Constitution says, “The State of Wyoming is an inseparable part of the federal union, and the Constitution of the United States is the supreme law of the land.”
Edmonds wanted to remove the offending word “inseparable.”
“By what rationale should the word ‘inseparable’ remain there?” he asked, adding that “we the people” have the inalienable right to overthrow the government, so Wyoming shouldn’t claim an inseparable link between itself and the United States because it’s not true. We could go off on our own at any time, just like Texas threatened to do a few years ago.
Some legislators thought the notion of our state leaving the union carried the anti-federal tone of Edmonds’ remarks a little too far.
“This great nation of ours has stood firm for a very, very long time,” declared Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale). “The reason we have is because all states have been inseparable. We fought a great war on that very topic. Hundreds of thousands of great lives were lost, and we do not need to go down that road again.”
So they didn’t. The resolution couldn’t muster more than one-third support, dying with 20 ayes and 39 nays in the roll call vote.
I can’t wait to hear opponents of Medicaid expansion tell everyone that the Legislature lacked any time to discuss the issue. Lawmakers wasted 22 minutes alone on Edmonds’ hopeless attempt to make three political statements that didn’t have a remote chance of passing. Legislative leaders knew that, but still granted the freshman GOP member his time in the spotlight while allowing almost 20 other bills to die without a vote.
While the House appropriately canned Edmonds’ asinine anti-government barrage, others that met the same fate last week were worthy of at least being considered.
Rep. Charles Pelkey (D-Laramie) sponsored HB 132 to make the strangulation of a household member a violent felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Who would guess that such a crime isn’t considered violent in Wyoming?
“I can think of no more violent act than taking your hands and trying to squeeze the life out of an individual,” said Pelkey, an attorney who has done pro bono work for victims of domestic violence. He said he handled the case of a woman who came into his office “and the whites of her eyes were no longer white. They were red. And the reason is because the pressure built up in those eyes and caused the capillaries to burst, which is a frightening sight in and of itself, until you realize the same thing is happening inside her brain.
“I find it difficult to believe the person guilty of this act should not be considered a violent offender,” said Pelkey, who noted the man received a four- to five-year sentence. If he could have been charged under the violent felony statutes for committing an aggravated assault, the first-term legislator added, he could have received up to 10 years in jail.
But Rep. Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne), also an attorney, maintained the state’s violent felony laws are subjective and very difficult to apply.
“If you’ve got two brothers arm wrestling or wrestling on the floor and one has bruises around his neck there’s a question whether or not that’s strangulation. … If you’ve got a kid up against the wall who’s very upset, you’re going to leave bruise marks on his neck. Maybe it wasn’t the best thing to do, but are you committing a violent felony?” Nicholas asked.
Prior to the vote Pelkey declared, “Frankly there’s no such thing as friendly strangulation.” You can’t argue with that, but his bill still died, 24 votes for, 36 against.
Do you recall how much legislators like to say they believe in the “transparency” of government? They were joking. Otherwise how could they kill HB 103, a bill that required all legislative committee meetings to be taped and archived? The measure, sponsored by Rep. Bunky Loucks (R-Casper) exempted executive sessions.
Loucks’ bill was one of the most important filed this session because it would finally bring accountability to legislators whose sometimes outrageous statements at committee meetings never appear in the public light because they aren’t recorded. Loucks said the catalyst for his bill was a committee meeting last year where there was testimony on a bill that couldn’t be located when he wanted to read it.
Two lawmakers objected to the bill. House Speaker Kermit Brown (R-Laramie) said cataloguing the tapes would be a huge archival effort by staff members. Rep. Mike Madden (R-Buffalo) said a major budget shortfall is not the time to spend money on such a project.
“It’s got to cost something,” he said. But Loucks said he checked with legislative staff who reassured him recording the meetings and archiving the tapes would require no more employees or money.
The truth didn’t matter after Brown and Madden raised the questions. Loucks’ bill fell six votes short of the two-thirds support needed for introduction, so what’s said in committee meetings stays in committee meeting, unless some media representative is there to bring it to light.
But we can’t be everywhere. Some of us have shy legislators to corral so we can ask them what they really think.
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