The legislative session gets all of the attention, but the Wyoming Legislature relies on the interim period — the 48 or 50 weeks each year between sessions — to do a lot of its work.
In fact, because our constitution limits the number of days the Legislature can meet, Wyoming lawmakers use the interim more than their counterparts elsewhere to get the job done. And as the complexities of state government have expanded over the years the need for interim work has only grown.
So what does that mean for how our laws get made?
Most other states with citizen legislatures like ours create special committees or task forces with specific assignments and ending dates to take on topics of particular need. They then report on their singular topics to the legislatures during their full sessions. Members of these committees are most often chosen according to specific interests and aptitudes that can aid the committee’s purpose.
Wyoming operated much the same way for its first 70 years. Then, around 1961 a committee structure similar to what we see today — standing committees that never dissolve and are responsible for whole topical areas — took form. The roster of committees has evolved a bit since — there are 12 today, not counting the Management Council and Management Audit Committee — as have their areas of responsibility but the basic gist has remained the same. That gist, as anybody who has been around the Legislature will tell you, is that, in Wyoming, committees are where the real work takes place.
Each standing committee typically meets three and sometimes four times a year for two days each year during the months between legislative sessions. Most committee chairs schedule these meetings in various locations throughout the state with advice from other committee members. Bringing these meetings to the backyards of Wyoming citizens is probably one of the most valuable aspects of the standing committee process. Citizens, especially from the lesser populated towns, attend these meetings and learn not only about committee subject matter but also, and perhaps more importantly, about how the Legislature works.
The groups themselves are selected by the Speaker of the House and President of the Senate. These House and Senate leaders typically survey members to learn on which committees each is most interested in serving and to figure out what knowledge, experience and skills they bring to the table.
An ideal committee has different levels of legislative tenure, a variety of professional backgrounds and representation from many corners of the state. Party affiliation of committees reflects that of the entire body as closely as possible. An important and probably the most difficult qualification to achieve is that membership be avoided for those with a personal agenda on committee topics. Finally, committee chairs are selected who have considerable experience, organizational expertise and a firm knowledge of the type of issues encountered in the committee.
With the committees built and their leaders appointed they next need their marching orders — the topics they’re supposed to focus on during the interim. These come from the Management Council, the capstone group comprised of legislative leadership from both parties and both chambers that provides direction to the entire legislative process. Management starts by seeking topics from constituents and their representatives during the last week of a legislative session. They then compile and prioritize that list with the committee co-chairs. Shortly after each session Management Council meets to review the priorities, make changes and finalize the official committee assignments. That happened Friday, March 22, for this 2019 interim.
Committee chairmen are expected to give adequate time and attention to each topic during the interim and, more importantly, are expected to limit their meeting content to only the topics that have been approved by Management Council. The information written between the lines of management’s selections and prioritizations provides further implicit direction for chairmen. An astute committee leader can read those tea leaves to determine what exactly is expected of his or her group in the interim.
The Joint Revenue Committee’s list of approved 2019 interim topics differs in several important ways from the priorities suggested by its co-chairs. The Management Council not only added two topics of its own but also made them priorities one and two, moving the committee co-chairs’ top interests down the list. To add topics and emphasize them this way is unusual.
Per management’s instructions, revenue’s top priority will be the taxation and presumably regulation of electronic cigarettes. The next priority concerns a study of the management information system needs of the Department of Revenue. The first involves a very small amount of revenue, while the second involves a significant new expenditure.
The top priorities suggested by the Joint Revenue committee, by contrast, dealt with revenue diversification, modernization of the traditional state taxes and a review of tax bills prepared by the committee during the 2017 and 2018 interims.
Management Council struck some lower priorities proposed by the Joint Revenue Committee from the interim topic list — presumably to allow time for the newly added priorities.
These changes on the part of Management Council no doubt have an element of practicality as their basis. Here is why:
Constitutionally, all non-budget bills require a two-thirds majority vote to gain introduction in a budget session. That’s proven a high bar for meaningful revenue measures historically.
However, the two-thirds introductory requirement is only a part of the overall challenge for revenue bills during budget years. Even-numbered years also coincide with upcoming legislative elections. Since many legislators believe that new revenue measures, a.k.a. taxes, are antithetic to re-election success, the hard work of an earnest Joint Revenue Committee can be easily wasted in a budget session.
Revenue bills in Wyoming have difficulty in succeeding even during regular sessions when they only need a simple majority vote. We’ve seen the truth of that in the last two general sessions — 2017 and 2019.
Probably the most productive study the revenue committee could undertake this year was omitted by both the Management Council and Joint Revenue priority lists. If they conducted a statistical analysis of the loss in state revenue due to the contraction of the coal industry using the Wyoming Regional Economic Modeling system, some valid, actionable information would result. Because the closure of coal fired power plants are programmed and scheduled by electric utility companies many years in advance, the results of this study would not be speculative and could therefore be used for accurate forecasting.
Such a study would also provide answers about the degree to which the Wyoming structural deficit will grow. Then we could make some much needed decisions about prioritizing new revenue sources and/or making reductions in general government and school foundation budgets.