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WYOMING LEGISLATURE: Will lawmakers make nice next month?
JACKSON, WYO – Will lawmakers make nice next month?
If not, will they spark up and chillax?
The 62nd Wyoming Legislature cranks up next month in the budget session form. Every other year, state lawmakers have taken great pride in showing off Wyoming’s frugality to a nation running evermore in debt. The Wyoming Legislature also has proved to be a model in diplomacy and bipartisan cooperation, garnering accolades from political watchdogs across the country.
Recently, however, waters at the state capital have turned choppy. An ever-increasing amount of bills (more than legislators could ever be expected to get to) pile up on committee desks and may be an indication the Cowboy State is falling prey to the same pet peeve, special interest lawmaking that has caused other states to extend their legislative sessions and turn lawmakers into professional politicians.
To its credit, Wyoming holds true to the original concept (James Madison’s Federalist No. 62) of a citizen legislature despite the growing demands of a grueling 20-day short session or the 40-day general. Cracks began to appear last year, however, under the strain of a massive bill total. The “Cindy Hill Incident” divided the normally cooperative House and Senate and lawmakers never seemed to recover. Heated debates and startling incivility on the high plains in Cheyenne last year frequently characterized the session as more powder keg than powwow.
The 2014 Budget Session kicks off February 10, and early indications are the budget aspect of the Legislature should go fairly smoothly. Governor Matt Mead’s proposed budget has met with early widespread approval. Despite a poor outlook for coal mining and floundering natural gas prices, Wyoming also is showing signs of pulling itself out of the six-year recession with robust return on investments and a bulging “rainy day” fund.
A few high-profile bills should get the blood boiling a bit in Cheyenne. Already, newspapers and radio talk shows are abuzz with hot topics like Medicaid, marijuana and minimum wage. We’ve highlighted a few of the more interesting bills and talked with local lawmakers Ruth Ann Petroff and Leland Christensen.
State of the state: Trouble brewing?
Is the Legislature still working or are things ready to blow in Cheyenne? We asked Rep. Ruth Ann Petroff, R-Jackson, and State Senator Leland Christensen, R-Alta.
“Overall, it’s a really good group of people representing their constituents,” Christensen said. “The discussions do get very hot at times but people have typically been very good about moving on and giving each bill their full attention.
“As far as the growing number of bills, I talked with another lawmaker once, and he said every day that’s gobbled up with bills that aren’t moving is a day we don’t pass anything and spend taxpayer money. That only happens when we start taking action. And the shorter the session, the less money we spend.”
Christensen also preferred not to entertain any notion Wyoming would one day run a full-time, year-round legislature.
“As long as we can do it with a citizen legislature, it works out pretty well,” Christensen said. “With a fulltime legislature you lose that connection with who your neighbors are and what their wants and needs might be.”
Petroff said one advantage of the shorter budget session is it allows lawmakers to focus more on what is truly important.
“Controversial issues come up but they go away faster,” Petroff said. “You get some crazy bills and controversial bills, but in the general [session] we are dealing with more things we need. All bills deserve to be heard and should get a debate, but this session does tend to be a little more of a practical session.”
BILLS TO WATCH
Weed whacking Colorado style
It’s only a matter of time before Wyoming gets weed greedy watching her neighbor to the south tap the lucrative marijuana market. How long can lawmakers hold out before they are pressured into luring back Cheyenne-Laramie border crossers hungry for a doobie and a Lotto ticket? They already caved on the latter.
Rep. Sue Wallis is expected to sponsor a bill to legalize medical marijuana. The staunch Republican from Recluse is the last lawmaker one may have anticipated the bill coming from, but Wallis cites her firsthand experience with the power of pot as a painkiller. While Wallis’ bill would toe the water, hemp and cannabis advocacy groups like NORML say they would rather see Wyoming swing for the fences.
“It’s not enough,” Wyoming NORML executive director Chris Christian said. “On February 10, Wyoming NORML will launch its initiative to fully legalize all cannabis products including hemp by adults over the age of 21. [Sales will be taxed] and [that revenue added] to the General Fund, allowing just the reductions in spending that our legislators think is so important.”
Rep. James Byrd, D-Laramie, has sponsored a bill that would decriminalize the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, making the offense a civil penalty carrying the fine of $100. Possession of a joint would set a toker back fifty bucks.
If legislators don’t opt to “go green” next month, NORML reps say they will easily gather the required 70,000 signatures to put pot legalization on the 2016 ballot for Wyoming voters to decide.
Petroff believes that day will come, but not yet.
“I am ultimately in favor of full-on decriminalization of pot. I’m just not in any hurry to do it,” Petroff said. “It’s nice to have a couple of states doing a test run for us, shaking out some of the issues like what kind of unintended consequences there might be to full decriminalization? I’d like to move ahead cautiously. I mean, I just don’t think prohibition has done us any favors. It’s no kind of success story in any way.”
Christensen is less optimistic. “I had the luxury of meeting some of the people who worked on that law in Colorado and one of them was in law enforcement,” he said. “He told me that violent crime shot up around distribution centers when medical marijuana passed. People were preying on those who just got their prescription filled. It didn’t make a lot of press.”
Christensen also said he spoke with one doctor in Colorado Springs who admitted there were also flaws in the rollout of medical marijuana allowance. Christensen said he expected the bill to get some attention because of the buzz but in a budget go ’round requiring a two-thirds majority vote in the house of origin, he didn’t think it would pass in any form.
“I think we need to wait and see how things work in Colorado,” Christensen said.
Medicaid expansion: ‘Show me the money’
Proposed Medicaid expansion also is expected to see considerable floor time at the short session next month. Which side legislators fall on could be an indication of party line health, and how much influence the governor wields.
The governor has been outspoken in opposition of any acceptance of federal healthcare subsidies, saying Washington can’t be trusted. Lawmakers rejected a $50 million federal package last year at the general session.
Members of the Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Interim Committee voted last week to advance two Medicaid expansion bills to the Legislature.
“Medicaid expansion is going to be one of the biggest contentious issues. It’s important to a lot of people throughout the state,” Petroff said. “I like some of the alternative proposals. I would like to see some type of expanded Medicaid but maybe users have to pay in a little – have some skin in the game as they say. I’m definitely in favor of moving toward something, it just depends on where the momentum is going.”
Petroff said she did understand the governor’s reluctance to take on Medicaid expansion. “Given the feds withheld our mineral royalties. Well, that’s the only drawback. If we were certain they were going to do what they say they are going to do, there wouldn’t even be a question about it.”
Christensen said, “We have not spent very much time on it. The Health Committee has forwarded a couple of alternatives. We’ve seen the governor send some pretty strong messages in opposition of Medicaid expansion and, especially with the time crunch, I don’t have the sense we will see bills concerning Medicaid expansion get very far.”
Beer tax blues
After failing to move through committee, the seemingly unpopular idea of raising the state tax on beer has been resurrected like a flat mug of brew spruced up with new “head.”
Sen. Ray Peterson, R-Cowley, is sponsoring the bill to increase the tax on beer from 2 to 20 cents a gallon. The tax hasn’t been raised since it was first instituted in 1936.
“It was voted down in the Revenue Committee,” Petroff remembered. “It had some good points but we already have a liquor division that is profitable. And this bill would be asking beer drinkers to fund the Department of Health.
It doesn’t strike me as a particular good way to go about it. There’s no direct link. For instance, almost everyone buying fuel is being taxed to help fund roads because they are using them. But not everyone buying beer is going to use medical services mitigating the health costs of drinking.”
It also doesn’t raise that much money, Petroff added.
Christensen was short and sweet when asked whether the beer tax bill had any legs.
“No,” he said.
Bills our electeds are bringing
“I got a call from a resident that served in the military, and he brought it to my attention that military veterans coming back in the fall who don’t have a hunter safety course can’t go hunting until they’ve passed the class which is usually not possible to do before the season is over,” Christensen said, explaining the impetus for his Senate File 38.
The bill would exempt active military and retired veterans, along with state peace officers, from having to take the mandatory hunter safety class before they can obtain a Wyoming hunting license. Christensen said these men and women have had hundreds of hours of weapons training already.
Christensen also will sponsor a bill that would allow Wyoming to continue searching for a solution to the state land inholdings within Grand Teton National Park. The previous act, passed last year, served its purpose but much has changed since then.
“It’s a pretty significant change,” Christensen said. “The first bill named parcels and prices. Well, the first two [parcels] were dealt with and the second two missed their deadline. That set the wheels in motion to come up with a means for an alternative. Right now the bill mentions a parcel-to-parcel transfer but I met with the governor, and he told me he wants to include the possibility of a money exchange as well. And the Department of the Interior seems committed to work with us.”
Petroff will be bringing a few bills to Cheyenne as well. One in particular she expects will fail for sure.
“I’m bringing a bill that would give a bigger percentage of sales tax to towns and counties,” Petroff said. “It’s not going to pass. There’s no way. But the point is to bring it up and get people interested and educated about it, then hopefully we will get it into committee in the interim and maybe by next year it will have enough interest to make it to the floor.”
Petroff also will sponsor a bill that would add sexual orientation bias to the list of antidiscrimination laws governing the workplace. Employers would not be able to fire workers based on race, religion, gender, or same-sex relationship status.
The fourth-year District 16 rep also will introduce a bill that would redefine a small brewery
Petroff’s best bet might be electronic gift card bill. The state is losing money without it.
“We are one of the least business-friendly states in the nation for how we treat electronic gift cards but one of the friendliest in how we treat [conventional] gift certificates,” Petroff explained. “We don’t want to shut the door on businesses that rely on this emerging mode of commerce.”
Petroff said a company out of Virginia looking to relocate to Wyoming approached her. They ended up backing out after learning the Equality State had a serious glitch in its state statutes covering the way unclaimed electronic gift cards are treated.
Currently, unclaimed gift cards can be declared as income for a business after five years. No such provision exists for gift cards purchased as online credit.