THE BUZZ: Legislative Update

By on January 31, 2017

The bills that suffered a quick death and the ones you should be watching.

(Photo: wyoleg.gov)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Last week in Cheyenne, three very important and controversial bills were withdrawn from the Wyoming Legislature, likely due to the outpouring of dissent from residents across Wyoming. Take notes, because citizens have a lot to weigh in on as other controversial bills remain, and new bills have been introduced.

Public lands transfer amendment

A major victory for public lands supporters was the death of Senate Joint Resolution 3 that would have paved the way for a transfer of federal public lands to the state.

“I am not sure we would have had the votes to get the constitutional amendment through,” said Senate President Eli Babout-R, Riverton. “This is a tough [legislative] session concerning the budget and schools … we have a lot of other issues on the table that we need to concentrate on. It was a good process to get everyone’s input, but it is not the time so I killed the bill.”

Supporters of the bill claimed they were trying to protect public lands, not privatize them, and to improve their management. But opponents noted the bill contained no specific language prohibiting the state’s ability to sell off land, and they warned the lands would end up in the hand of oil and gas companies.

Discrimination and voter ID bills

House Bill 135, the Government Discrimination Act, known to opponents as the LGBTQ Discrimination Act, was also withdrawn last week by its primary sponsor, Rep. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle) after 56 representatives voted in favor of withdrawing it.

The bill would have protected the “religious freedoms” of emoloyees of state and local governments by allowing them to deny services to LGBTQ people.

Sabrina King, policy director for Wyoming’s ACLU, attributed the bill’s demise to opposition throughout the state. “People were upset, and vocal … you saw that from all corners—not only the LGBTQ community but also faith leaders, business owners and many organizations,” King told PJH last week. “I think it is really telling and hopefully a lesson learned for lawmakers.”

The second bill withdrawn in the House was a voter ID bill, HB167, requiring that people present photo identification when they visit the polls.

According to Propublica, 36 states have enacted some form of a voter ID law, which basically puts undue burdens on less advantaged voters, decreasing their turnout, and growing the divide between them and white voters. Citing an analysis by Nate Silver, Propublica estimates voter ID laws could decrease voter turnout anywhere between 0.8 and 2.4 percent, which doesn’t sound like a lot, until you look at the electoral landscape of some elections.

Legislating doctors, women, and a red herring

Wyoming’s House Labor, Health and Social Services Committee advanced three of four abortion bills on Monday, all with a vote six-to-three for those that passed. House Bills 116, 182, and 250 will change a number of state health care statutes.

House Bill 116, an abortion amendment, updates the definition of “viability” understood by the Supreme Court as when a fetus can possibly survive outside of the mother—24 weeks gestation, as agreed upon by doctors—to include the contentious issue of when a fetus can feel pain. Rep. Marti Halverson-R (HD 22) was a co-sponsor of the bill. She describes her position on abortion on martihalverson.com: “I am pro-life with one exception: if a fertilized egg is lodged in the fallopian tube, it must be removed.”

The issue of “fetal pain” has become a legislative battleground for anti-choice groups, much to the chagrin of doctors and pro-choice advocates alike. Proponents of the fetal pain argument suggest it’s at 20 weeks that a fetus can feel pain and therefore abortion should be cut off at that point. However, doctors, researchers, and scientists believe it’s around 27 weeks—much later than the large majority of abortions are even performed. They argue legislation like this violates patient-doctor privacy rights.

The organization Women for Women says neither of the two abortion providers in Wyoming offers abortions after 12 weeks.

Another area for anti-choice activists to seemingly waste legislative time and money is over the prevention of organizations profiting from the sale of fetal tissue, which is against federal law. Investigations across the country into whether the practice was occurring repeatedly revealed there was no violation of the law.

A second aim of HB 116 is the prohibition of the sale or transfer of any “aborted child” or fetal cells or tissue for experimentation, a fear that seems to be based on misinformation. A staged video that purportedly showed Planned Parenthood staff engaging in the sale of body parts was debunked. According to NPR, countless investigations revealed no such practice, a grand jury in Texas actually indicted two of the video’s makers.

Similarly, House Bill 250, which also passed through committee, would establish the knowing purchase or sale of body parts or tissues as a felony offense in addition to raising fines and penalties for misreporting or failing to report on abortion forms. 

House Bill 182 also passed through committee yesterday. It would require physicians to “inform the pregnant woman that she has a right to view an active ultrasound of the unborn child and hear the heartbeat of the unborn child if the heartbeat is audible.” The measure contains exemptions for cases of medical emergency.

Legislators ultimately did not vote on HB 132 at the request of the bill’s sponsor Campbell County Rep. Scott Clem-R, who felt the bill’s aims were covered in other statutes. The bill sought to place a requirement on doctors to report abortions in order to compile a public report, with penalties for doctors who refuse or fail to report.

To put all of these bills into perspective, according to the Guttmacher Center for Population Research Innovation and Dissemination, abortions hit an all time low, declining 14 percent between 2011 and 2014, the latest year for which there is data (14.6 abortions per 1,000 women of reproductive age). Of the 926,000 abortions performed nationwide in 2014, there were 120 in Wyoming, representing 0.0 percent (0.0001) of all abortions in the US.

Even lower, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fewer than 20 women had abortions in Wyoming in 2013, the latest year for which it has data.

Election bills

According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law, systematic voter suppression is a far greater issue than voter fraud. Wyoming legislators have three bills in motion to eliminate voter suppression, make voting easier, and encouraging voter participation.

House Bill 75, Automatic Restoration of the right to vote, sponsored by Reps. James Byrd-D, Eric Barlow-R, Stan Blake-D and Charles Pelkey-D and Senator Ogden Driskill-R, stipulates that non-violent felons who, under current law must wait five years to have their voting rights reinstated, would merely need to finish their sentence in order to vote again.

Phoebe Stoner, executive director of the Equality State Policy Center, said the current process to restore voting rights for non-violent felons is arduous and ultimately preventative. “A consequence of how it is now is these voters are being suppressed and we think this will help address that,” she said.

With a focus on absentee voters, HB 68 and HB 46, both unglamorous but worthy, seek to make absentee voting easier by establishing a postmark as a means of determining ballot validity (HB 68) and enabling residents to register as permanent absentee voters (HB 46).

Tax & Revenue bills

As the state of Wyoming faces significant budget shortfalls due to sluggish revenue in the energy sector, many believe established sources of revenue should not be tampered with.

An oil and gas industry stimulus, HB 172 gives a severance tax-exemption on any new production of crude oil and natural gas produced from new wells drilled in the next five years. Supporters wish to stimulate the economy and create jobs, however, opponents disagree with this method. “Research shows that it’s money from the state that creates jobs, and not the elimination of taxation,” Stoner said. “And, if we want to live in a Wyoming with good schools, roads, and such, giving tax breaks to industry hurts us.”

A similar bill, HB 104, a severance tax on coal, died in House Revenue Committee on January 20, possibly saving $27 million dollars in state revenue.

Education bill

Last week legislators proposed a 55-page omnibus education bill that would cut five days off of the school year, freeze spending on transportation and special education, reduce salaries of top school district administrators, and halve funding for instructional facilitators in order to avert a significant education budget shortfall. The proposal is in its infancy and will likely see many revisions before surfacing from the legislature.

Teton County School District’s Charlotte Reynolds says depending upon what passes, the district could see any number of impacts ranging from transportation changes, to higher caseloads for special education teachers, to the number of professional development days for teachers.

“Allowing districts to make the decisions on how and where to cut would be best,” she said. “It would be a little bit easier to make the cuts than to have them prescribed.”

Reynolds said the district has been in contact with the delegation in Cheyenne and there are trustees lobbying there now.

Gun bills

Two bills supporting the right to carry concealed weapons with a permit passed in the House Judiciary Committee last week. HB 136 allows for guns on college campuses, with a permit to carry a concealed weapon. HB 137 allows guns in government meetings, including in the Legislature. Questions have been raised over whether the second law would apply to school board meetings that take place on school property while school is in session, which is why the Wyoming School Board Association opposes the bill.

It is unclear how far either of these bills will go in Cheyenne, and maybe that’s why they are passing under the radars of many.

TCSD’s Reynolds said the district has yet to discuss this issue. “We don’t currently allow firearms on school property and there hasn’t been any interest in requesting that.” But, she said, if there was a change in state law, the district would reassess, though student safety would guide all actions.

Stoner encourages citizens to engage with the legislative process both to support and to oppose bills. It’s amazing to see the buzz in Cheyenne right now, she added. With so many people taking notice and wanting to do something Stoner said things can happen fast. 

“Change in Wyoming is actually really tangible.” PJH

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