CHEYENNE – Members of Management Council have approved interim topics for legislative committees to address between this summer and the 67th Wyoming Legislature’s general session in January.
They spent eight hours on Friday listening to the chairpeople of 19 committees disclose what they believed to be the most urgent issues in the state, many of which were rolled over from the 2022 budget session. An additional select committee was also authorized until 2024 to address mental health and substance abuse, in an effort to monitor recently enacted legislation, treatment, reform and transitions in the field.
Outside of discussions on appropriate topics for the next interim, lawmakers considered changing the rules for public testimony. As it stands currently, any member of the public may submit a request to testify remotely until 5 p.m. the day prior to the committee meeting. Arguments were made both for making the deadline the day of or pushing it back to 48 hours prior, but ultimately no adjustment was made.
Joint Judiciary Committee
One of the first committees to come forward and present its proposals for interim study was the Joint Judiciary Committee. Cheyenne-based co-chairpersons Sen. Tara Nethercott and Rep. Jared Olsen, both Republicans, put forward a list of 10 topics.
Nearly every committee is responsible for reviewing agency reports and updates as topics, which left eight specialized issues for members of the Judiciary Committee to consider. Despite the list being large, Olsen told Management Council members he was confident they could work through them because they were smaller in scope. They decided based on stakeholder concerns, recent court opinions, legislation introduced in the previous session and criminal actions.
Priorities include: trespassing; review of recent court opinions; treatment courts and substance abuse issues; Office of Guardian ad Litem-Statutory references; custodians of criminal history records-safeguards; vulnerable persons and professions/sentence enhancement; safety of crosswalks; and state park rangers/retirement participation as law enforcement officers.
Safety of crosswalks is an issue throughout the state, but is especially close to home for Cheyenne legislators. A 13-year-old boy was hit by a vehicle and killed crossing the sidewalk on his way to Cheyenne’s McCormick Junior High in November, with a string of other pedestrians struck throughout the year.
“Priority number seven, safety of crosswalks, and enhancing the need for perhaps criminal sanctions associated with hitting a pedestrian in a crosswalk or pedestrians in general,” Nethercott explained. “We’re seeing an increase of that type of activity across the state, and so there’s also a request from our constituents to review that particular topic.”
Joint Appropriations Committee
Another committee with a large scope of issues impacting residents was the Joint Appropriations Committee. From reviewing the fiscal data book to monitoring the allocation and expenditure of the American Rescue Plan Act funding, the co-chairs said they anticipated handling the billions of dollars the state is responsible for as usual.
The priority interim topics chosen among members of the committee were state employee compensation-enterprise technology services, state loan programs and streamlining the School Capital Construction Account. All are a continuation in one form or another of issues previously brought up by legislators and constituents, with state employee compensation directly correlated to raises approved in 2022 budget session.
“The revisions that we did make, they did not bring many of our state employees to market,” Sen. Drew Perkins, R-Casper, said. “It was well appreciated by state employees, but didn’t get us all the way where we where we ought to probably be.”
In addition to addressing compensation, Perkins said they are reviewing reserve balances and trying to find solutions for difficulties with the employee group insurance and self-employment health insurance program for state employees.
The committee will also partner with the Joint Education Interim Committee and the Select School Facilities Committee to receive a K-12 eternal cost adjustment proposal in October, as well as possibly develop legislation on state fund investments for school accounts. Separate from all three of those committees, the Joint Revenue Committee plans to investigate ideas for sustainable, long-term revenue sources for K-12 education. Members hope to identify one or two options to provide at least $50 million in revenue.
Joint Education Committee
Co-chairs of the Joint Education Interim Committee also shared their desire to find new funding sources and study expenditures in the system, but there were four other major priorities laid out for the Management Council. The first was education programs in primary grades, such as the K-3 reading assessment and intervention program. A bill meant to support students with reading disabilities was passed in the last session, but Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, said it is just a start.
“On literacy, we had a bill this last time that I think just scratched the surface,” he said. “We were introduced to this by the comments of the consultants we hired for recalibration, that we weren’t getting our money’s worth, and that what we were doing was not adequate to prepare many of the kids for the modern economy. That appears to be an accurate assessment.”
Other concerns brought forward were in regards to recruiting and retaining school district personnel; higher education funding, courses, scholarships and workforce development; K-12 education governance and the process to review school district decisions and punishments; and school choice.
Legislators debated for more than an hour on the importance of this year’s interim topics for the committee, not only at the funding model level for public schools and community colleges, but in keeping the institutions well supported.
Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee
After holding the large responsibility throughout the 2021 interim and 2022 budget session of handling redistricting, co-chairman Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, said members of the committee will move away from strictly election issues during the upcoming interim. From priorities revolving around energy to pharmacy manager benefits, the only election issue was one update out of the seven proposals.
A considerable issue in the state the Corporations Committee hopes to tackle is solutions for workforce housing, including the sources of the problem, and the social and economic impacts created by it. Legislators voted down ay opportunity to build out new programs in the resort areas of Wyoming with American Rescue Plan dollars during the budget session because they said it was one-time funding.
One other priority that has received attention in the Capital City is liquor licenses. The Cheyenne City Council was awarded one retail liquor license due to growth in population, and there were initially 11 applicants hoping to add to the local economy with a new business. Both City Council members and Mayor Patrick Collins have argued the liquor laws are antiquated and negatively impacting entrepreneurs, tax revenues and economic growth.
“We’re really ready to look at different laws and see how we may get a fairer system for municipalities,” Zwonitzer said.
Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Interim Committee
Since there a continuation of the Select Committee on Mental Health and Substance Use was approved, the Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Interim Committee took on more topics outside of this realm. The top priorities presented were in addressing maternal health, behavioral health, organ donors and decedents, as well as aging.
Co-chair Rep. Sue Wilson, R-Cheyenne, said it was the first time in nearly a decade of serving in the Legislature that she saw maternal health addressed. Not only will the committee evaluate ways to improve pregnancy outcomes for mothers and children across the state, they will gather data on the number of babies born to substance-abusing mothers. This comes after a bill was brought forward, but ultimately rejected, to criminally punish pregnant women suffering from addiction.
Members also hope to look at the possibility of extending postpartum Medicaid coverage for mothers, because during the pandemic, it was extended to 12 months from 60 days, and positive results were seen.
“We are understanding from physicians that they’re seeing a lot of better results in terms of mental health and substance abuse issues,” she said. “That actually saved us money to have that.”
There are 20 committees, in total, working together to find solutions and manage issues throughout Wyoming, and with it comes overlap. Even specialized topics such as blockchain technology, military affairs and tribal relations can’t be addressed by one group of the citizen Legislature, which is proven in amendments by the Management Council directing input or collaboration between lawmakers.
But out of overlapping priorities, it is clear the direction the 67th Wyoming Legislature is going.
Representatives and senators plan on investigating funding models for education, capital construction and energy; understanding how to recruit, retain and compensate the state workforce well; investing in energy and infrastructure; supporting land and water conservation efforts; restructuring tax systems; and ensuring residents are healthy and have access to medical care.