By Leo Wolfson, political reporter
Each of the three candidates vying for Wyoming Senate District 19 in the Big Horn Basin area is either a current or past Wyoming legislator. This makes the combined years of legislative experience of the candidates more than in any other race in the state.
In total, Rep. Dan Laursen (R-Powell), Sen. R.J. Kost (R-Powell), and Ray Peterson have 24 years between them working in the legislature.
Despite each of the candidates also being Republicans, this is where the commonalities mostly end between the candidates.
Kost is the incumbent. This past year, the legislature passed a bill he sponsored and two he cosponsored. The bill he sponsored expanded 911 services in Wyoming. A bill exempting certain after school programs from child care facility certification requirements and the “Second Amendment Protection Act” were other bills he cosponsored that passed.
He said during a candidate forum hosted by the Park County Republican Women Wednesday night in Cody, if reelected, he will focus on keeping a balanced budget, support education and career and technical education, and finding new sources of revenue for the state.
Peterson, a Cowley resident, served as a senator from 2005-2018 and has 27 total years of political experience. In 2018, he lost his first contested election to Kost, which Peterson said resulted in “a four-year vacation.”
“I’m a giving guy and want to return the favor,” Peterson joked.
Peterson was a leader in the legislature during the more than two dozen years he spent there. He was chairman of the Revenue Committee for six years, vice chair on the Select Committee on Capital Financing and Investments in 2017, and also served on the Appropriations Committee for six years. If elected again, he plans to continue this level of leadership.
“It concerns me that we don’t have a lot of our delegation from the Big Horn Basin in those leadership positions and there’s no excuse for that,” he said.
The Basin is already guaranteed to lose some leadership as Reps. Jamie Flitner (R-Greybull) and Mike Greear (R-Worland) are both retiring.
Peterson said he would not sign an affidavit pledging to voting with the Republican Party platform at least 80% of the time. Peterson said he met this quota while serving in the legislature anyway. Kost also said he would not sign the pledge.
“Right now I agree with them (Republican values),” Peterson said. “Possibly in six months to a year, four years from now, they might be labeled themselves as extremists and I might disagree with one or two of these issues, so I don’t want to pigeonhole myself into agreeing or forced into agreeing with a party.”
In addition to Kost and Peterson, a few other relatively conservative candidates at the forum, including Libertarian-minded House 25 candidate Troy Bray, also refused to commit to the pledge.
“I’m a problem solver and don’t need anybody to tell me what’s right and what’s wrong. I trust my own values,” Peterson said.
Laursen said he would make the pledge of sticking to the Republican Party platform at least 80% of the time. Wyorino.com gave him a passing 80% score or his voting record. After serving in the House for four terms, he is now making a run at the Senate in order to make that body more conservative.
“I’m one of 18 conservatives out of 60 members in the House and I’m running for the Senate to increase their conservative numbers,” he said. “Conservatives need to gain the majority and change what is going on in Cheyenne.”
Peterson opposes all shutdown mandates when it comes to future pandemics.
“Individual freedoms are under attack,” he said. “Right now, it’s monkeypox. What’s it going to be in six more months or a year from now?”
Kost took a different stance. He said it’s important to remember freedoms should be cherished for all of the community.
“As we look at all the different possibilities, we need to make sure that we’re protecting everybody and from there, as we get data, we can certainly relax those (regulations) as we move forward,” he said.
In recent years Laursen has been complimented by Park County Republican Party leadership for his firm anti-tax and spending, pro-life agenda. He also pushed for a few anti-mandate bills during the special session on COVID-19 restrictions held last fall, including one allowing healthcare workers a vaccine exemption.
“It is your personal freedom to do what you want with your body,” he said. “We need to take control.”
Kost voted against six bills in that special session, supported two, and declared a conflict of interest with one. In response to his votes, the Park County Republican Party sent a letter to Secretary of State Ed Buchanan and Attorney General Bridget Hill requesting they investigate Kost for having an alleged conflict of interest. Kost sits on the Powell Valley Healthcare board.
Kost sees the issue of crossover voting as “an apathy within the Republican Party” remedied by getting more Republicans to vote. He also suggested the idea of removing political parties from ballots to force voters to research who they are voting for.
“I think it’s important to look at this. Are we gaining or trying to win on our side or are we just a little worried about the Democrats trying to take control?” he said.
Laursen supports having runoff elections in Wyoming when the winning candidate doesn’t win by at least a 50% margin.
He opposes the legalization of both recreational and medicinal marijuana. Peterson opposes recreational use, but he previously voted for a bill to support medical consumption of cannabis, which he said he would do again.
“There is a benefit to those people and some of those diseases they have,” Peterson said.
Kost shares the same opinion, but said he would only support legalization of medical marijuana with adequate controls put in place. He cited concerns with how other states regulate the substance.
Peterson is a firm believer in state’s rights and said Wyoming has “more authority than we assume sometimes.” He said the federal government treats Wyoming unfairly, especially when it comes to public lands.Wyoming has more public land than almost every other state.
Peterson said the state should take legislative action to override the federal government’s blocking of drilling leases on public land. He said the state should take control of these lands. He supports a Convention of States Action, which with a convening of 34 states, gives the power to states to propose amendments to the United States Constitution.
Laursen agreed and said similar action could be taken in regards to removing grizzly bears from Endangered Species Act protection.
“I think the state needs to take the initiative and tell the federal government it’s not happening here,” Laursen said. “The government has just got to quit telling us what to do.”
Kost said taking these actions would not be a solution and would lead to some “serious consequences” if taken.
“I think you need to look at both sides of it,” he said.
He pointed out that 90% of Wyoming’s highway and transportation funding comes from the federal government.