By Leo Wolfson, political reporter
Senate District 1, encompassing the entire Northeast corner of the state, has one of the most competitive races in the Legislature this fall, with all three candidates possessing legitimate political experience.
The incumbent, Senate Majority Floor Leader Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, is running for a fourth term after first getting elected in 2010. Driskill said he still has unfinished business to accomplish.
“I have a proven track record, I’d like to continue that,” he said.
Driskill said he is proud of being able to keep the state’s budget in line thanks to efforts made to diversify Wyoming’s economy. He cited food freedom and blockchain technology bills he helped push through to create more jobs in the state.
“I’m a big believer that government doesn’t create jobs,” he said. “What it can create is a fertile freedom to make it easier to do business in.”
Although he considers Wyoming one of the best states to own a small business in, he wants to see more legislation that incentivizes small business owners to move to the state.
In 2013, Driskill also helped pass a bill that allows hunters to use silencers, legislation he said partly inspired an ammunition manufacturer to move its headquarters to Sundance.
“All the while being a staunch conservative,” he said.
On the forefront of his mind is an opportunity to represent northeast Wyoming as the president of the Senate, an appointment Driskill said will likely occur if earns re-election. Only one Crook County senator has ever served as president of the Senate, Albert Harding, who served from 1951-1961.
“It’s a major motivator,” he said. “It’s an absolutely critical position.
“I’m happy to do whatever I can to make life better for northeast Wyoming and I intend to use the bully pulpit to make it as well as possible.”
“Let People Die”
That possibility of Driskill’s appointment as Senate president is one of the reasons Rep. Bill Fortner, R-Gillette, has decided to take a shot at moving to the Senate and run against Driskill.
“If he gets in as the president of the Senate he will have a lot more power,” Fortner said.
This past year Fortner sponsored a bill expanding visitation rights for those in health care facilities that did not pass. Fortner said it died because of Driskill’s lack of assistance.
“If he’s willing to let people die then he doesn’t need a lot more power,” Fortner said. “I think he needs to leave.”
Fortner also sponsored legislation that would have prevented government employees from running for elected public offices. The House did not consider the bill.
“Remarkably Unsuccessful Career”
Driskill said Fortner has had a remarkably unsuccessful career getting bills passed and has voted “no” on nearly everything else.
“Fortner has a record and his record is ‘no,’” Driskill said. “Voting ‘no’ on every issue doesn’t make you a conservative, it makes you a contrarian.”
Fortner, a fourth generation Campbell County resident, is one of the most conservative legislators in Cheyenne, signing a pledge prior to being elected in 2020 not to vote for a tax increase and to vote for a voter ID law.
He earned a 100% rating from Wyorino.com and has accused others in his party of being “RINOs,” a catchphrase for those determined not conservative enough for their party, Republicans in Name Only. Wyorino.com named Driskill its RINO of the month in June.
“I can darn sure tell you (Driskill) he’s a RINO,” Fortner said, claiming Driskill voted to increase taxes. “He represents himself more than constituents.”
Driskill said he finds this labeling “curious” as he has worked to cut the budget, supported a bill that would have banned crossover voting and supported the 2021 voter ID bill.
“I check all the boxes yet I’m being called a liberal and a RINO,” Driskill said. “They like to call me a liberal a RINO because they can’t force their way.”
Fortner claims Driskill used taxpayer money to take a trip to China to study blockchain technology. Driskill runs a beef company that uses this technology.
Driskill said the claim that the China trip was funded with taxpayer dollars is “absolutely false” and said the trip was approved by the Legislative Services Office.
Fortner said he wants the Wyoming state government to slash half its budget. He said Wyoming has the second highest per capita state government budget with the highest per capita spending in the country.
“My conservatism is unmatched,” he said.
Still, Fortner is taking a risk by running for a new seat, where he will have to win votes from a much wider population base.
Having spent his life welding and working in coal and oil, Fortner said he has gained an intimate understanding for these industries and has no confidence oil will return to its prior glory days.
“For electric cars to succeed they need those gas price high,” he said.
He doesn’t expect a rebound for either coal or oil, but said there are ways the state can continue to harness both for economic gain, such as paving roads with coal, a material that has been used in various locations as an asphalt additive or replacement. He also has confidence hydrogen and thermal power can be helpful for Wyoming’s future.
Fortner is a member of the House Agriculture Committee, where he has made curtailing wild horses one his most strident issues.
He also believes the country has never recovered from the economic recession of 2008. In 2021, he sponsored a bill that would have recognized property depreciation in the tax structure
Also running is Roger Connett, a Sundance resident who has been chair of the Crook County GOP on and off since 2015. Connett said the representation he sees in Cheyenne no longer reflects the “very conservative” nature of the state.
“The Legislature has moved away from what people in Wyoming care about,” he said, adding the body has become distracted by national-level social justice issues.
If elected, Connett said he wants to pass legislation to address the rising cost of property taxes by taking original purchase price into account. He said the taxes on his home grew by 23% in the past year.
“There’s people who are on a fixed income saying, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do this,’” he said.
Connett is as pessimistic as Fortner is about future revenue from oil and gas.
“If we hadn’t been flush with ‘Biden bucks’ this past year we would’ve been in a real crush,” he said.
Connett wants the state to focus more attention on its investment and trust funds as a source of revenue.
“We need to do that before we ever say the word ‘tax,’” he said, although he wouldn’t rule out tax increases as a last resort.
Connett wouldn’t specify, but said there are a number of issues where he and Fortner differ. Although Connett said he was told by Fortner he didn’t plan to run against Driskill, Fortner told Cowboy State Daily he has been planning his campaign for about a year.
Driskill said Connett has good idea but most of his plans have already been addressed by laws Driskill helped pass.
Fortner has said in the past he would support the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes, but Connett said he doesn’t support any legalization of the substance, although he would be open to considering decriminalization laws.
Too Much Money
Fortner and Connett also support school of choice rights. Fortner said private schools can teach children at one-third of the price of public schools, where the typical per-pupil funding in Wyoming is about $18,000, a number Connett thinks is too high. Fortner supports reducing the public schools budget if it means moving away from dependence on federal funding.
“We’re spending more money than the other states but we’re not doing any better,” Connett said.
He saw the federal vaccine mandates as another example of this issue and said the legislation Wyoming passed on the matter in its 2021 special session “meant nothing.”
“There’s too much money going around,” he said. “Everyone is having too good of a time and keeps spending.”
Driskill said the state has reduced employee numbers and its budget during his 11 years in the Legislature. Connett said the latter part of this claim doesn’t include $334 million federal American Rescue Plan Act funds that were used to supplement spending in this year’s budget.
“That does count to me,” Connett said.