By Leo Wolfson, State Politics Reporter
Of the 93 incoming members of the Wyoming Legislature, only one won’t have an opportunity to work on proposed legislation as a member of one of 10 standing joint committees.
That member is state Sen. Dan Laursen, R-Powell.
“They would put me in the hallway (outside the Senate chamber) if they could,” Laursen said about being a Republican pariah in a deeply red Legislature. “They would put me about as far away from anything as they can.”
‘Difficult To Work With’
Laursen was snubbed by Senate President-elect Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, from any committee positions when they were chosen last week. Driskill said it was because of Laursen’s pledge to challenge and take out leadership during his campaign this summer that caused him grave concern.
“He’s been very difficult to work with,” Driskill told Cowboy State Daily last week. “I don’t see any reason to enable him in any way unless he wants to sit down and honestly talk about being a team member and working with us instead of against us.”
Laursen has one of the most conservative voting records in the state Legislature. During his seven years serving in the House, he co-sponsored bills fighting crossover voting, tightening conservation easement laws, the controversial Second Amendment Preservation Act, a bill making it easier to remove elected officials and legislation repealing gun-free zones in Wyoming.
“Not allowing a seasoned and experienced legislator to be on one of the main standing committees is not good leadership,” Laursen said.
Although it is not uncommon for a rookie legislator to only be put on one committee, it is rare for a veteran legislator to be left off all committees.
Driskill also had all of his committee chair picks sign pre-written letters of resignation for the purpose of encouraging respectful decorum and unity for the upcoming session.
“It got very personal,” Driskill said of the decorum in the past session. “It wasn’t just about arguing bills, it got personal.”
Laursen was not given the opportunity to sign one of Driskill’s letters, and said if he had been, he wouldn’t have agreed to.
He has specifically criticized Driskill on the topic of conservation easements and Driskill’s partnership with a land trust that placed two conservation easements on his personal and family owned property at the base of Devils Tower.
“I have questioned conservation easements and definitely believe they should not be given to people in office, it does not look good in the eyes of the citizens,” Laursen said. “It looks like an insider in (Washington) D.C. getting benefits.”
Out Of The Loop
By losing out on the opportunity to serve on any of the main standing session committees, Laursen also will miss out on getting to vote on many bills.
For instance, in the last session there were 26 bills that did not even reach either chamber to be considered for a vote. There were another 56 bills that reached a chamber, but were never voted on for introduction.
Laursen will likely get put on some of the roughly 25 select committees and task forces that operate during the interim period of the year. Although these committees perform important studies and provide valuable insights and conclusions to the standing committees, they don’t typically play as direct a role in the formation of legislation.
Laursen also suspects there was a connection between his snub and beating Ray Peterson, a former state legislator from 2005-2018, when he made the jump to run for Senate in this year’s Republican primary. Peterson and Driskill Senate Majority Floor Leader-elect Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, were closely aligned while at the Capitol together.
“I believe a big reason for what was done is to punish me for winning the primary over their preferred candidate, they were good buddies with Ray and were confident he would win this time,” Laursen said.
Peterson has not been shy about commenting on the Laursen situation on social media.
“Dan has burnt bridges down there and then wonders why he’s overlooked?” Peterson commented on his own Facebook page on Friday.
“The trick is to make changes while getting along or playing nice with others. Dan seems to have not learned that,” Peterson said. “Anyway, our senator will have no committee assignments or influence through committees. He is an island to himself. Tell me that is effective leadership. The problem is that we all suffer from it and yet we are the ones that did it to ourselves by not recognizing some simple facts.”
Peterson speculated about what a typical day for Laursen will look like in the upcoming session. According to the Legislative Services Office, standing committees meet during legislative sessions to review bills, hear testimony and recommend action on legislation for the consideration of the full body of the Senate or House. They meet before and after the daily floor sessions and during the noon recess.
“I wonder how his day will be spent during session,” Peterson commented. “10 to noon and 2 to 4 and call it a day? People up here just don’t get it. He’s one vote with no influence. Crazy.”
A Loss For Constituents
Laursen said the largest impact of the snub will be felt by voters in his district.
“This tactic hurts those I represent, some 18,000-20,000 constituents, giving them no representation in a main standing committee or two,” Laursen said. “It also causes more work for those other members in the Senate. It should infuriate many.”
Park County Commissioner Chair Dossie Overfield agreed it will be a loss for Laursen’s constituents.
“We would like to have all our senators and representatives on committees to hear all our constituents’ input,” she said, adding she hopes there is reconsideration made to Laursen being left off.
Overfield and the other commissioners meet with the Big Horn Basin legislators before and during the session and occasionally during the interim period as well. Many of these conversations center on giving updates as to where bills are in the legislative process.
“How things are moving forward or not moving forward,” she said.
The county commissioners also attend about a week of the session each year, where they sit in on meetings, and at times, lobby for and against bills.
But Park County and the Big Horn Basin will be far from unrepresented at the Legislature. Rep. Sandy Newsome, R-Cody, was named co-chair of the Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee, and Rep. David Northrup, R-Cody, was named co-chair of the Education Committee.
Freshman legislator Rep. Dalton Banks, R-Cowley, was named to two committees, as was Sen. Tim French, R-Powell and Rep. John Winter, R-Thermopolis. Although she was only named to one committee, Rep. Rachel Rodriguez-Williams, R-Cody, was named to Judiciary, one of the most prominent and influential committees.
Laursen was appointed to one standing committee, the Journal Committee. This committee is charged with detailing and summarizing each day of proceedings in the state Legislature for the respective digest of each chamber.
But it’s the LSO staff that actually writes these summaries, and Rep. Jeremy Haroldson, R-Wheatland, who served as a member of this committee in the last session, said there were many days where all he did was sign a piece of paper at the beginning of the day.
“It’s an absolute slap in Dan’s face,” Haroldson said of only being on the Journal Committee. “It’s absolutely a slighting. It makes me mad because he (Driskill) sees the infighting we have in the party.
“As a Legislature, we have a lot of big lifts to make. Dan and I don’t agree on every issue but we work stronger together. We need to make that a reality.”
Haroldson said the only time the Journal Committee strays from being a procedural body is when it addresses issues of vote discrepancies, maintaining the power to demand records from the Senate president and speaker of the House.
Laursen said he is trying to take a glass half-full attitude to the situation, looking at it as an opportunity to study bills more.
“It just gives me more motivation,” he said.