By Leo Wolfson, State Politics Reporter
The 67th Wyoming Legislature got underway Tuesday, bringing a start to a 2023 session that will likely be defined by important spending decisions and a concerted effort by a quickly growing faction of Republicans to bring more conservative policies to Wyoming.
Republicans only added to their supermajority in both chambers of the Legislature during the November election, but more notable was the hardline conservative policies espoused by many of the freshman legislators elected.
In all, 30 freshman legislators were sworn in Tuesday at the Wyoming Capitol, making up nearly half of the state House of Representatives.
State Of The State
Although the formal swearing in of legislators and procedural activities happened Tuesday, the bulk of meaningful action won’t start until 10 a.m. Wednesday when Gov. Mark Gordon will give his State of the State speech to a joint session of the Legislature.
The governor’s speech is traditionally considered one of the hallmark moments of each session, offering a guiding vision for the future of Wyoming.
Michael Pearlman, spokesman for Gordon, said the governor’s speech will focus on harnessing opportunities to make the state stronger.
“The speech is wide ranging and will focus on a number of areas, including the state’s people, natural resources (including energy), the budget, the Wyoming economy and education,” Pearlman said in a Tuesday morning email.
In his 2022 State of the State, Gordon called for Wyoming to embrace new opportunities and innovations in energy, education and economic development. He also pushed for a frugal budget that included $100 million to use as matching money for Wyoming energy projects.
This year, Gordon has expressed more comfort with spending, recommending a $354 million supplemental budget. He’s also said $412 million should be added to the state’s Permanent Mineral Trust Fund.
Gordon’s speech will be followed with a State of the Judiciary message from Wyoming Supreme Court Chief Justice Kate Fox.
The first committee meetings began Tuesday after both the state House and Senate set their leadership positions and assigned their first bills.
State Sen.Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, and Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, were installed respectively as Senate president and speaker of the House.
Wednesday morning, four more committees will have their first meetings of the legislative session. Some of the bills on the agendas for these meetings include suspension and expulsion policies in schools, Wyoming digital assets and benefits for the spouses of law enforcement members.
There are 37 days planned for the Legislature, which will tentatively run through March 3. Three legislative days can be added if necessary.
Spend Or Save?
Flush with federal COVID-19 money and unexpected revenue from a strong oil and gas year in 2022, Wyoming lawmakers will be posed with decisions of about saving or investing throughout the legislative session.
Driven by higher oil and natural gas prices, the state’s Consensus Revenue Estimating Group’s October report projected $874.5 million more in revenues for the General Fund, Budget Reserve Account and investment income during the biennium than CREG had forecast in January 2022.
Gordon has recommended a healthy dose of investment in public programs, including $32 million for housing, nutrition, mental health and family resources within his supplemental budget request.
Many conservative legislators have intimated they would like at least some funds dedicated to providing property tax relief to many of Wyoming’s residents.
Shift Farther Right
The Wyoming Freedom Caucus announced last week it’s expanding its efforts with the help of a national organization. The Freedom Caucus makes up some of the most conservative legislators at the Capitol.
During the Republican caucus elections, the organization was more competitive than ever in getting its candidates nominated for leadership, and Rep. Chip Neiman, R-Hulett, earned the nomination for Majority Floor Leader, beating out Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne, a more moderate Republican with more experience in the Legislature.
Based on the votes in the caucus elections and the 15 freshman legislators who signed a Freedom Caucus letter in late November, the Freedom Caucus now sits at 25-30 members.
Legislators have already proposed a large number of bills that would push a more conservative agenda in Wyoming.
Rep. Jeanette Ward, R-Casper, has proposed bills that would address workplace vaccine requirements and remove obscenity protections for librarians and teachers.
Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, has said he will sponsor legislation that would criminalize gender-affirming surgeries for minors.
Also proposed is legislation that would prevent biological males from participating in girls sports in Wyoming and another bill that would attempt to minimize crossover voting. Versions of these bills also were considered by past Legislatures.
There also have been a handful of more progressive bills proposed, such as Medicaid expansion, ranked-choice voting elections and increased funding for mental health services.
On Tuesday afternoon, Healthy Wyoming hosted a Medicaid expansion rally outside the Capitol.
Hundreds Of Bills
As of Friday afternoon, the Legislative Service Office reported 597 bill draft requests.
LSO Director Matt Obrecht said they expect a total of 675-700 bill drafts before the Legislature is complete.
This is a fairly average number for a non-budget sessions. There were 690 bills drafted during the last non-budget session in 2021.
But making matters more difficult is the fact LSO is down one staff member.
“We’re certainly busy, but nothing we’re not used to for this time of the year,” Obrecht said.
To watch the House and Senate floor proceedings and committee meetings live and archived, visit the Wyoming Legislature’s YouTube channel.