Drug Court Oversight, Money For Coal Lawsuits Among First Bills To Get Gordon’s Signature

The first bills to work through the Wyoming Legislature this session were signed by Gov. Mark Gordon on Wednesday in a ceremony at the Capitol in Cheyenne.

Leo Wolfson

February 16, 20235 min read

Mark Gordon signs first bill 2 15 23
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Gov. Mark Gordon signed a bill into law on Wednesday that will significantly change the way drug rehabilitation is managed in Wyoming.

Senate File 23 transfers responsibility and oversight of court-supervised treatment programs from the state Department of Health to the Wyoming Supreme Court. 

This also moves supervision to the judicial branch of state government, which already manages court cases for people serving mandatory treatment.

“Mental health issues are really not new to the state of Wyoming and actually have been addressed for a number of years,” Wyoming Supreme Court Chief Justice Kate Fox said. “They’re more new to the judicial branch than I’d like to admit.”

Fox said SF 23 will help the Supreme Court, which oversees the state’s courts, to take an important step toward improving treatment courts and addressing mental health and substance abuse issues in the state.

There are no cost changes anticipated as a result of the transfer.

Treatment Preferrable To Jail

Stefan Johannsen, director of the Wyoming Department of Health, said the transfer will better serve communities and the best candidates for court treatment. 

When a person is sentenced to court treatment, it is often seen as a preferable alternative to having to serve time in a jail or prison.

“We know these programs work and they make a huge difference in people’s lives,” said Andi Summerville, executive director for the Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Centers. 

Of Wyoming’s 23 counties, 13 have some form of drug treatment program. Summerville said the hope is SF 23 bill will help create more programs allowing people to enter treatment without having to leave their local communities.

“Judges are very important in mental health,” Summerville said. “Having more ownership in that program we hope will help that ownership in partnership.”

The Department of Health will still manage the clinical side of the court treatment program. 

SF 23 passed with a 42-20 vote in the state House and 24-7 in the Senate.

Why Change What Works?

Detractors of the bill argued that the Supreme Court shouldn’t be managing executive level programs and that the status quo is working fine. 

The judicial branch will receive the one employee who was overseeing the court treatment programs effective July 2024.

Fox and Gordon engaged in some good-hearted ribbing before he signed the bill, as Fox joked that Gordon was “the least instrumental person” in helping pass it.

Fox complemented Gordon on bringing the three branches of government together to work on the bill, which was sponsored by the Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee. 

“It really has been an example of a whole bunch of different communities and the three branches of government coming together to make something really good happen for the state of Wyoming,” Fox said.

Gordon also signed 35 other bills into law Wednesday, including five others featured in the governor’s signing ceremony:

House Bill 69

Continues the coal-fired facility closures litigation funding account, which allows Wyoming to enter lawsuits with and or against other states and the federal government on issues that affect coal production. 

It expands permissible purposes and uses for the coal-fired facility closures litigation. A total of $1.2 million is dedicated to this account.

“It allows us to defend what is a great Wyoming resource,” said Rep. Christopher Knapp, R-Gillette, a co-sponsor of HB 69.

Senate File 18

Increases death benefits for the law enforcement retirement plan and the state highway patrol, Game and Fish warden and criminal investigator retirement plan.

“Being a law enforcement officer is a special calling and we’re taking care of spouses and loved ones if the unthinkable happens,” said Luke Reiner, director of the Wyoming Department of Transportation.

Reiner mentioned how two Highway Patrol troopers were hurt in the line of duty last week.

House Bill 45

Allows rehiring of people who have already retired from Wyoming State Highway Patrol, Game and Fish Warden and as state criminal investigators. It also repeals the mandatory retirement age for these agencies.

Reiner said the bill will be crucial to help his department recruit new employees. In January, the Highway Patrol had more than 50 vacancies for sworn officers, about a quarter of its available workforce. 

House Bill 29

Modifies the definition of distance education for community colleges. It also eliminates the full-time weighted equivalency for distance education class credit hours for calculations in the community college funding allocation model.

“It lets the course be the course,” said Sandy Caldwell, executive director of the Wyoming Community College Commission.

Caldwell and other supporters of the bill said it will help community colleges accept more students.

“You know what the Legislature did, they saved lives,”said Deb Wentland, a board trustee at Sheridan College.

House Bill 28

Increases the minimum estimated cost of community college capital construction projects needing approval by the Community College Commission from $100,000 to $250,000.

“You can’t build a vestibule on a building to get out of the wind for less than $100,000 these days,” Caldwell said.

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Leo Wolfson

Politics and Government Reporter