The 2023 session of the Wyoming Legislature wrapped up last Friday, with many lawmakers and state staff openly admitting they were running on fumes by then.
Although Wyoming has one of the shortest legislative sessions in the United States at 37 days, partially because of its low population, the Legislature met for long hours almost every day it was in session. Some other states only meet three or four days a week and for more limited hours.
Legislators on both sides of the aisle had a relatively positive perspective on how the session went.
One of the biggest bills passed during the session was the state’s supplemental budget, where $1.4 billion was placed into savings. For every dollar spent in the budget, $3.50 was put into savings.
“The big part, I think, is a component of the savings for future generations,” said state Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs. “It’s easy to get focused on the hole in the donut and the whole donut, and when you step back overall, I think we did a very good job for the people of the state of Wyoming.”
Rep. Barry Crago, R-Buffalo, said he was pleased the Legislature “didn’t mess anything up.”
“That’s usually part of our goal – move the state further down the field, and at the same time do no harm,” he said.
In those 37 days, lawmakers plowed through hundreds of proposed bills, including:
• 497 bills and resolutions
• 39.4% of bills passed, a total of 196
• 61% of committee bills passed in both chambers
• 30% of individually sponsored bills passed in both chambers
• 37 legislative days
• 23 vetoes from Gov. Mark Gordon (21 were line-item vetoes in supplemental budget)
• 4,394 meals served to lawmakers and staff
• 95 pounds of caffeinated and decaf coffee brewed at the Capitol, roughly equivalent to more than 3,000 cups
Let Freedom Ring
The Wyoming Freedom Caucus played a significant role in this year’s Legislature, a voting bloc of staunchly conservative Republicans in the House.
Although caucus chair Rep. John Bear, R-Gillette, told Cowboy State Daily that the caucus only stopped one bad standing committee amendment from being passed, but that he was pleased with how unified the “conservatives” were.
“The only thing conservatives usually struggle with is staying together on issues,” he said. “The conservatives are pleased how we stuck together.”
The Freedom Caucus members almost always voted together on bills.
Rep. Mike Yin, D-Jackson, described the session dynamic as “unique,” but was pleased with how it went.
“I think we still got a lot of work done and was able to limit all of the national politics while still being able to focus on Wyoming,” he said.
But Rep. Karlee Provenza, D-Laramie, believes there was legislation passed that strips Wyoming residents of rights, and she hopes the state will go in a different direction in the future.
“This is a state of live and let live, and I’m afraid we’re abandoning that ideology,” she said.
Gender And Sexuality
The 2023 session likely featured the most legislation brought on transgender issues in Wyoming history. Most of the bills addressing transgender issues failed, although one piece of legislation did pass.
• Senate File 133 Student Eligibility in Interscholastic Sports: This bill prohibits biological males from participating in girls sports teams in grades seven through 12. The bill passed and is now sitting on the governor’s desk. The major goal of the legislation was to prevent transgender girls from competing against biological girls.
• Senate File 144 Chloe’s Law: This bill would have prohibited doctors from performing gender-affirming surgeries on minors. The bill was heavily amended in the House Appropriations Committee allowing for pharmacists, insurance companies, nurses and doctors to still provide some gender-transition treatments to underage individuals. The committee sent the bill back to the floor with a “do not pass” recommendation, and it was not heard after.
• Senate File 117 Parental Rights in Education: This bill would have prohibited public schools from teaching about gender identity or sexual orientation to children through third grade. Although it passed the Senate 18-12, House Speaker Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, declined to send it to a committee to take action on, believing the legislation unconstitutional. A failed attempt was launched to pull the bill out of the speaker’s drawer.
• House Bill 152 Life Is A Human Right Act: This bill prohibits all abortions in Wyoming but provides exemptions for cases of rape, incest, or severe health or death risks, and abortions performed to treat cancers or diseases that may be fatal or harmful to the unborn baby. The bill passed and is sitting on the governor’s desk.
• Senate File 109 Prohibiting Chemical Abortions: This bill bans the prescription of chemical abortion drugs. Still allowed is the use of these drugs for other medical purposes, like inducing labor and treating postnatal hemorrhages. The bill passed and is in Gordon’s hands to take action on.
• House Bill 4 Medicaid 12-Month Postpartum Coverage: On Friday, Gordon signed legislation that extends postpartum Medicaid coverage from two months to one year in Wyoming. The bill will impact about a third of new mothers in Wyoming. Postpartum depression and other pregnancy-related ailments often stretch far beyond 60 days after giving birth.
Rebekah Smith Hazelton, a staff member with the Wyoming Women’s Foundation, described the passage of HB 4 as the biggest win for her organization.
“I think there’s definitely an increased concern and awareness around mental health,” she said. “And there’s a lack of an access to it in Wyoming.”
• House Bill 65 988 Suicide Prevention: Gordon signed this legislation that establishes a state trust fund – with no money in it – to support the state’s two suicide call centers. Private donations can build the fund.
There were also two bills Gordon signed into law that establish jurisdictional compacts for psychologists and professional counselors. A Medicaid expansion bill also passed through a House committee, but was not considered on the House floor.
Marcie Kindred, a 2022 state Senate candidate who lives in Cheyenne and testified on most of these health care bills, described the 2023 session as a mixed bag for health care. She said Legislature leadership “did a good job holding the line.”
“Even though some really great health care bills passed, some horrendous ones did too,” she said. “I wouldn’t call it overwhelmingly positive. Abortion is health care.”
Secretary of State Chuck Gray had a fairly successful session as two of his major 2022 campaign promises were fulfilled.
• House Bill 103 Political Party Affiliation Declaration and Changes: Gordon allowed this bill to pass into law without his signature. The legislation moves the deadline to change party affiliation from primary election day to the day before candidates can file for political office in Wyoming. The idea is to prevent voters from changing party affiliation to influence the primary election of a different party, a practice known as crossover voting.
The 2023 session was the fifth session in a row that a bill had been brought attempting to address crossover voting in some way, with HB 103 the only one to become law.
“It feels good, but it’s really about something the people wanted for a long time,” said Rep. Jeremy Haroldson, R-Wheatland, of getting the bill passed. “I’m honored to have my name on the bill and helping that effort become a reality.”
• Senate File 153 Election Security: This bill reduces early voting to 28 days from the current 45 for domestic applicants. State Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas, sponsor of the bill, said although he believes Wyoming’s elections are secure, he wants to improve the public’s perception of them. The bill also requires post-election audits for all future elections. This bill is on the governor’s desk.
There also was legislation passed tightening Wyoming’s voter ID requirements, prohibiting the mailing of unsolicited absentee ballot requests forms and requiring federal political action committees to register with the state if they participate in state-level elections.
Gray took a loss on a bill making ballot harvesting a felony and had to make significant compromises on legislation codifying the secretary of state’s office rules on the certification of federal election equipment.
Of 21 bills attempting to address property tax issues, only three passed into law.
• Senate Joint Resolution 3 Property Tax Residential Property Class: This bill will put a question before the voters of whether to put residential property tax into its own category. The governor signed it into law Friday.
• House Bill 99 Property Tax Refund Program: The legislation, which Gordon has signed, expands an existing, state-funded tax refund program by allowing people with slightly higher income levels, up to 125% of median household income for your county or state, whichever is highest. It also offers a slightly larger refund, as long as it’s no more than 75% of the prior year’s property tax.
• House Bill 100 Acquisition Value Study: Allows for a study to examine whether Wyoming should switch from a property tax system based on fair market value to one based on purchase price. This bill won’t bring any immediate relief and lawmakers are not required to act on any of the study’s findings. The governor has signed this bill into law.
• House Bill 200 Nonresident Hunting Licenses-Application Fees: Gordon has signed HB 200, which authorizes significant hikes in special draw license fees as well as licenses for Wyoming’s “Big 5” trophy game species. The bill institutes price hikes on 40% of nonresident draw tags for Wyoming’s three main big game species – elk, deer and antelope (pronghorn).
• Senate File 56 Prohibiting Travel Across Private Land for Hunting Purposes: This bill gives Wyoming Game and Fish wardens more authority to ticket trespassers. SF 56 would allow wardens authority to ticket people who trespass across private property to get to adjacent public land to hunt, fish, trap or collect shed antlers. Gordon signed the bill.
• House Bill 123 Collection of Antler or Horns by Residents and Nonresidents: This bill gives resident shed hunters a weeklong head start over nonresident shed antler hunters.
• Senate File 169 State Shooting Complex Task Force: Gordon has signed this legislation to get the ball rolling toward a huge, multimillion-dollar shooting sports complex to be built somewhere in Wyoming – possibly within about three years.
• House Bill 104 Hunting of Predatory Animals-Amendments: This bill allows for night hunting of coyotes and other predatory animals on public land. Gordon has signed it.
Power Of The Dems
Although there are only five Democrats in the House, many conservative legislators noted the power they possessed, often voting with more moderate Republicans on many bills.
“As Democrats, we are the split vote,” Provenza said. “At least holding that for now, I think it’s been effective and holding back some of the worst that we could have seen.”
Provenza said Democrats were able to work with every faction of the Republican Party, a point proven by the fact Democrats also voted with more conservative Republicans on certain issues.
Yin said the only reason the Democrats have the power they do is because of the Wyoming Freedom Caucus. He mentioned how more conservative Republicans voted against the supplemental budget, creating a pathway of alliance between non-Freedom Caucus Republicans and Democrats.
Lawmakers will begin their interim committee work in the coming weeks.
The Legislature’s Management Council plans to meet and assign interim committee topics March 23 and the first round of interim committee meetings will begin in April. The next Legislature will convene in February 2024 for a biennial budget session.