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By Leo Wolfson, State Politics Reporter
To sign or not to sign. It’s a question Gov. Mark Gordon must consider with each of the bills sent to his desk by the Wyoming Legislature.
On Friday, Gordon had some of the highest-profile bills passed in the 2023 session staring up at him from its desk. With a single stroke of a pen he can enact or kill legislation. Doing nothing means a bill becomes law without his overt support. His other option is a veto, or reject a bill.
The three bills watched closely Friday as the deadline to sign them neared were bans on most forms of abortion and the prescription of drugs used for abortions, and legislation that would prevent biological males from participating in girls’ sports in public schools.
On Friday night, Gordon announced he was letting Senate File 133, the transgender bill, pass into law without a signature, as well as House Bill 152, which bans most forms of abortion in Wyoming except in cases of rape, incest or severe risks of health or death.
Gordon said that while he supports and agrees with the overall goal of fairness in competitive female sports, he finds SF 133 to be “overly draconian” and “discriminatory without attention to individual circumstances or mitigating factors, and pays little attention to fundamental principles of equality.”
Gordon signed Senate File 109, which bans the prescription of chemical abortion drugs.
Does It Matter?
Five lawmakers Cowboy State Daily spoke with said that whether Gordon signs legislation lets it pass into law without a signature is mostly just a personal statement on particular issues.
Others – Reps. John Bear, R-Gillette, and Jeremy Haroldson, R-Wheatland – said it’s a loud political statement that can affect his future political ambitions.
“I believe the people of any state, and Wyoming in particular, expect leadership and leaders to make strong decisions that are important for the people of Wyoming,” Bear said.
Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, partially agreed, but also said the “far-right” wouldn’t support Gordon no matter what action he took on the three bills.
“Politically, 25-30% of the state, the far right of the Republican Party, is not going to change their minds about him,” he said.
Rep. Mike Yin, D-Jackson, said the decision whether or not to sign will likely only affect Gordon within his own party.
“Practically, it’s all the same,” he said. “The question is if you want to put your name behind a bill that will get challenged in court anyway.”
Sen. Wendy Schuler, R-Evanston, who sponsored SF 133, said a bill takes on more importance when it receives Gordon’s sign-off of support.
“It does give more of a seal of approval,” she said.
Expectations On The Big Three
Haroldson said he didn’t care if Gordon signed any of the three closely watched bills, but that it would’ve been “foolish” for him not to sign them all, particularly if he has “political aspirations moving forward.”
Although a law lacking a signature still has the same practicality and effect, letting pass this way is a tacit commentary on it. That’s what the governor did earlier this month on Haroldson’s bill that moves the date for declaring party affiliation three months earlier.
Haroldson said he wasn’t offended by Gordon’s lack of support.
“It’s not about him, it’s not about any legislator or prime sponsor,” Haroldson said. “I don’t take it personally. I never take it personally.”
Although Gordon will not face another election as governor, Haroldson said there is no shortage of future political opportunities for him. He mentioned how former legislator Drew Perkins was named Gordon’s chief of staff shortly after the Casper legislator lost his reelection bid last summer.
Bear said he didn’t expect Gordon to veto HB 152 as he’s repeatedly expressed that he is pro-life on the issue of abortion.
But Bear also said even if Gordon had signed the bill into law, he still would have found it “troubling” how long it took him to sign it. The abortion and transgender sports bills all were sent to him March 3.
“I find it troubling that the decision-making process has taken this long,” Bear said. “These are important issues for the people of Wyoming. All of the previously stated constitutional concerns have already been addressed.”
Zwonitzer disagreed and said the governor needs to do his due diligence researching bills, especially those as important as the ones he acted on Friday.
“He should be researching controversial bills to see their legal ramifications,” he said. “These are complex issues that need adequate legal research. It’s completely understandable.”
Schuler said although she would’ve loved it if the governor signed her bill, she doesn’t fault him for taking the action he did. But she also added that what he did now becomes more meaningful.
“It’s controversial because people think it’s an anti-trans bill,” Schuler said. “That’s a tough one but it’s nothing against kids. I’m just trying to have that level playing field for girls.”
Destined For Court?
Schuler said she doesn’t know if SF 133 will be challenged in court, although an earlier version of the bill included $1 million for the state to defend itself litigating the law in court in anticipation it would.
In his Friday decision letter, Gordon described the bill as “an invitation for a lawsuit.”
“It is difficult for me to sign legislation into law that knowingly will cost the state and taxpayers money to litigate and may be challenged under Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution,” he said.
Yin said he also expects the transgender sports bill to be challenged in court.
“When you have a ban that prohibits a certain group of people from participating in a sport you run into a whole bunch of federal issues, as well as probably equal protection issues,” he said.
The bill includes language stating that if the ban fails in court, the Wyoming High School Athletics Association will appoint a commission determining transgender athlete’s eligibility on a case-by-case basis.
Schuler sees this as an avenue where a transgender athlete could still participate in a sport.
On abortion, HB 152 is intended to be a more-specific version of the 2022 trigger ban that “triggered” into effect to ban nearly all abortions after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade last June. Gordon said the plaintiffs challenging the trigger ban filed a new lawsuit against HB 152 on Friday.
“I want to say these bills make a difference, but it might not help in bringing the ball up field if we’re spending our time litigating it for the next five years,” Zwonitzer said.
Although he voted for it, Zwonitzer said the ban on chemical abortion drugs may be challenged in court as well.
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