Wyoming House Speaker Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, may be losing his patience with the Wyoming Freedom Caucus.
In a Friday op-ed, Sommers skewers the hardline conservative group of state House Republicans for aggressively pushing a “narrowly defined dogma.” Sommers believes the Republican Party should have a wide diversity of views within its ranks and referenced a few historically significant Republicans to make his point.
“Why does the Freedom Caucus tell its members how to vote each day during the legislative session? Why do they incite fear and stoke anger?” he questioned.
Each day during the 2023 legislative session, Jessie Rubino, who's paid by the State Freedom Caucus Network to be the state director for the Wyoming Freedom Caucus, would send messages out to members suggesting how to vote on various bills.
The Freedom Caucus also helped drive a national campaign against Sommers that included social media messaging, Fox News and other national-level media coverage, and pressure from U.S. Rep. Hageman, R-Wyoming, for his decision to leave a few highly controversial bills in his drawer.
Sommers said the Freedom Caucus, which is aligned with the national House Freedom Caucus, panders to a national agenda “instead of seeking Wyoming solutions to Wyoming problems.”
Wyoming Freedom Caucus Chairman Rep. John Bear, R-Gillette, declined to comment on Sommers’ op-ed, but pushed back on this type of argument in a March Cowboy State Daily story, saying Freedom Caucus members do debate issues rather than parrot boilerplate phrases.
“It is insulting to accuse conservative lawmakers of not forming their own opinions on pieces of legislation,” he said in a text to Cowboy State Daily. “Countless hours of honest debate ON THE ISSUES on the floor disproves this theory.”
In the op-ed, Sommers quotes former U.S. Senator and 1964 Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, who said the Republican Party is for “free men, not for blind followers, and not for conformists.”
“The beauty of the very system we Republicans are pledged to restore and revitalize, the beauty of this federal system of ours, is in its reconciliation of diversity with unity,” Goldwater said. “We must not see malice in honest differences of opinion, and no matter how great, so long as they are not inconsistent with the pledges we have given to each other in and through our Constitution.”
Sommers also mentioned former President Abraham Lincoln, who in 1858 said his Republican Party “was composed of strained, discordant and even hostile elements,” but all agreed on the issue of ending slavery.
Caucus Wants To Grow
Sommers writes that Freedom Caucus members have “a thirst for power.”
During a Freedom Caucus town hall in April, multiple members of the group reiterated that the organization needs to add 10 more members in the next election cycle.
Bear frequently lamented during the 2023 session that the hardline conservative group of roughly 26 members didn’t have enough voting strength to outvote the rest of the Republicans in the House.
Sommers believes the media and hardline conservative pundits, state party leaders and the Freedom Caucus want to push Republicans into a conforming mold.
“When Republicans bulge out of the margins, these pundits accuse us of being fringe libertarians, the religious right, moderates, RINOs and liberals,” he said. “This vicious discord marginalizes and weakens the Wyoming Republican Party.”
The Wyoming Republican Party and members of the Freedom Caucus have specifically focused on this, saying those who don’t vote with at least 80% of the party’s platform aren’t real Republicans. Frank Eathorne, chairman of the Wyoming Republican Party, emphasized this point during his reelection for a third term earlier this month.
Sommers said the Republican Party has always been “an odd collection of ideals and passions” built around conservatism.
“History has shown when political philosophy is elevated to a dogma the result can be fascism, theocracies and communism,” he said. “Diversity of opinion and the right to freely express those opinions is the foundation of this nation. Republicans should guard against conforming to any narrow dogma.”
Sommers wants Republicans to have conversations with each other about issues and to act with civility.
Over the course of three town hall events this spring, the Freedom Caucus has not minced words about how its members feel about other Republicans in the state House. During their most recent town hall Tuesday, Rep. Mark Jennings, R-Sheridan, called other House Republicans “unethical” for not cooperating with Freedom Caucus measures on a variety of bills seeking to address high property taxes.
When it comes to property taxes, there are two sides to the coin, as a handful of bills were killed by lawmakers who are in the Freedom Caucus or have a good relationship with the organization.
One of these bills brought by Sen. Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester, would have reduced the residential property tax rate from 9.5% to 8.5% through 2025. It was Majority Floor Leader Rep. Chip Neiman, R-Hulett, who motioned to end discussion of all new bills Feb. 27, thus killing Biteman’s bill. Neiman is a member of the Freedom Caucus.
Bear said because the House Appropriations Committee put a “do not pass” recommendation on Biteman’s bill, it had no chance of passing the House.
“Bills with that recommendation, I’ve never heard of passing,” he said.
The Senate Revenue Committee, which is one of the most conservative committees in the Legislature, killed a property tax bill that passed with an overwhelming majority in the House. This bill would have established a homeowner's property tax exemption for primary residences.
Another bill killed by Senate Revenue was Worland Republican Rep. Martha Lawley’s legislation that would have let residents defer a larger amount of their property taxes each year.
Freedom Caucus members also voted against a bill that created a constitutional amendment for a separate class of taxation for residential properties. This proposal will go to voters in 2024.
“If we’re going to put something on the ballot, it needs to be meaningful,” Bear said. “It should have a cap in it.”
Bear said if a property tax bill doesn’t commit to capping tax growth, residents will just end up getting taxed in another way to cover for the state’s spending commitments. He said unless the state commits to cutting spending, he can’t trust a property tax bill that promises to solely reduce the tax rate.
“If we reduce that tax revenue, they have to increase it somewhere else,” he said.
Contact Leo Wolfson at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com