The room was packed with people fed up with skyrocketing property taxes, many giving state lawmakers at the Joint Revenue Committee’s June meeting more than an earful.
Seems the huge turnout at Sheridan College, which had to accommodate the overflow in another room, was a lot to handle for state legislative staff.
The turnout has prompted Senate President Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, and House Speaker Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, to dispatch a letter to all 93 state lawmakers requesting they give notice when they expect a large crowd like this.
“Going forward, we ask that legislators who know their communities the best, please give our Legislative Service Office and the co-chairmen of the respective committees some notice if you think that there will be more members of the public attending a specific meeting than usual,” Driskill and Sommers write in the June 30 letter.
About 80 people showed up for the Revenue Committee’s meeting on June 26. This far exceeded the turnout of typical state Legislature committee meetings, which typically only draw a handful of attendees from the public.
“We appreciate members engaging and we encourage robust public participation,” the letter reads. “However, the problem we encountered was the reserved meeting room, which had been used successfully for meetings this interim and in the past, was not adequate to seat all of the members of the public.”
Driskill and Sommers said the unexpected turnout caused staff from the Legislative Service Office to scramble “at the last moment to secure more chairs, overflow spaces and provide monitors for the members of the public to watch the meeting.”
State Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, told Cowboy State Daily shortly after the meeting that LSO staff successfully handled the turnout.
Still, during the meeting, Rep. Ken Pendergraft, R-Sheridan, criticized the choice to hold the meeting in the designated room at Sheridan College, describing it as “woefully inadequate.”
After the meeting on Facebook, he took a more upbeat tone about the meeting, complimenting a select group of staunchly conservative lawmakers on the Revenue Committee for their efforts.
“You all did us proud. You endured, you played a little chess, and we WILL win this battle,” he posted.
Zwonitzer said Pendergraft and other lawmakers were responsible for inviting many of those who turned out for the meeting.
Rep. John Bear, R-Gillette, said he isn’t aware of any lawmaker who invited more people than normal to the meeting and saw the large turnout as simply the result of Wyoming residents being outraged with their property taxes.
“It was a crowd of people, grassroots people, that want to get things moving as far as property tax relief,” he said.
In their letter, Driskill and Sommers encourage lawmakers to warn staff when they expect a large turnout at a meeting so that a new venue can be established to adequately host everyone who wants to attend.
Driskill told Cowboy State Daily the Legislature can always move venues if it is deemed necessary. He mentioned how past meetings in Cheyenne were held at a local gymnasium and the Cheyenne Civic Center.
He said it is the responsibility of all legislators, freshman and veteran, to warn staff if they believe a meeting needs to be moved. Sommers took a slightly different perspective when speaking with Cowboy State Daily and said although he thinks certain legislators probably knew a large group was attending, it may not have been obvious they needed to alert staff about it.
Bear said it should have been obvious based on the topic of property taxes alone that there would be a large turnout.
Local residential property tax revenue increased statewide by 21% from 2021 to 2022 and is forecasted to increase by another 18% in 2023, according to data provided by the Wyoming Department of Revenue. Total assessed values increased by 28.4% from 2019-2022.
Revenue Committee Co-chair Rep. Steve Harshman, R-Casper, said the first thing he realized when he arrived at the meeting was that the room was too small. It was actually Sen. Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester, who had been scheduled to chair the meeting, but Biteman was returning home to Wyoming after attending an event in Washington, D.C., celebrating the anniversary of the overturn of Roe v. Wade.
Even though Harshman allowed everyone who wanted to speak on property taxes to testify at the meeting, some criticized the way the meeting was handled. There were some people who attended the meeting and planned to testify who left before they had a chance to speak.
Part of the frustration came from the fact Harshman pushed back the time the public was scheduled to speak. Although originally scheduled to allow public comment in the morning, Harshman delayed that part of the meeting until the mid-afternoon because state officials ran much longer than expected with their testimony.
Bear believes this was one of the biggest sources of frustration.
“The information being shared by them (state officials) could have been delayed because they were staying there for two days and most of the information they presented was historical and wasn’t going to change,” he said.
Sheridan resident Brenda Wile, who attended the meeting, posted on Facebook that it had “felt like they were just stalling the public testimony.”
Harshman and Driskill said they want as much public input as possible at legislative meetings, but Harshman also noted there may have been confusion from some that the meeting was a town hall of sorts.
“That is not what this was,” Harshman said. “This was a legislative session meeting.”
At a legislative committee meeting, the public is almost always given a chance to speak, but must do so while maintaining proper decorum and when called upon.
But in some ways, the meeting closely resembled a town hall or even campaign rally, with the crowd often jeering or booing at points it didn’t like and cheering and applauding comments it appreciated. Driskill worries if this type of behavior continues, it will discourage some people from speaking freely.
“We want members of the public to interact with the committee members at meetings,” the letter reads. “It is our expectation that these interactions are respectful and productive so we can continue to solve problems. It is all of our responsibility to ensure our legislative decorum is followed by the public, state or local officials and members of the legislature.”
The Wyoming Freedom Caucus posted photos on social media of the crowd and put out a press release after the meeting, criticizing the way it was handled, saying “taxpayers were gaslighted and treated with disdain” by Harshman.
“It is unacceptable to treat the people of Wyoming this way,” the caucus said.
The caucus also said Zwonitzer “castigated” the public for cutting into the committee’s time. This is a slight mischaracterization as Zwonitzer expressed frustration about not being prepared for the length of testimony and not having the opportunity to draft legislation to resolve issues brought up during the meeting.
Bear said he doesn’t agree with the conclusions made in the letter from Driskill and Sommers.
“I think they’re just trying to lay blame to some instead of dealing with an important problem in our state right now — the rapid increase in property taxes,” he said.
He also believes that the “uniparty” wing of the Republican Party has no real interest in addressing rising property taxes, an issue he believes must be addressed by reducing government spending. “Uniparty” is a term hardline conservatives use to describe Republicans they feel aren’t conservative enough so they’re basically like Democrats.
Bear said he and other Freedom Caucus members are only interested in real, long-term solutions for property tax relief.
“The Wyoming Freedom Caucus wants to right-size the government for the population of Wyoming,” he said. “The uniparty made it clear they have no interest in property tax reform and getting spending under control.
Driskill disagrees and said there were opportunities to provide property tax relief during the 2023 legislative session that the Freedom Caucus passed on.
He mentioned legislation sponsored by Sen. Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester, that 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.
“It was absolutely painful to me to see the Freedom Caucus and the Democrats to kill the only property tax bill we had to really provide relief,” Driskill said. “They chose to deny tax relief because they did not get exactly what they wanted in that bill.”
Driskill said he wasn’t too concerned about the meeting itself, but does worry it could start a trend of unruly committee meetings.
“I worry it will get a trend started where people will bring their friends to cheer things they like and boo the things they don’t,” he said.
Harshman said he believed the meeting ran smoothly and beyond some “theatrical” behavior from some who testified, everyone brought valuable thoughts to the table. He also took some blame for the audience behavior, as he neglected to read a statement to them at the beginning of the meeting reminding them of the rules of decorum.
“People have gotten really relaxed with that,” Sommers said. “People don’t like to say that. They’d rather not give out the rules or tell people how to behave.”
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.