If there’s one person Wyomingites can credit most for not having to pay a state income tax, it’s former Wyoming House Speaker Nels Smith.
Smith died at the age of 84 in a car crash last Friday.
In 1973, Smith, a Republican from Sundance, sponsored Resolution 12, a constitutional amendment that credits against any ad valorem and sales taxes a resident would pay based on the amount of their income taxes, if an income tax ever were to become law in Wyoming. In short, Article 15, Section 18 of the Wyoming Constitution nullifies any future income tax that could be imposed by removing its financial impact for most people.
Former state legislator and chairman of the Wyoming Republican Party Diemer True remembers how much this amendment meant to Smith.
“He was very dogged on that,” True said.
Working The Room
In 2019, former state lawmaker Mike Madden revealed in a WyoFile opinion column that this amendment almost didn’t make it for Wyoming voters to pass into law.
On the amendment’s third reading in the Senate, it only passed 19-11, lacking the two-thirds majority needed to head to the governor’s desk. The third reading of this vote was then “expunged from the record,” allowing for another third reading to happen that allowed the amendment to meet the two-thirds threshold.
It’s fair to assume that between the two votes, Smith was working a little of his political magic, a talent former U.S. Sen. Al Simpson said Smith had plenty of.
“You wanted him on your side,” Simpson said. “If he was with you, you were going to do well. If he was on the other side, you better bring a light lunch.”
True said Smith was an excellent legislator who was very thoughtful in the actions he took. When Roe v. Wade made abortion a protected right in 1973 and led Wyoming to have to change its laws, True remembers Smith walking the aisles of the House, passionately explaining to his fellow representatives his thoughts on the matter.
“He was just a powerful public speaker and a damn good legislator,” True said,
True went up against Smith during his freshman year in the Legislature in 1973 on a bill granting a hardship driver’s license to 14-year-olds, which True opposed. Even though the bill kept getting defeated in committee and on the floor, some of its amendments passed through both chambers.
During a conference committee meeting to square up differences between the House and Senate versions of these amendments, True remembers Smith telling him ever so politely what it would take for the bill to pass into law.
“He said with the biggest smile on his face, ‘If you want this bill to pass, you better get the 14-year-old hardship in there,’” True said. “He was such a gracious guy.”
Smith also supported calling a Convention of the States to require congress to pass a balanced budget. In 2017, former state legislator Tyler Lindholm, representing the same area as Smith in Sundance, pushed a balanced budget amendment through the House and Senate, and dedicated the effort to Smith.
Simpson remembers when Smith was one of the first legislators to directly take on the Union Pacific Railroad, which had been charging trona miners for crossing corners underground. They changed the law to allow miners who had to use an underground easement to use condemnation.
“We broke their back and they became a very corporate citizen,” Simpson said.
Tall And Booming Presence
Standing about 6-foot-7 and weighing around 240 pounds with a thick, muscular frame, Smith was an imposing presence that commanded the room. In 1977, he was named Speaker of the House.
“He had a booming deep voice that every radio announcer wanted to have,” True said.
When standing by Simpson, the two made a remarkable pair, as Simpson was only about an inch shorter. They also were both rather young, carrying plenty of blood and vinegar into their legislative pursuits.
“We just waded into them,” Simpson said.
Simpson and Smith’s families have a rather intertwined history. When Smith’s grandfather Nels H. Smith ran for governor in 1938, Simpson’s father Milward Simpson vowed that he would support him despite finding out the news that Smith was running while walking up the steps of the State Capitol to file his own candidacy for the job.
When his grandson Nels Smith decided to run for governor in 1982, Al Simpson followed in the family tradition and supported his campaign.
“We shared a common love of Wyoming and a love of politics and love of kin,” Simpson said.
Smith was considered the early Republican frontrunner for governor, and Simpson said he had a great chance of defeating Gov. Ed Herschler, who was vying for a third term. But Smith pulled out of the race shortly before the primary, citing health concerns.
Smith stayed active in politics after leaving the Legislature, serving as the Wyoming Public Services commissioner for nearly a decade. A rancher by trade, Smith had great support from the agricultural community, Simpson said.
“He knew the game, he knew agriculture, he knew Wyoming and the heritage of it,” Simpson said.
Former Gov. Matt Mead said Smith was “extraordinarily helpful” when he ran for office in 2008.
“I don't know of anyone who thought more about how to improve Wyoming and the lives of others than Nels,” Mead said.
Just as remembered as Nels will be his wife, Jeanette, who also died in Friday’s car wreck at the age of 85.
Mead and Simpson said they will both remember her fondly, and that the couple would often get together with them and their wives.
“Nels and Jeanette gave us all the example of how thoughtfulness, kindness and civility is the best recipe for improving our communities and our state,” Mead said. “Carol and I will deeply miss Nels and Jeanette, but Nels' deep beautiful voice, his wisdom and his vision for Wyoming will resonate and guide Wyoming for generations to come.”
Simpson, 92, has seen many of his close friends from Wyoming politics pass away in recent years.
“I will greatly miss him,” Simpson said. “You grieve because you’re going to miss your pal. The grieving is not for the deceased, it’s for you to miss your pal.”
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.