As chairman of the Wyoming Freedom Caucus, state Rep. John Bear, R-Gillette, believes his group is growing in numbers and influence because it represents the voice of the people, even drawing their political competitors into their camp of far-right Republicans.
In response, a new caucus of conservative Republicans called the Wyoming Caucus began forming to rival the Freedom Caucus, a divide within the party Bear said was there when he joined the House in 2020. But it’s become more pronounced and publicized because of the rise of the Freedom Caucus and those opposing it and its legislative tactics.
“It just wasn’t as obvious to the people,” he said.
He said an example of the rift growing more pronounced is House Speaker Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, not introducing certain bills during the 2023 legislative session, like legislation that would have brought school choice to Wyoming.
“I think people would’ve liked seeing it last session,” Bear said. “They’ve seen the light now because it’s in their agenda.”
While both groups are Republicans and have similar names — Wyoming Freedom Caucus vs. Wyoming Caucus — members of the groups are adamant that there are some very important, fundamental differences that divide them.
Bear told Cowboy State Daily that he believes members of the Wyoming Caucus are changing their stances on certain issues in response to the positions that the Freedom Caucus has taken, such as opposing the BLM’s controversial proposed Resource Management Plan for Rock Springs.
The Freedom Caucus held a town hall on this RMP in September, from which Bear said some referred to his members’ comments as hysterical. Now, he said these same people are using the same rhetoric.
“I think that’s a win for us,” he said.
There also have been some bills introduced during the interim legislative session that look similar to bills the Freedom Caucus proposed last spring that were defeated.
Bear said he is skeptical about some of the solutions being proposed and that some of the bills have been tainted with “poison pills.”
Sommers presented new legislation to the Joint Education Committee last month that creates an education savings account (ESA) that will act similarly to a school voucher system, giving parents state money to put their children in private education. Sommers said this bill represents his way of moving away from opposing school choice.
The legislation contains some differences from earlier ESA bills that have been criticized by members of the Freedom Caucus, such as being income restricted for families at 250% or below of the poverty line, and the inclusion of preschool education.
Piggybacking On The Freedom Caucus
The bill is an example of those who don’t align with the Freedom Caucus trying to capitalize on Freedom Caucus proposals, Bear said.
“Unfortunately, they’ve tacked on welfare to it, which makes it unpalatable to the people,” Bear said.
Sommers told Cowboy State Daily his bill allows people of less fortunate backgrounds attain more preschool education options, a level of education that he believes is highly critical for early childhood development and lifelong success. He also said the billl does nothing to require people to seek private education, so therefore it’s not universal welfare.
Bear said the Freedom Caucus plans to bring back original versions of bills like this and others that have been newly presented in more of a compromised fashion in 2024. How those fare during a budget session where bills need 2/3 majority votes to pass will be a test of the strength and influence of the Freedom Caucus ahead of the 2024 election cycle.
“We’ll provide the people with a vote record of real school choice,” he said. “For every bill that they’re pushing through that mimics really conservative values that the people of Wyoming want, we’ll bring one that actually shows and does what the people want.”
Bear also brought up the example of another bill that will be considered in 2024 that compels school districts to communicate to parents immediately about any changes related to their students’ mental, emotional or physical health.
The Education Committee rejected a part of the bill that would have banned the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity themes to children in kindergarten through third grade, which Bear said the Freedom Caucus will attempt to add back in during the session.
“Those are the kind of things that, generally speaking, the electorate does not know,” he said. “It’s our mission to ensure that people know exactly what is going on in their Legislature and exactly who is doing what.”
Bear also questions how sincere some lawmakers are about making real reforms and how much they are influenced by the approaching 2024 elections.
He mentioned a bill the Joint Revenue Committee passed that would raise property taxes from year-to-year by no more than the rate of inflation determined by the consumer price index (CPI) or 5%, whichever is lower. Although Bear said this bill may seem palatable now, it’s signficant that an effort was made during the committee’s meeting in November to remove the CPI aspect from the bill, which if passed would have allowed property taxes to double in as little as every 14 years.
It Gets Chippy
Many members of the Wyoming Caucus like Sommers, R-Pinedale, have criticized the Freedom Caucus for lacking civility in some of its messaging and legislative tactics. Some of this messaging led to national Fox News coverage when Sommers made the decision to keep the bills in his drawer.
Others have been even more blunt and called members of the Freedom Caucus “barbarians” for their approach.
This remark drew outrage from House Majority Leader Rep. Chip Neiman, R-Hulett, who’s a member of the Freedom Caucus.
“For someone to show so little respect for people who have earned so much really bothered me,” Neiman wrote in a Tuesday letter to the editor to Cowboy State Daily. “This was one of our own, using his public forum to dehumanize and degrade people I know well and care for deeply.”
Bear and Neiman said their group’s efforts are based on a desire to shrink government, provide more transparency and let people know what’s going on at the State Capitol in Cheyenne.
“Honestly, this isn’t really a time for unity and following his (Sommers) lead,” Bear said. “This is a time for moral clarity, for us to find out what is the right direction for the state, because I don’t believe the people agree with growing government the way that we’ve been growing government and growing savings account.”
During the 2023 legislative session, the Freedom Caucus criticized the $1.8 billion supplemental budget that was passed, which stashed $1.4 billion into savings.
What About The Upcoming Session?
Bear said that despite the biennial budget, the biggest issues for the 2024 session will be property tax reform, school choice and parental rights. Bear also wants Wyoming to be seen as a great place for people to work and retain their income rather than redistributing it to those making less.
He’s also well aware that the Freedom Caucus doesn’t have the majority of Republican seats in the House. The 2/3 majority required to have any bill introduced into the House will likely require some form of compromise from at least one of the caucuses to get many bills passed.
Bear is optimistic that there is middle ground that the two caucuses can find. He said he and Sommers came to a tentative agreement earlier this year on developing a consent list of bills that both caucuses could agree on to pass during the first week of the session.
But Bear said communications on this matter has recently gone silent.
“It may have something to do with me having a town hall in Sublette County,” he said, referring to Sommers’ home county.
Sommers said this proposal is still on and that he’s also discussed it with Neiman and Minority Floor Leader Rep. Mike Yin, D-Jackson.
“Prior to the session, we’ll try to find the easier bills out of each of the committees that we know we can get passed,” he said.
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.