When the Wyoming Legislature convenes on Feb. 12, its major focus will be on the state budget and property tax relief, but I’ll be watching a few other important bills.
My favorite bill of the session is House Bill 54, an easy bill to support. The bill would designate the third Tuesday in May as “Wyoming Reads Day” to advance the cause of childhood literacy and encourage early enthusiasm for reading. It won’t cost the state any money but makes this a recognized commemorative day to be observed and celebrated.
The bill honors the enduring work of John and Sue Jorgensen who initiated childhood literacy programs in Casper nearly 30 years ago, growing a free-book program from Casper to become Wyoming Reads, distributing free books for every Wyoming first grader to take home.
Literacy advocates cheer the work of the legislature to officially recognize Wyoming Reads Day. While Wyoming’s governor traditionally signs a proclamation for an annual “Wyoming Literacy Day,” HB54 is a suitable honor for a couple who did so much for childhood literacy in this state.
The bill is sponsored by Representative Washout, Allred, Harshman, Neiman, Northrup, O’Hearn, Obermueller and Walters, and Senators Anderson, Barlow, Landen, Rothfuss and Schuler.
Training requirements revisited
Two bills have been filed that would amend the training requirements for public officials who handle or oversee public funds.
In 2022, the legislature directed the Department of Audit to develop minimum training requirements for public officers in the proper handling of accounts, and every member of a governing body required to take the training by July 1, 2024 (or within a year of assuming office, with few exceptions).
This includes local government boards such as special districts, including volunteer boards supervising county fairs, museums, predator control, weed and pest control, etc., as well as small towns and cities.
The training requires learning about fiscal responsibilities, ethics, public meetings, records management, reporting requirements, and financial practices.
While the new training requirements has meant that many citizens serving as volunteers have already received training offered by various entities, with an increase in boards complying with reporting requirements, that every member of a board must receive the training has generated controversy.
House Bill 65 would limit the minimum training requirements to four hours and would eliminate the requirement for the Department of Audit to request the governing body to remove the public officer or provide increased oversight if the training requirement was not met.
Importantly, this bill retains the requirement for the Department of Audit to request removal or oversight of a public officer who “willfully neglects or refuses to handle his accounts in the manner required.”
This bill would be an improvement over the current law. I serve as an officer on a local board and was thankful to receive the training. But there are other volunteers serving on boards who I fear will leave these boards if the training requirement remains.
For example, one of our board members I’m happy to serve alongside still hays with teams of horses, doesn’t have email, and only recently acquired a cell phone.
We organize our yearly winter meeting to get him the 40 miles into town during that sweet spot between the morning and afternoon cattle feedings on his snow-bound ranch.
We do all this because his devotion to the board’s work is as important as the valuable insights he provides.
Although he’s not received formal board training, he’s careful in his oversight of spending and has championed the internal controls we’ve developed for financial oversight. He relies on the officers of the board to ensure that we’re complying with state requirements, and our system works well.
HB65 would allow our board member to continue to serve on the board, even if we can’t get him into a sanctioned training session, so long as we as a board continue to handle our accounts strictly in conformance with the instructions of the state.
It seems like a reasonable compromise. This bill is sponsored by Representatives Sommers, Banks, and Neiman, and Senator Baldwin.
Representatives Sommers and Banks have also teamed up with other members of both branches of the legislature to sponsor an alternative bill, House Bill 81, that would eliminate the minimal fiscal training requirements for public officers and would direct the state to simply provide comprehensive written materials on these subjects to public officers.
Like HB65, this bill would also instruct the state to seek the removal of members of a governing body who neglect to handle accounts appropriately. It would also remove the members of a governing body from the definition of public officer.
Joining the Sommers and Banks in sponsoring this bill are Representatives Andrew, Lawley, Newsome, Northrup, O'Hearn, Penn, and Washut, and Senators Cooper, Jones and Kolb.
It will be interesting to watch how these two bills are treated, and what direction the legislature decides is best. I believe either bill will fix the problem.
Good Governance, or Heavy Hand?
The last bill I’ll be watching is House Bill 49 which would amend the state’s public meetings law to require live remote audio or video access to meetings “to the extent practicable” and mandate time for public comment at all public meetings.
The bill would require meetings to be recorded, and the agency would be required to post the recordings, as well as meeting minutes, on the agency’s website or at another location that is accessible to the public.
Under current law, an “agency” is defined as “any authority, bureau, board, commission, committee, or subagency of the state, a county, a municipality or other political subdivision which is created by or pursuant to the Wyoming constitution, statute or ordinance, other than the state legislature, the judiciary, the consensus revenue estimating group,” so this new requirement would apply to every county predator board, local fire protection board, cemetery district, fair board, museum board, recreation board, senior citizen district, water and sewer improvement district, solid waste disposal board, etc.
While I wholeheartedly support encouraging audio or video access to public meetings, this proposal comes an unfunded mandate that will financially impact nearly 600 local boards and special districts around the state. There are more than 200 special districts that reported spending under $50,000 last year, and more than 100 other districts that reported spending less than $150,000.
The county board I volunteer for doesn’t have any employees, office, or website, and does not own any computers or equipment. We file all our meeting minutes in the office of the county clerk and spend about $35,000 most years.
In addition to the cost of purchasing equipment and paying for the subscription service to broadcast and record the meetings, each board will have to have a computer-savvy person running the recording equipment and muting and allowing comment via the remote link. All of this comes with costs – both financial and in the labor/expertise to make it happen.
While HB49 proposes that these live remote links are required “to the extent practicable.” I don’t know what that means in terms of a legislative mandate. Who decides what is practicable?
Perhaps agencies that have more than $150,000 per year in expenditures would be able to afford to offer live remote capabilities, but without financial assistance, it would be hard for boards with smaller budgets to do so.
Equally troubling, the bill proposes to mandate time for public comment at all public meetings.
While I support encouraging public engagement in public business, I believe this bill drastically overreaches – probably fixing a problem that occurred somewhere at some time, but imposing a statewide mandate from above when a local fix at the ballot box would adequately address any problems.
The bill proposes, “If an agency provides a timed public comment period for a specific agenda item or for general public comment, the public comment period shall not be closed until the timed public comment period has elapsed. An agency that does not provide a timed public comment period shall allow a reasonable amount of time per agenda item for members of the public to provide public comment.”
Again, it’s these small local boards that prompt my concern, and to require an opportunity for public comment on each agenda item imposes an unreasonably heavy hand.
When members of the public attend a public meeting of an agency, it’s usually for a specific agenda item. Does a board really need to provide time for public comment on signing a lease for a copy machine?
Does a board need to provide time for public comment on approving the minutes of the last meeting? If the board sets a timed public comment period at a meeting, and no members of the public seeks to speak, is the board mandated to sit and twiddle their thumbs?
That’s an abuse of volunteers who serve their communities. This provision of the bill needs to be deleted.
I still believe that government that is closest to the people is best, and members of the Wyoming Legislature should not impose these mandates on local boards. If the legislature views these provisions as promoting good government, then it should back up that view with the funding to make it happen.
Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.