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Wyo Lawmakers Work To Address Wyoming’s Lack Of Meatpacking Plants

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By The Center Square, for Cowboy State Daily

 Lawmakers are moving to fill a COVID-19-created gap in Wyoming’s meat industry with new bills aimed at the state’s processing sector.

In a state that is heavily agricultural with a focus on beef, meat processing plants are few and far between.

House Bills 54 and 51 and Senate File 122 would work to change that.

Until about a year-and-a-half ago, Wyoming did not have any federally inspected slaughter facilities, according to Jim Magagna, executive vice president at Wyoming Stock Growers’ Association.

Even now, the USDA-certified plants the state has are small, he said.

When the pandemic hit and large national facilities shut down, the problem was magnified as producers flocked to small, regional slaughterhouses. Additionally, consumer preference shifted to locally produced food, compounding the logjam.

Wyoming Public Media reports one of those was Wyoming Legacy Meats, where co-owner Frank Schmidt said they quickly became booked out a year in advance. Usually, the waiting list was only a few months.

“So that’s what we were faced with, just a shortage of capacity, and the individual ranchers that wanted to have just an animal processed for their own use often had to schedule a processing date nine months to a year in advance,” Magagna told The Center Square.

The Wyoming Meat Packing Initiative (House Bill 54) directs the Wyoming Business Council to up its game in supporting the state’s agriculture industry specifically through meat processing, Wyoming Public Media reported.

House Bill 51 would create the Wyoming meat processing expansion grant program that would direct money to help expand existing facilities.

The final bill would create the Wyoming Ag Authority, which while driven by the need for beef and lamb, would make loans or grants to facilities developing value-added processing for any Wyoming agriculture products, according to Magagna.

On the national level, U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wy., has introduced a bill to allow state-inspected meat processing plants to sell across state lines.

Magagna explains state facilities are held to the exact same standards as USDA inspected ones; however, they are not allowed to sell outside the state currently.

This bill would open up more markets to Wyoming producers, Magagna said.

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Voter ID Bill Headed to Wyoming Senate for Debates

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A bill requiring people to present some type of identification when voting in person is heading to the floor of the Senate for debate this week.

House Bill 75 would require a person to present “acceptable” identification when going to vote in person. The Senate Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions approved the bill on a vote of 4-1 Tuesday, with only Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, voting “no.”

Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper, the bill’s sponsor, told Senate colleagues during his testimony that the bill would be critical for Wyoming’s elections.

“Voter ID is a step in keeping our election statues tight, and ensuring there’s an environment where it is difficult to commit fraud, it’s a best practices issue,” he said. “This bill will ensure confidence in our elections.”

Wyoming currently requires identification to register to vote, but not when actually voting in person. This bill would not apply for absentee voting.

Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, cracked a joke during the meeting, asking Gray if he would consider amending the bill to include fishing licenses, a joke referencing to U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, who Gray plans to challenge in her bid for re-election.

Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, asked Gray what would happen in the event someone’s ID is stolen prior to voting, to which the representative responded an old ID or a temporary, paper one would suffice.

Scott expressed his concern about the bill, noting not everyone has multiple types of ID and adding a voter could be in a bad spot if the ID is lost before voting.

However, Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Towers, interjected, saying identity could still be verified through voting registration records, since an ID is required to register.

“When you live in the backwoods like I do, all the polling people know you,” Driskill said to Gray. “Is there a thought you could be allowed to cast your ballot because you know the polling people? I know mine, we have coffee together.”

Gray said there were some equal protection concerns regarding visual verification of a person’s identity, which is why that situation hadn’t been addressed in the bill.

Wyoming Secretary of State Ed Buchanan testified in support of the bill, telling the committee how much work his office had done to help write the legislation.

“You really have every available type of identification to be used in this case, so no one has to feel like there’s an ID they can’t get,” he said. “One of the important things I emphasized early on this was in no way disenfranchising any voters.”

Buchanan did say there have only been three or four instances of voter fraud in the state over the last couple decades, “but it does occur.”

Driskill added no one voluntarily announces they cheated the system, they just do it again.

Nethercott mentioned that as a sitting senator, she was once rejected from a polling place in Laramie County because she did not have her ID.

Tom Lacock, spokesman for AARP, supported amending the bill to allow Medicare IDs to be used as acceptable identification for voting, as many elderly people have no need for photo IDs any longer.

Some of the organizations opposed to the bill included the League of the Women Voters and the Equality State Policy Center.

Marguerite Herman, representing the LWV, said Wyoming simply does not need such a requirement for its voters.

“The only accomplishment of HB75 is to create a hoop for the voters and poll workers to jump through on election day with no corresponding benefit,” she said. “Our voter registration system is solid. Our elections are secure. Wyoming should have no patience for such an expenditure of time, effort and other resources.”

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Bill For New Community College District Nears Legislative Approval

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

A bill that would create Wyoming’s first new community college district in more than 50 years is nearing its final review in the Legislature.

Senate File 83, which would create a separate district for Gillette’s community college, was scheduled to be read a third and final time in Wyoming’s House on Wednesday. The bill has already been approved by the Senate.

Sen. Jeff Wasserburger, R-Gillette, who represents Gillette and Campbell County in the Legislature, said it is long past time that Gillette has its own community college.

“Gillette has grown a great deal since the school first started,” he observed. “We’ve really become the third largest community in the state, and we are the largest community in the state without a its own community college district. So we think that it’s time that we put our ‘big boy panties’ on and became an independent community college district that’s controlled by people in Gillette and Campbell County.”

For residents of both Gillette and Sheridan, this could be a win-win, according to Wasserburger.

“I don’t think that there’ll be any impact that is going to hurt Sheridan College in any way,” he predicted. “They have an independent foundation called the Whitney Foundation that helps fund the college — but they also levy five mills (in property taxes) that generates funding, and they receive state aid from the Wyoming Community College commission.”

He added that the Wyoming Legislature recently approved the construction for a new technical education building at Sheridan College, so he expects that the school will continue to be a valuable resource for Sheridan and Johnson Counties.

But the proposal for a new district isn’t without its detractors. 

Officials with the Northern Wyoming Community College District, which controls the Sheridan and Gillette colleges, in February wrote legislators a letter expressing the district’s opposition to the new district.

Walter Tribley, the district’s president, said if the Gillette College wins its own district, Sheridan College will lose $3 million per year because of the resources that will be directed to the new college.

“This negative consequence has been ignored and/or dismissed by those who so adamantly support a division,” he wrote in his letter. “We must stop ignoring this inconvenient truth and begin moving toward a solution.”

As the bill neared its third and final House review, no such appropriation had been put in it.

Several other hurdles must be cleared even if the bill wins final legislative approval and it is signed into law by Gov. Mark Gordon.

If the Legislature approves the creation of the district, Gillette College will still need to ask voters in Campbell County to approve a tax to fund the school.

“It will be a special district election, and all the people in Campbell County – registered voters – will have the opportunity to weigh in on whether or not they’re going to accept the tax for what would be the Gillette Community College,” Wasserburger said.

Even if the voters approve the tax in August, it will be a few years before the school can become entirely independent from the Sheridan College umbrella. Until then, the two schools will continue to operate as they have for the last 51 years.

“In the Gillette College bill, the funding remains the same for Sheridan – and until Gillette college is fully accredited (which is going to take anywhere from two to six years), Gillette college will not be independent,” Wasserburger said. “So it’s very important that we have a great relationship with Sheridan College – we will continue to be best of working partners.

“It has nothing to do with having hard feelings towards Sheridan College – they’ve been more than good to us for many, many years. It’s just that it’s time for us to move on,” he continued.

Should the new district be created, Wasserburger noted it would be the first new community college for the state in more than 50 years.

“The last community college to become an independent community college was Laramie County Community College in 1968,” he said. “It doesn’t happen every day.” 

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Revenge Porn Bill Passes Wyoming Senate, Headed Back to House

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A bill banning the distribution of intimate pictures or videos of a person without that person’s knowledge, also known as “revenge porn,” won final approval from the Wyoming Senate on Monday.

The Wyoming Senate passed House Bill 85 on its third reading Monday, with 29 senators voting to approve it (the other senator was excused). The bill will now be sent back to the House for its review of any Senate changes to the bill and if approved there, it will be sent to Gov. Mark Gordon, who will decide whether to sign the bill into law.

The bill would create a law making the act of distributing intimate images (sending out videos/photos depicting people in a sexual act) of another person without that person’s knowledge a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and/or a $5,000 fine.

During the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the bill on March 19, sponsor Rep. Clark Stith, R-Rock Springs, told committee members that the bill would add an important element to Wyoming’s criminal laws.

“What is commonly known as ‘revenge porn’ is not a crime in Wyoming and there are only a handful of states where this isn’t a crime,” Stith said.

Stith, an attorney, said he became aware of this issue because he had a client who engaged in “revenge porn,” but the local prosecutor was in a challenging situation because the act was not illegal.

“He either had to charge nothing or he had to try and shoehorn the conduct into some other category,” Stith said. “Your typical case is where you’ve got a jilted boyfriend who then has an intimate image that he initially got consensually from his ex.”

Stith explained the ex-boyfriend will be upset and post the image to social media or find another way to use it to humiliate a woman.

He added that the charges against his client were eventually dropped.

“From a lawyer’s point of view that sounds like a victory, but it didn’t really feel like justice, frankly,” Stith said.

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Bill Banning Social Media Censorship Killed In Committee

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Wyoming State Capitol

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A measure aimed at preventing internet companies such as Twitter and Facebook from blocking certain opinions was killed in a House committee Monday as members expressed concern about the government telling businesses what they can do.

Senate File 100 was defeated by a vote of 3-6 in the House Judiciary Committee after members questioned whether the state should tell private companies how to moderate comments on their sites.

“What this is is the government telling companies what they can and cannot do,” said Rep. Ember Oakley, R-Riverton. “It seems to be the opposite, conceptually, when we’re in this area of the First Amendment.”

The bill would prohibit interactive internet companies such as Twitter and Facebook from discriminating against a person who posted a message based on “viewpoint, race, religion and location.” Any person who believes a company violated the rule could seek compensation of $50,000.

Harriet Hageman, an attorney with the New Civil Liberties Alliance, said there have been examples of some statements being removed from social media, such as those from people who believe there were irregularities in the 2020 election. She also pointed to larger companies blocking access to a social media company popular conservatives.

Sen. Cheri Steinmetz, R-Lingle, said because such companies hold what amounts to a monopoly over social media, they should be regulated to guarantee residents are treated fairly.

“When you have a company that is basically a monopoly … you can regulate them or go for an anti-trust remedy,” she said. “And it’s an obligation of the government to protect our citizens when a company gets too large and too monopolistic.”

But several members of the committee noted that while guarantees of free speech exist in public spaces, those same protections do not exist in private businesses.

“My understanding is this is simply a matter of whether it is the public square or not,” said committee chair Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne. “Are we saying that Facebook ought to be the public square?”

The bill was opposed by several internet organizations, such as NetChoice and the Internet Association, which also questioned the state’s ability to dictate to private businesses.

Mike Smith, a representative for the Internet Association, noted Wyoming’s Supreme Court has ruled that the First Amendment does not apply to private companies.

“This idea that the First Amendment applies to private property is kind of a dangerous one and one I wouldn’t want us to go down,” he said.

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Bill Limiting Public Health Orders Headed For Wyoming Senate Debate

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A bill limiting the duration of public health orders to just 10 days without renewal by top elected officials is one step closer to Gov. Mark Gordon’s desk.

House Bill 127 would limit public health orders issued by public health officers at the state and local level to 10 days in length. Any extensions could be approved only by local elected officials or the governor.

“I don’t think I need to explain the reasoning for this bill,” bill sponsor and House Speaker Rep. Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, told his Senate colleagues on Monday during a committee hearing. “This bill…tries to segregate the diseased or exposed population from the orders they may be under from a healthy population.”

Barlow said that after the first 10 days of a statewide or county-wide health order being enacted, the decision to keep healthy people under lockdown in addition to those who are sick becomes a political one.

People who are actually sick with an illness can individually be placed under health orders, such as quarantines, that should be issued by health officers, Barlow said.

However he added that since Wyoming’s county and state health officers are appointed, not elected, their powers should be limited when it comes to restricting the movement of healthy people.

“My belief, I took it back to the governing bodies participating in that health district,” Barlow said.

The bill was one of several introduced during the Legislature’s session to limit the authority of public health officers to restrict businesses and actions in the wake of the business shutdowns prompted by the coronavirus.

Wyoming Department of Health Deputy Director Stefan Johansson told the committee that his department didn’t have an official stance on the bill, but did have a few questions about certain situations that would or would not apply, although he did not get the opportunity to ask during the meeting.

Ultimately, three of the committee members chose to send the bill back to the Senate floor this week.

The Appropriations Committee review followed House approval of the bill last week. After being approved by the House, the bill was originally referred to the Senate Corporations Committee for review, but was then redirected to the Appropriations Committee. The Appropriations Committee usually only reviews bills that contain an expense. HB127 carries no expense.

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UW, Laramie Slammed As Water Bill Moves Forward; Sen. Scott Calls Bill “A Disgrace”

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Wyoming State Capitol

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

The University of Wyoming and city of Laramie were both criticized for their unwillingness to settle a water dispute on Friday as the state Senate gave initial approval to a bill that would let the university develop its own water system without restriction by the city.

Senators voted to send House Bill 198 on to a second reading on Monday despite comments by several legislators that the bill should never have been submitted to the Legislature.

“In all candor, this bill is a disgrace,” said Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper. “(The UW and Laramie) have chosen to fight, chosen to lawyer up and brought a mess to us. But if we don’t pass this bill, there will be an extensive lawsuit and further difficulties and we may have to spend money on both the university and the city getting things right.”

According to testimony offered during a hearing by the Senate Corporations Committee on Thursday, the city began providing water at no cost to irrigate the university’s Jacoby Golf Course in the 1950s. In exchange the course was opened to the public.

In 2007, Laramie began charging for the irrigation water and Rep. Bob Nicholas, the bill’s sponsor, said the annual cost is now close to $200,000.

The university has drilled two wells on land adjoining the golf course and had planned to irrigate the course with those wells, however, the city adopted an ordinance forbidding other entities from transporting water across city boundaries without obtaining a permit. The ordinance blocked the university from using the wells to irrigate the course.

HB198 would prohibit any city or county from restricting the university as in the construction of water systems or the use of its water.

Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told the Senate the Legislature was left in a difficult situation.

“This is kind of a sticky wicket bill,” he said. “We’ve had an ongoing dispute pushing 15 years now between the university and the city of Laramie. This will cost us money if it doesn’t get solved via this means because we’ll go to court. It means we’ll pay out of pocket for attorneys for both sides.”

Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, said the bill amounted to “litigation in the Legislature,” where each side in the dispute tried to get favorable legislation introduced.

“Who was the fastest to make a power play with the Legislature and get a bill slammed through,” she said. “That’s what happened. That’s what this bill is. I am disappointed in the parties.”

Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, questioned why the Legislature would want to get involved in a local fight.

“This is about who could get here the quickest with the biggest gun,” he said. “It’s going to cost money and now we’re going to adjudicate a decision. This is just the wrong way to do this.”

The bill was approved for further debate on the Senate floor by a vote of 14-12.

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Committee OKs Bill For Ag Promotion Agency

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Wyoming State Capitol

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A bill to create a state agency to promote Wyoming’s agriculture industry through investments and marketing was approved by a House committee on Thursday despite concerns that it would increase the size of government.

Senate File 122, creating the Wyoming Agriculture Authority, was approved on a vote of 5-4 by the House Agriculture Committee for debate on the floor of the House.

The bill was prepared in response to problems created for Wyoming’s meat producers by the concentration of the nation’s meat packing industry in the hands of four large companies, said primary sponsor Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas.

“It acknowledges that this is not an even playing field,” he said. “It’s simply saying that this very fragile, unreliable meat processing situation we have is unacceptable to everybody.”

But Boner said the authority could also help with the promotion and marketing of other Wyoming agriculture commodities such as wool, sugar beets and grains.

“The current crisis has to do with meat processing, but who’s to say the next one won’t have to do with wheat or sugar beets or wool?” he said.

The bill would create a board to help the Legislature with the creation of the Agriculture Authority, which would then be authorized to sell revenue bonds to raise money to help with the creation of small and mid-sized meat processing plants.

The authority would also take over the marketing and promotion of Wyoming’s agricultural products from the state Department of Agriculture, Boner said, leaving the department responsible for consumer protection issues.

The measure was supported by several agriculture organizations as a way to help Wyoming meat producers break away from the influence of the four companies that control about 80% of the meat packing industry.

“This is a piece of legislation about which we are excited,” said Jim Magagna, director of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. “We see tremendous potential in being able to move forward with something like this to help, certainly our industry, the beef industry, but all of the agriculture industries in Wyoming.”

Several committee members said they were hesitant to approve the bill, given the fact there was little information on what the authority might cost.

“I agree this is a very important philosophy, but I am reticent to agree to something that is going to encumber the state … without knowing what that cost will actually be,” said Rep. Scott Heiner, R-Green River. “In my mind, we’re growing government here without knowing what it’s going to cost.”

But supporters argued the authority’s board would work with the Legislature’s Joint Agriculture Committee for up to two years to determine the details of the authority’s operation before the authority would take any official action.

Supporters on the committee said they also liked the idea of giving Wyoming’s meat producers a chance to operate independently of the major meat packing companies.

“What we’re hoping to do is bring back a little bit of the control from the major packing plants,” said Committee Chair Rep. John Eklund, R-Cheyenne. “This gives enough flexibility and latitude for businesses within Wyoming to take back a part of that market share.

Committee members amended the bill to require a plan for the authority to be in place by 2023 and then added  language saying if no such plan was developed by mid-2023, the authority would be dissolved.

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Bouchard Gun Bill Passes But Bouchard Votes Against It Stating Amendment Destroyed It

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A bill that would give the state the authority to find certain federal gun regulations invalid won final Senate approval Wednesday, but only after being largely rewritten.

Senators voted 24-6 in favor of Senate File 81, the “Second Amendment Preservation Act,” only after it was heavily amended to create a legal process by which the state could refuse to enforce certain federal gun rules.

“This … is an amendment that preserves the heart and soul and spirit of what we hoped to do with this legislation,” Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan. “It’s consistent with our constitutional right as a state to refuse to enforce laws we believe to be unconstitutional.”

One of the senators voting against the bill was Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne, its primary sponsor, who complained the amended version destroyed the intent of the original bill.

“I’m going to vote no because I got drug into a fight with everybody because we wanted to pass a bill that does nothing,” he said.

As originally written, the bill said the state could declare as invalid any federal law that infringed on Second Amendment rights, including taxes on firearms and ammunition, registration of firearms and laws forbidding the ownership, use or possession of firearms by law-abiding citizens.

The bill would also have forbidden law enforcement officers from seizing weapons in response to federal laws and would have allowed officers and their local governments to be sued over such seizures.

But senators agreed with arguments by Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, that the state needed to establish some kind of process before simply declaring a federal law invalid.

Hicks’ amendment would allow groups of 25 or more to petition the attorney general with allegations a federal gun law was an unconstitutional infringement on the Second Amendment. If the attorney general and governor agreed, the governor would issue an executive order blocking local law enforcement officers from enforcing the federal law in question.

Senators agreed the process would be a better way to handle a difference over a federal law than simply declaring the law invalid, something several said states are not allowed to do under the Constitution.

“The amendment makes the bill palatable, it makes the bill constitutional,” said Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne.

Nethercott also implied the part of the original law allowing people to sue law enforcement officers for seizing weapons would keep attorneys employed.

“As you know, there’s a crisis in this state and this crisis is availability of lawyers,” she said, joking. “If you vote against (the new language), you’re voting against the lawyers and their ability to pay off their heavy student loan debt.”

The removal of the language allowing lawsuits against law enforcement officers was also welcomed by Sen. Drew Perkins, R-Casper.

“This bill now focuses and aims this effort at the right people,” said Sen. Drew Perkins, R-Casper. “This bill keeps our law enforcement from being caught in the crossfire.”

But Bouchard said the amendment destroyed the original intent of the bill by forcing the state to go to court over disputes.

“The bottom line is this guts it,” he said of the amendment. “This bill was simple. There’s no enforcement in this.”

Bouchard also criticized his fellow Republicans for bringing the amendment.

“In other states, it was members of the other party bringing this stuff,” he said. “It wasn’t members of my own caucus.”

But Nethercott said the way the bill was written, supporters were asking legislators to back an unconstitutional measure.

“The eye is not on the prize of preserving our Second Amendment rights, rather, it’s been distracted to devolving in on each other,” she said. “That is not acceptable. I did take an oath in this chamber to only advance constitutional legislation. Being pushed to question my oath regarding the constitutionality of legislation before this body is a request that goes too far.”

The bill now heads to the House for review by representatives.

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Bestiality Bill Passes Wyoming Senate Committee of the Whole

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A bill criminalizing the act of bestiality was approved in its first Senate reading this week, making it more likely the bill will become a law by the summer.

House Bill 46 was passed by the “Committee of the Whole” during the Senate’s floor session on Tuesday afternoon. The “Committee of the Whole” refers to a chamber’s first review of a bill after it has been approved by a committee.

The bill, which won final approval from the House earlier this week, would make bestiality a misdemeanor in the state with a maximum sentence of one year in prison and/or a $1,000 fine.

Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, a co-sponsor of the bill, told her colleagues the bill was inspired by an act of bestiality that occurred last summer in Sweetwater County.

“The action did occur in our state recently, drawing the issue to attention and needing to codify this law and make sure there are consequences to that in this state,” she said.

Wyoming is only one of four states that does not have a bestiality law on its books.

Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, questioned whether or not the bill would criminalize artificial insemination and other husbandry acts, but Nethercott noted there was an exception to those situations in the bill.

Sen. Drew Perkins, R-Casper, wondered if it would be better to make bestiality a felony in the state, rather than a misdemeanor.

“These cases are really unpleasant to do, especially just for a misdemeanor,” he said.

Sen. R.J. Kost, R-Powell, agreed with Perkins, saying that in many bestiality cases, someone is being forced into the act. He suggested amending the bill on second reading and looking into the situations that precede the bestiality.

“I would say we definitely need to pass this bill,” Kost said.

This incident that spurred the bill occurred last summer when a man in Sweetwater County was found to have trespassed onto private property to engage in sexual activity with horses.

“While shocking, this is actually a very difficult case,” Sweetwater County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Jason Mower said at the time of the crime. “Wyoming is only one of a handful of states without a bestiality statute on the books.”

Mower also explained that for an animal cruelty charge to hold up in court, it would have to be proven that the man actually injured the horses.

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