Active Legislative Session wraps up after “tackling tough issues”

By Sarah Pridgeon

The 2013 Legislative Session wrapped up last week having seen a total of 429 bills considered, a supplemental budget adopted that includes cuts in most state departments and plenty of surprises. Governor Matt Mead thanked Legislators for having the courage to tackle “tough issues” that included education reform, fuel tax hikes, human trafficking and a new state lottery.

Of the 429 bills introduced at the session, a total of 206 were passed. The Senate introduced 161 pieces of legislation, 87 of which passed both the House and Senate, while 119 of the House’s 263 bills were approved by both bodies.

The session was not without its revelations, with the “Hill Bill” emerging as an early contender for biggest shock. In the weeks since the bill was passed, removing most of the duties of the state education superintendent and transform the role into a mostly ceremonial one, the Wyoming Constitution Party has begun collecting signatures on a statewide petition to repeal the decision, calling it a violation of state constitution.

Governor Matt Mead said that signing the bill into law was not an easy decision. “This bill addressed a structural problem in a system that existed for many years.”

Hill herself has announced that she will be running for governor in the next election cycle against incumbent Matt Mead and has instigated a lawsuit to challenge the bill. Hearings will begin on March 14.

Representative Hans Hunt meanwhile surprised constituents with a strongly worded response to a letter that was sent to representatives around the state. The missive was penned by a minister who had recently moved to Wyoming and, having developed concerns about expanding gun laws and the dangers of fracking, was considering leaving again.

“I’ll be blunt,” replied Hunt, continuing true to his word. “If you don’t like the political atmosphere of Wyoming, then by all means, leave.”

Hunt railed against liberal out-of-staters who move to Wyoming and then “pompously demand” that its people conform to their way of thinking, debunking the minister’s concerns as not scientifically proven and expressing his support for Wyoming’s

“live and let live” approach to economic development. “If you’re so worried about what our legislature is working on, then go back home.”

The Hans Hunt Letters, as they became known, circulated widely and soon garnered national attention. Hunt, who remains unapologetic about his response, nevertheless told TheBlaze.com that he wishes he’d articulated one point more clearly:

“By all means, please come to Wyoming, ’cause we’d love to have you. But if you’ve come here with some sort of preconceived notion that it isn’t, then accept what it is, and don’t be offended that it’s not what you thought it was going to be.”

More recently, a bill that was intended to regulate Wyoming’s bison population, by increasing the number a hunter can kill from one in a lifetime to one every five years, returned to the senate as the session came to a close, only to have an amendment added that would set aside $250,000 to protect Second Amendment rights.

The money was appropriated from the General Fund to the Attorney General’s office and can be spent only for the purpose of defending citizen’s Second Amendment rights, “including defending against any executive orders which would limit the ability of Wyoming citizens to hunt or manage bison.” Senators on the floor debated whether the amendment was constitutional, with some claiming it would protect hunter’s rights and others wondering what it had to do with a bill about bison hunting.

“We have protected our ability to hunt bison against a very real threat to remove the firearms that can be used to hunt bison,” said Senator Scott.

Governor Matt Mead allowed a bill that forced the University of Wyoming to make its search for a new president public to become law without his signature. His intention, he said, was for the Board of Trustees to finalize its search under the terms that were established at the beginning of the process rather than to change the process midstream; he also expressed concern about the precedent set by the bill.

“By not affixing my signature to this bill, I wanted to express my concern about creating another exemption from disclosure under the Public Records Act,” he said. “We should avoid further expansion of this law.”

Lawmakers also made sure that Medicaid cannot be expanded within Wyoming without their approval. The stipulation was added to a bill that addressed health insurance exchanges as a last-minute attempt to ensure that the governor does not move forward with Medicaid expansion to Wyoming’s 17,600 poor adults.

Among the other prominent issues addressed during the session were a pair of bills that will assist the mandatory closure of Sundance’s landfill by creating a remediation program that will reimburse cities for up to 75 percent for the cost of reclaiming a landfill site. The cost covers contamination investigations, design and installation of monitoring and remediation systems and the operation of those systems for up to ten years.

The House and Senate agreed to a compromise on the bill that authorizes a state lottery, approving a resolution from the conference committee that will grant the first $6 million in proceeds to local governments and any remaining proceeds to a public school foundation fund.

Wyoming has also become the last state in the nation to pass a specific law prohibiting human trafficking. The bill makes it a state crime and empowers local law enforcement to make arrests.

A 10-cent per gallon tax increase on fuel will be introduced in July, with the proceeds expected to generate more than $70 million each year, over $45 million of which will be set aside for the Wyoming Department of Transportation to maintain state highways. The remaining money is to be distributed to local governments for infrastructure expenses.

Education reform was addressed in two bills that aim to improve student learning. The first bill rates schools on student performance and offers help to those schools not meeting academic targets, while the second alters testing, requiring 11th graders to take the ACT college entrance exam and removing PAWS at junior level.

House Bill 23 modified the law relating to juvenile offenders, eliminating life sentences without parole. Instead, offenders who have been sentenced to life imprisonment can be eligible for parole after 25 years, or if the sentence is commuted to a term of years, if the crime was committed before he or she was 18 years old.

Meanwhile, school districts have been granted the right to know of the proceedings of court actions involving the misconduct of a minor if the information is relevant to the suspension or expulsion of that minor.

The right for utility companies to exercise eminent domain for wind energy collector systems was extended for two years, until June 2015. Any entity seeking to condemn land through eminent domain, for any reason, will meanwhile be required to pay a landowner’s legal fees and other costs if a judge determines that land in question was worth 15 percent or more at market value than the final offer made for it.

State employees will now be required to increase their pension plan contributions to 0.25 percent, with the state to pay 0.75 more per year for three years, after which the one percent increase will be split. The bill, which had been thought dead after the House and Senate failed to reach a compromise, reappeared late in the session and was amended from the original requirement for the state to pick up the entirety of the 1 percent increase.

A combination of two bills passed at the Legislature are intended to increase the use of compressed natural gas as vehicle fuel, by allowing businesses to apply for loans for either 75 percent of the cost to install pumps or $1 million, whichever is the lesser amount, and by mandating that state agencies, community colleges and the University of Wyoming buy compressed natural gas vehicles as fleet replacements at least 50 percent of the time.

First-class cities in Wyoming will no longer have health and quarantine jurisdiction for the five miles surrounding city limits, according to a bill part-sponsored by Senator Mark Semlek that reduces the distance to one half mile. The jurisdiction zone was originally put in place in the 1800s, when travelers on the roads that were suffering from contagious disease could be prevented from entering city limits by the mayor.

An act that increases the number of antelope licenses for disabled hunters from 30 to 50 also provides for the use of artificial lighting devices and repeals restrictions on hunter companion permits was also passed.

“In addition to those bills, the Cowboy State’s supplemental budget was also adopted,” said Anthony Sara, Associate Legislative Information Officer. “The bill includes budget reductions of $62 million in funds from the General Fund/Budget Reserve Account and supplemental appropriations of $140.5 million.”

In total, the budget provides net appropriations of $78.4 million from the General Fund/Budget Reserve Account, $10.1 million in federal funds and $60.5 million in other funds for spending through June 30, 2014.

“The Wyoming Legislature encourages the public to participate in interim activities,” said Sara. “The public can use the Legislature’s website at www.wyoleg.gov to find information about interim legislative committees, including committee membership, the dates and locations of interim legislative committee meetings – which are held throughout the state – and minutes.”