By Sarah Pridgeon
Representative Mark Semlek discussed the aftermath of this year’s Legislative Session with the County Commissioners last week, providing updates on the situation with landfills, mountain pine beetles and erosion of local government. He described the session as “fairly difficult,” thanks to the controversial issues that came up.
While discussing the funding that the Legislature made available to fight the mountain pine beetle infestation across the state, Semlek spoke of the ongoing project and the local collaboration between entities including Weed & Pest, the Conservation District and the County Commissioners.
“We rolled the project out a year ago and our approach was to do the most that we could by using a boots-on-the-ground rather than a bureaucratic approach,” he said. “The entities involved with us have been fabulous, which has enabled the program to go on.”
Although February was a good month for cutting and chunking, Semlek described success as elusive. “We don’t know what the summer might bring in terms of infestation and spread rate, but we know what will happen if we do nothing.”
According to Semlek, there was a certain amount of push-back from certain legislators last year, who wondered why help had not been available when the infestation had hit their constituencies. This project, however, has been a local coalition of “interested and concerned people who organized themselves.”
The $2 million dollars granted for the project last year has mostly been invested, Semlek confirmed, with at least $1 million from the general fund committed this year and another $1 million potentially available at the Governor’s discretion. Semlek stressed the importance of momentum and his hope that work can continue apace to keep ahead of the spread of the epidemic.
“Either you believe in the project or you don’t,” said Semlek. “Don’t fund it one year and then say we’re not going to fund it the next.”
Semlek went on to speak of the Legislature’s discussions regarding landfills and the capping, monitoring and recycling programs that will be needed.
“Sundance is number nine on the list, I think, of landfills that really have some problems,” he said. “The perspective that’s growing in the Legislature is that this is going to have to be a shared responsibility. These rules were adopted for landfills a number of years ago but, as things change, I think it requires some partnership of responsibility between the state and the citizens.”
“As with water development and solid waste, you get what you ask for when you get the state involved,” he continued. If a community wants funding for a water development project, for example, the state looks carefully at the rates charged across all the entities asking for money, as a matter of fairness.
Semlek suspects that the same will apply to landfills, with the state requiring rates to be equalized across cities and counties and asking communities to work together to provide the equipment for a landfill to operate.
“I sense that the state will become partners with local communities in closing and capping, that’s one half of the equation,” said Semlek. “The other half is what we are going to do in the future.”
Semlek believes that regional programs will be preferred, involving “communities coming forward to transport solid waste to baling stations.” Recycling, he said, would reduce how much waste is put in the ground, but would only be economically viable if done on a regional basis.
The representative also spoke of a bill that questioned whether County Commissioners should perform in-house hearings for private roads, expressing dismay that the County Commissioners Association was aggressive in its approach.
“There was testimony that many cases end up in the courts anyway,” he said. “That, in fact, is not true from my review of the cases that were reported across the state. Maybe 25 percent of them end up in court, but it certainly wasn’t an overwhelming majority.”
Semlek was not pleased with the association’s lack of latitude. “They didn’t want commissioners to have the choice to make the decision to do it in-house,” he explained. “I was concerned with how unbending they seemed to be on the issue.”
Suspecting that the next step will be to for the association to argue for the removal of county Boards of Equalization, Semlek stated his concerns with the erosion of local control.
“Government works best when it’s closest to the people and, while I really believe that and I know you do too, I feel like there’s kind of a mood now to not hear these things locally,” he said. “With private roads, certainly some of the cases are difficult, but the process is not. I sense that this issue came about because parties want to prevail, not so much because the process is so complicated that commissioners can’t figure it out.”
His preference for a compromise, he said, would be for commissioners to have the choice as to whether they want to hear private road cases “if they feel like it’s better to serve the people in their county and have that decision made locally.”
The Legislative Session as a whole was unusually difficult, according to Semlek, largely because of the issues that came up.
“The Cindy Hill bill right out of the gate had a lot of controversy and a lot of constituents weighed in on it. But that’s ok, that’s what we want,” he said. “Then there was the gas tax, another issue that a lot of people had opinions on, and legislation that dealt with the Second Amendment and guns. So it was a session that, not so much on the floor but from the input that we received from people, was fairly pointed.”
The discourse, he continued, in some cases lacked civility. “It doesn’t bother me, I’ve been a public servant for 20 years. I just message people back and say they might be more effective if they weren’t quite so blunt.”
To Semlek, the communications he had with constituents and others around the state was an opportunity to “educate people on issues they’re very passionate about” and aid them in effectively petitioning his colleagues. He also noticed how strongly Facebook influenced public opinion.
“For the first time, I saw the use of Facebook to get messaging out about Legislative matters, and that’s good. What’s not good is that it’s more opinion than fact sometimes, but people read it and say, ‘well that must be true’,” he explained.
To the representative, Facebook has become one of the many media outlets that empower and engage people in the Legislative process. While he approves of this, he has concerns about “what your friend Sally did last night after supper and Legislative issues all being treated the same way,” which sometimes led to misunderstandings.
“I had to steer my way around some really harsh criticisms and explain that’s not how I voted, check the records.”
Semlek received up to 200 emails each day for the full 37 days of the Legislative Session, some messages blunter than others. “I think I can partially account for that with the dramatic change this year in the issues and people hurting from federal policies that haven’t been particularly favorable to Wyoming,” he concluded.