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Curbs on foreign land ownership, immigrant driver’s licenses fail in House

Restricting foreign influence and immigration in Wyoming is a top priority for some lawmakers. But their attempts to keep legislation alive failed Tuesday.

Sen. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle) during the 2024 budget session. (Ashton J. Hacke/Wyofile)

by Maya Shimizu Harris, WyoFile

CHEYENNE—Restricting foreign influence and immigration in Wyoming was a priority for some lawmakers this session, yet repeated, and at times unconventional, attempts to advance legislation addressing these issues failed. 

Earlier this session, three bills — two that would have restricted foreign land ownership in Wyoming and another deeming driver’s licenses issued to unauthorized immigrants invalid in Wyoming — died in House committees. 

Though the three bills appeared to have met their end, representatives tried Tuesday to bring them back to life. The legislators called on rules that would allow the House, by a two-thirds vote, to recall these bills from the committees where they died and forward them for discussion and a vote in the committee of the whole — a body comprised of all the House lawmakers. But all of those attempts failed. 

The two foreign land ownership measures stalled in the House Appropriations Committee Monday after lawmakers on the panel declined to vote on the bills. 

One of the proposals — Senate Joint Resolution 2 — aimed to change the Wyoming Constitution to allow the prohibition of ownership or inheritance of property by foreign entities that “pose a threat to national security.” Today the Wyoming Constitution declares that “No distinction shall ever be made by law between resident aliens and citizens as to the possession, taxation, enjoyment and descent of property.” 

The proposed change — like any other constitutional amendment — would have been put up for a vote by the general public. 

The constitutional amendment acted as a companion to another bill — Senate File 102. This measure aimed to bar foreign ownership of property “near critical infrastructure and military installations.” A prohibited foreign party under the legislation would have four months from receiving notice from the Wyoming Office of Homeland Security to get rid of the property. If the foreign party doesn’t meet that timeframe, then the property would be sold at auction, with the money going first to litigation claims and lien holders and then, if there is any left over, to the state. 

Sen. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle) chairs an official Senate Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources Committee hearing at the Wyoming Capitol in February 2024. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Sen. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle) sponsored both measures. 

The proposals would have specifically targeted people and entities from China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia and Venezuela — countries that the U.S. Secretary of State has determined to be current foreign adversaries. 

The bills cleared the Senate by wide margins but hit a wall when they crossed over to the House Appropriations Committee on Monday. While expressing concern about the issue at the core of the measures, lawmakers on the House panel argued that the legislation was too far-reaching. 

Some lawmakers questioned how the state would deal with changes in who is considered to be a “foreign adversary” and how that could unfairly impact landowners in Wyoming. Rep. Lloyd Larsen (R-Lander), a member of the House Appropriations Committee, explained to House lawmakers on the floor Tuesday the possible unintended consequences of SF 102. 

“There are contents of the bill that just make it unacceptable,” Larsen said following Rep. Scott Smith’s (R-Lingle) motion to recall the bill and refer it to the committee of the whole. 

The bill doesn’t address, Larsen said, situations where a person from a country with good standing acquires assets in Wyoming only to have the country change and no longer be in good standing. In such a situation, that person could have millions of dollars worth of assets that they have to dispose of in four months. “That’s just very difficult,” Larsen said. 

Rep. Lloyd Larsen (R-Lander). (Ashton J. Hacke/Wyofile)

When lawmakers brought up the concern around the changing status of countries in relation to the U.S., Steinmetz stayed focused on the present. 

“The issue before you is not what will happen tomorrow, or the next day. It’s what’s happening today. And right now our foreign adversaries are here,” she said in the Monday committee meeting. 

Some lobbyists at the House Appropriations meeting on Monday raised questions about the mechanics of the legislation. Laurie Urbigkit, representing Wyoming Realtors, told the committee Monday that real estate agents are barred under the Federal Fair Housing Act from discriminating based on national origin.  

“So we’re not going to ask anybody where they’re from. It’s not going to happen,” Urbigkit said. 

Proponents of the bill argue that allowing foreign businesses to grow roots in Wyoming could pose a threat to national security. 

When it came time to vote on advancing the measures out of committee, none of the members made a motion to do so, eliciting visible exasperation from some in the room who had come to advocate for the proposals. 

“Ladies and gentlemen, none of us are happy with the various issues involving foreign ownership of land in Wyoming, and it’s an important topic,” Chairman Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne) said after the panel declined to vote on the bills. But he added that the proposed legislation is “so broad and so egregious that we don’t find it to be reasonable.” He suggested that foreign ownership of land would be a worthwhile topic to look at in the interim, during which lawmakers could have more time to study the issue. 

Rep. Allen Slagle (R-Newcastle) brought a motion to recall Senate Joint Resolution 2 — the constitutional amendment proposal. But that motion also failed.  

Last week, another House panel, the Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee, declined to vote on Senate File 120 — legislation sponsored by Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne) specifying that driver’s licenses issued to unauthorized immigrants would be invalid in Wyoming. 

Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne) on the Senate floor. (Ashton J. Hacke/Wyofile)

This bill also cleared the Senate by sizable margins. But Bouchard didn’t attend the House Corporations Committee meeting last week to explain his bill and answer lawmakers’ questions, House Corporations Committee Chairman Jared Olsen (R-Cheyenne) told the House floor Tuesday after a lawmaker brought a motion to revive the bill. 

“Had the sponsor of the bill been present, as a chairman, I may have made the decision — with consultation of that individual — to carry the meeting over into an evening meeting. But with the sponsor not even being present, I didn’t figure that it would be a good use of the committee’s time or staff time to carry that over into the evening, so we just adjourned,” Olsen said. 

Rep. John Bear (R-Gillette) noted afterward that Bouchard had been picked to sit on the committee that negotiates the state’s budget, and that he was occupied with that responsibility. 

“​​This is an issue that I think is absolutely number one in the hearts of the people of Wyoming,” Bear said, asserting that the legislation “deserves a debate.” 

Nevertheless, the motion failed. 

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.