If Wyoming’s divided Republican Party can’t work together in the upcoming legislative session, skyrocketing property taxes, a firefighter shortage and a suicide hotline fiscal cliff, among other pressing issues, could go unresolved.
Political gridlock is a particular risk in the House, where the hard-line Wyoming Freedom Caucus now has enough votes to veto most bills upon introduction. Enacting legislation is another story. That’s because the Freedom Caucus still doesn’t have enough members to pass bills on its own. It’s the other Republicans in the House that hold that power.
The source of this dynamic is a constitutional procedure unique to a budget session. This will be the first time it applies since the Freedom Caucus grew its ranks in the 2022 election.
The budget session’s initial hurdle is a high one for most bills. With the exception of the budget and redistricting legislation, the state constitution requires that all proposed bills receive two-thirds support in an introductory vote to move forward. In the House, that equates to 42 of the 62 lawmakers.
The Freedom Caucus has roughly 26 members — more than one-third of the House. So, for the first time since its inception in 2020, the Freedom Caucus will be able to single-handedly kill any House bill right out of the gate.
“The [Freedom Caucus] does not take a position on any bill until members have examined the details fully,” Freedom Caucus Chairman Rep. John Bear (R-Gillette) told WyoFile in an email when asked if any bills would be dead on arrival.
“It is safe to say any measure that results in the growth of government, cedes power to the federal government, or raises taxes will be met with opposition from the WYFC,” Bear added.
With Republicans split into roughly two factions — the Freedom Caucus and the more traditional Wyoming Caucus — the chamber’s five Democrats will hold outsized power on second and third reading, when only a simple majority is needed.
“It’s really a question of whether there is room for compromise to get things moving in the budget session,” said Minority Floor Leader Mike Yin (D-Jackson). “Or will it be one where there’s no compromise and then every side fights for itself and then no bill makes it through?” Yin added.
The two-thirds introduction requirement came about in the early 1970s, first as a legislative resolution and then ratified by voters.
“That’s before any [Legislative Service Office] staff. Everybody was smoking on the floor, still handwriting amendments,” said Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper), a member of the Wyoming Caucus. “And so it was a different world.”
The idea was to cut down on legislation that could distract lawmakers from the budget. But it has the opposite effect in today’s world, Harshman said, with the first and precious few days of session going toward “40 hours of debate on whether or not to even introduce an idea.”
Starting in 2019 — before the Freedom Caucus formed and most of its members were elected to the House — Harshman tried several times to lay the groundwork to repeal the two-thirds amendment, partly on philosophical grounds.
“Anytime you have a supermajority requirement, it’s tyranny by the minority, whoever the minority is,” Harshman said.
Bear said it would be unwise to do away with the amendment.
“Time is short during a budget session, and all policy deserves serious debate, especially since the insiders have a habit of wanting to adjourn by 5 PM every day to attend beer and shrimp lobbyist dinners,” Bear said in an email.
One of Bear’s own, Freedom Caucus member and Majority Floor Leader Rep. Chip Neiman (R-Hulett) was also criticized for moving to adjourn too early throughout the last session.
Gridlock and committee bills
When it comes to gridlock, Bear said that will depend on non-Freedom Caucus members.
“The fact that no real property tax reform was achieved during the 67th General Session was a result of gridlock,” Bear wrote in an email. The Legislature settled on three bills earlier this year to address residential property taxes, but that was insufficient in the eyes of many lawmakers and voters alike.
“The insiders have no desire for real property tax reform because it would place limits on the revenue source for their pet projects,” Bear wrote. “If the insiders continue to refuse to work toward real solutions, gridlock will be the result once again.”
Rep. Mark Jennings (R-Sheridan), meanwhile, is looking forward to the two factions of the Republican Party potentially canceling one another out.
“I’d look for this session to be a lot of — they’re going to kill most of the conservatives’ bills and we’re going to kill most of the RINOs’ [Republican in name only] bills,” Jennings said during a podcast event in Sheridan earlier this month. “And you know what, gridlock is not always a bad thing. So I’m happy to think that that will happen.”
Jennings did not respond to WyoFile’s requests for comment.
But not everyone views an impasse as a good thing.
“We’ve seen what the result of gridlock means in our U.S. Congress, and when government doesn’t get anything done at all, that isn’t good for anybody,” Yin said.
Yin is especially concerned that taxpayers will pay the price of a legislative impasse, especially when it comes to committee bills. Outside of session, during what’s called the interim, those bills receive extra attention and deliberation by lawmakers, state agencies and other stakeholders including the public.
“There are bills in every single committee that deal with issues that we’ve worked for a year on,” Yin said. “Are we going to just throw all that money that we’ve spent and time that we spent with stakeholders and with legislators out at the beginning of the budget session?”
The cost of committee bills varies. The Management Council budgeted $925,000 for this year’s interim session, while the cost of a single committee bill can run between $6,800 and $14,500 to propose, draft and enact, according to a LSO memo.
Given the cost and vetting process, Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne) said it’s been standard to give committee bills that initial green light. Not every committee bill should pass into law, Zwonitzer added, but each one should at least get through that first hoop.
What else to expect
“I don’t think anyone can accurately predict right now how the 2024 session is going to go,” Zwonitzer said. Part of that, he added, will depend on the financial picture, which will become clearer Wednesday when the October Consensus Revenue Estimating Group report is released.
Because bills may have a better chance to get through introduction in the Senate, Zwonitzer said more may start in the upper chamber.
Over in the House, the two groups of the Republican Party will need one another to pass legislation, so collaboration will be key, Zwonitzer said. However, he added, lawmakers will have to avoid logrolling. That’s because this process of politicians trading votes on one piece of legislation in exchange for another politician’s support is forbidden by the state constitution.
“We can’t in any way, shape, or form promise a vote for another vote, and that would include introduction votes,” Zwonitzer said.
“The legislators who do their due diligence ahead of time in January and try to get co-sponsors from various viewpoints will have the best chance of getting legislation through,” he said.
The 2024 budget session kicks off Feb. 12.