The Wyoming Legislature’s Management Council voted Thursday to guarantee the availability of remote public testimony at committee meetings during the interim legislative session.
The decision follows a general session during which chairmen shut out remote testimony before the Senate Education Committee as well as the House Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee.
While chairs have that discretion, some lawmakers as well as the non-partisan good governance group Equality State Policy Center cried foul.
Those sentiments prompted Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne) to bring the issue to the council last week as it discussed and approved interim topics. Zwonitzer pointed to “confusion and some backlash” earlier in the year and told lawmakers he would like to bring greater consistency to both the session and the interim.
“I do think ultimately it hurts the public in trying to decide what meetings can they remotely testify at, [when] do they have to be in person and how do they know the rules of the game,” Zwonitzer said.
On Sen. Tara Nethercott’s (R-Cheyenne) urging, council members voted to guarantee remote testimony at interim committee meetings — which take place at various locations around the state from spring through fall. Anyone wishing to testify remotely during the interim must sign up by 5 p.m. the night before a committee meeting.
Later in the interim, the Management Council will decide whether to implement a similar policy for the 2024 budget session.
For the most part, Chairmen Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper) and Rep. Donald Burkhart (R-Rawlins) limited testimony in their respective committees during the 2023 general session to those who could travel to Cheyenne and participate in person. The two pointed to technical challenges, like getting microphones and cameras working properly. Scott said some kind of restraint was necessary to account for growing public interest in lawmaking.
Time management, however, is something chairs have to contend with either way, Sen. Nethercott told the Management Council Thursday.
“If you have 100 people in the room, for example, on a gun bill, whether they’re online or in the room, you still have that many people to get through and you have to manage your time accordingly,” Nethercott said.
While the Management Council sometimes “goes a little too far on days like today in dictating to chairmen what their interims look like,” Nethercott said, “it is a disservice to the public” to have inconsistent practices among committees. For that reason, Nethercott proposed a policy to allow remote testimony both in the interim and during session. The council opted to approve the former and decide on the latter closer to the 2024 session.
The council’s previous policy on remote testimony for the interim was put into place in May 2021 as a result of pandemic-related concerns, Matt Obrecht with the Legislative Service Office told lawmakers. In addition to the 5 p.m. deadline, the previous policy left it up to the chair to decide whether to take comment remotely.
In 2022, the Management Council considered adjusting the policy further to require the availability of remote testimony during the session. Ultimately, the council decided against it.
“The idea there was, ‘No that that wasn’t the purview of council, that that was really left to the Houses to decide either through rule or through policy of the presiding officers,’” Obrecht said.
“Having said that … Council has policy on all sorts of session issues,” Obrecht said. “Now, whether that’s appropriate or not, is an open question,”
Earlier in the meeting, Speaker of the House Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) said he was “one of those that believes that we should accept public comment.”
“That doesn’t mean you have to accept all public comment,” Sommers said. “If there’s a bunch of out-of-state [comments], you can shut it down. I think chairmen have to have that ability … But I live on one far side of the state and I think it’s important for my constituents to have access to the Legislature wherever they’re at.”
“People completely understand that the chair will need to retain some level of discretion, but having a clear understanding of what the rules are, and how we can participate would be very helpful to the public,” Jenn Lowe, executive director of ESPC told lawmakers. In January, Lowe asked the council in a letter to “consider a rule that would require remote testimony be made available to virtual participants with the ability of committee chairs to place reasonable restrictions like time limits and registration deadlines.”
The Management Council has yet to schedule its next meeting.