Over 999,000 readers this year!

Chaos grips Wyoming Legislature after budget negotiations implode

After the House called a stalemate on budget talks and sought a clean slate, the Senate plunged into a tailspin of accusations.

Sen. Larry Hicks, right, confers with Senate President Ogden Driskill, middle in February at the Wyoming Capitol in Cheyenne. (Ashton J. Hacke/WyoFile)

by Maggie Mullen and Maya Shimizu Harris, WyoFile

CHEYENNE—Budget negotiations at the Wyoming Legislature spun out of control Monday night, with the Senate lobbing accusations of bad faith after House members declared a stalemate and walked away. 

The drama sparked questions about when and how lawmakers would finalize a budget and again raised the specter of a special session if the two chambers can’t reach an agreement by the approaching deadline.

The trouble began with the Joint Conference Committee — the panel of lawmakers responsible for negotiating a unified budget. Both chambers passed a budget, but because there were differences — in fact, the two sides were $1.1 billion apart — a committee was formed to bridge the gap. After the House’s offer sat out over the weekend, the Senate made a counteroffer late Monday afternoon. 

It came up short, according to Rep. Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne). As chair of the House Appropriations Committee, Nicholas had been leading the House appointees through budget talks. 

“I think [the House appointees are] unanimous in the concept that it is not reasonably practicable that we’re going to come to an agreement,” Nicholas said. “We are now $900 million apart from a $1.1 billion difference. So we have barely scratched the surface of it.”

The JCC was breaking up. 

Deliberations began last week after both the House and the Senate passed separate budgets. The House made the first move Thursday, offering up a deal that mostly reinstated funding that the Senate had stripped from its version of the budget.

Members of the House Appropriations Committee sit at the front of the lower chamber as the body works through amendments to the budget during the 2024 legislative session. (Maggie Mullen/WyoFile).

Four days later, the Senate responded with a counteroffer, which sought to remove spending for new school construction and the Veterans’ Home of Wyoming in Buffalo and to keep several Senate amendments aimed at restricting the University of Wyoming, among other things. 

That offer, according to Nicholas, amounted to a stalemate. 

“It doesn’t look like there’s any way that you’re going to come even close to what this conference committee on the House side is willing to negotiate,” Nicholas said. 

Nicholas was looking for a fresh start. 

More precisely, Nicholas was asking that budget negotiations be moved to what’s called a free committee. That arrangement, as the name implies, offers lawmakers more wiggle room. Leadership appoints another committee of negotiators who return to the budget starting point as drafted by the Joint Appropriations Committee ahead of the session. From there, any amendment in any amount to any agency is allowed.

But Sen. Dave Kinskey (R-Sheridan), who’d been leading the Senate appointees, wasn’t ready to throw in the towel.  

“I don’t think we’re to that point at all,” Kinskey said. “I’ve seen these negotiations go right up to the 11th hour.” 

Indeed, this was just the third time the JCC was meeting. But the House’s offer had sat out on the table since Thursday. 

“Quite frankly, Mr. Co-Chair, the delay in this was because it took you four days to respond to something that we could have done in six hours, or four hours,” Nicholas said Monday. “And what’s the likelihood that we’re gonna get any further [when] we only have two and a half, three days left to really go and get done and have the bill drafted and have a resolution on both floors?”

Senate Appropriations Chairman Sen. Dave Kinskey (R-Sheridan) speaks on the Senate floor during the 2024 legislative session. (Ashton J. Hacke/WyoFile)

Kinskey reminded Nicholas that technically lawmakers have three extra days constitutionally available to them, but that didn’t budge the House. 

“I don’t know that starting over again with another committee is going to change things,” Kinskey said. “Well, I’m sorry you feel that way.”

Kinskey stood up from his chair. 

“Call me if you change your mind,” he said. 

And that was just the beginning of the night. 

When Senate President Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) moved to appoint new members to the free committee less than an hour later — himself and Sens. Dan Dockstader (R-Afton), Mike Gierau (D-Jackson), Stacy Jones (R-Rock Springs) and Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne) — he was challenged. 

Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) brought a motion to override Driskill, which needed a majority to succeed. 

Earlier in the day

The JCC gathered first thing Monday morning. 

Most of that meeting took place in executive session — the topic being potential litigation related to school capital construction funds. More than an hour and a half later, the meeting reopened to the public. 

“We’re going to meet later today to pick up our consideration of the budget,” Kinskey said. “We owe our House counterparts a response on what they laid on the table on Thursday. We’re prepared to do that probably a little bit later today in the afternoon. 

The House appointees would be at the Senate’s beck and call, Nicholas said, even if that meant convening during the day’s floor sessions. 

“If we need to come off the floor between now and noon or between 2 and 4, we’ll be at your convenience,” Nicholas said. “Because what we’re doing is the most important thing in the Legislature, and what we don’t want to do is get behind.”

House Appropriations Chairman Rep. Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne) speaks on the House floor during the 2024 legislative session. (Ashton J. Hacke/WyoFile)

Kinskey assured Nicholas that he believed the group would “start narrowing the differences here pretty quickly.” 

“I just have to make sure that we put together over the weekend — it was a very work-filled weekend — I just want to make sure that what we’ve got is, we’ve crossed the Ts and dotted the Is,” the senator said.

The meeting was set for 4.

In the hours leading up to then, Senate appointees skipped most of the affairs of the Senate floor, working instead in the privacy of a conference room just off the gallery.  

That behind-the-scenes work, however, didn’t get the job done. And the JCC’s termination was also just the start of the upheaval. 

Senate debate

After the House pulled out of negotiations and Driskill offered new Senate picks, Senate Majority Floor Leader Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) made a motion to appeal Driskill’s decision. During the debate on Hicks’ motion, the floor devolved into a flurry of accusations against the House JCC appointees and leadership. 

Driskill implored the body to think hard about their votes, telling them that voting against his decision could mean that the Legislature would go into a special session and have to meet again over the summer. 

“From my end, I want to go home, folks, I want to go home, and I don’t want to come later. And I honestly believe that in the correct hands, we can come up with a solution,” Driskill told Senate lawmakers.

Senate President Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) addresses the Wyoming Senate on Feb. 12, 2024. (Ashton J. Hacke/WyoFile)

He later reminded lawmakers that the Joint Appropriations Committee had spent several months building the budget ahead of the session. 

“This was probably a little bit of where the heartburn across the aisle comes,” Driskill said. The Senate ultimately slashed the JAC’s proposed budget, adopting amendments that made deep cuts into the panel’s proposal. 

“We did them a huge disservice, and the people on the committee that didn’t speak up did an even bigger disservice,” Driskill said. 

Sen. Mike Gierau (D-Jackson) reiterated that frustration. 

“No one in this body ever picked up a phone, ever called, ever said, ‘Boy, I think you’re going in the wrong direction,’” he said. 

“Mr. President, I don’t think this discussion has anything to do with our friends down the hall. I would submit to you, sir, that I think it’s got everything to do with us. Us and what we’re doing and how we treat each other.” 

Hicks pushed back, saying that adopting amendments and making changes to the JAC’s proposal is normal. 

Later, Sen. John Kolb (R-Rock Springs) took aim at Driskill, who had picked the Senate JCC appointees in a decision that raised eyebrows at the Capitol. 

After telling reporters that he planned to appoint “conservative” lawmakers to reflect the will of the upper chamber, Driskill chose mostly non-appropriations members including Sens. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne), Troy McKeown (R-Gillette) and Dan Laursen (R-Powell) to sit on the JCC. The two remaining appointees do serve on appropriations — Kinskey and Salazar.

Driskill told reporters last week that his decision to appoint this group of lawmakers stems from the Senate’s vote on the first day of the session to override his will and reinstate Kinskey as head of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Driskill had booted Kinskey from this post in April and replaced him with Nethercott because of concerns about Kinskey’s performance as committee chairman.  

“With all due respect, Mr. President, this is a failure of leadership,” Kolb said Monday on the Senate floor.

“I think that first committee was set up — God bless those people that were put on that committee — but I don’t think it was set up for success. I don’t think that at all.” 

Sen. John Kolb (R-Rock Springs) on the first day of the Legislature’s 2021 session. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

Meanwhile, Kinskey defended the work of his committee, telling Senate lawmakers that the Senate JCC appointees had “made a good-faith offer” and that the “declaration of a deadlock seemed too premature.”

“I think we just need to get back in there and tell the House guys again, ‘We’re here to compromise, we’re going to put a bill together and let’s keep talking.’”  

Sen. Bo Biteman (R-Ranchester) accused House JCC appointees of failing to participate in “good-faith negotiations.” 

“I would like more information from the chairman of this committee as to what ground the House was willing to cede, and if they were even willing to negotiate, or if this was the plan all along was to drag this out and get to a free committee,” he said. 

Driskill called a point-of-order for speculating about whether it was an attempt to get to a free committee. Biteman challenged him. 

“You’re cutting me off, I had the floor, and I’m saying this is what it appears to look like,” Biteman said, then continued with his question. 

At many points, the discussion turned personal, with lawmakers commenting on the dysfunction in the Senate and the chasm between House and Senate lawmakers. 

“I have never seen a difference between the two houses that approaches the magnitude of this one,” Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper), who has served in the Legislature since 1979, said. 

“It seems to me Mr. President, that there are some issues of principle at stake here,” he said. 

“It seems to me that we need to get away from the personalities involved here and realize that this is an issue. Are we going to continue to stay on a fiscally sound basis that recognizes that our revenue sources are very volatile and keep our taxes in line and keep the size of our government reasonable?” 

The Senate ultimately sided with Driskill’s decision to create a free committee in a 15-15 vote, with one member excused.  

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.