By Jasmine Hall
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Via- Wyoming News Exchange
CHEYENNE — Committee chairs in the Wyoming Legislature said they were proud of the bills to come out of the interim, after working through a broad spectrum of issues over the past 10 months.
Nearly 100 bills have already been filed that were sponsored by committees for the 2023 general session, which begins Jan. 10.
Lawmakers will spend more than two months addressing legislation such as military leave for state employees, Medicaid expansion, school crosswalks and safety, and the creation of a tavern and entertainment liquor license.
While legislators can bring forward their own bills for consideration based on constituent concerns or personal political desires, a committee-sponsored bill is often the result of months of interim labor between legislative sessions.
There are 12 joint and standing committees that contribute to developing legislation for sessions, as well as a Management Council and Management Audit Committee. This doesn’t include task forces, select committees, commissions or councils.
Between each session, members of committees are given a list of topics that require investigation or a legislative solution, and they listen to testimony from stakeholders, state agencies and experts to guide the framework of their bills. It can be as simple as cleaning up statute language or as complex as developing an entirely new voting system for the state.
“I was really proud of the efforts of that committee over the last two years. We not only deal with transportation on that committee, but we deal with military affairs,” said Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Committee co-Chair Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper. “We passed some pretty significant military bills a year ago, and then, this interim, we spent quite a bit of time on the military front, talking about our National Guard and our readiness in terms of numbers in our military.”
Along with co-chair Rep. Donald Burkhart, R-Rawlins, Landen led the committee that sponsored 22 bills this year.
He said two of the bills he saw as the most impactful deal with off-road recreational vehicle operation and benefits for spouses of law enforcement members.
The committee’s off-road recreational vehicle operation bill sets guidelines for usage on roadways, and Landen said it is important because many tourists are coming to the state and pushing for the southwest portion of it to develop off-road trails. There is an additional bill that allows for connecting trails, as well.
“If we’re going to invite those outdoor recreationalists to our state, we need to be able to take care of them,” he told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.
Another bill he brought attention to would ensure death benefits go to the families of state troopers who lose their lives in service. He said it was a “quiet bill” but would have a great impact on families who experience an unfortunate loss.
The 20 other pieces of legislation the committee sponsored spanned a variety of issues.
There are bills that would require state employees’ moving expenses be covered, bonus payments for Wyoming National Guard members who make successful referrals and authorization for local authorities to designate high occupancy vehicle lanes.
Even an amendment bill was sponsored to add Space Force to military statutes.
“Just by the numbers alone, you can say that we did a lot of work,” said Landen. “But we really covered a lot of territory.”
Rep. Steve Harshman, R-Casper, was co-chair of the Joint Revenue Committee with Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, and they had an equally packed schedule throughout the interim.
Members were responsible for reviewing property tax issues, revenue for K-12 education, maximizing returns from state lands, tobacco taxes, local government revenue options and more.
“Revenues are a tough deal, and there’s a lot to learn,” said Harshman. “Part of our committee is continuing that education process for ourselves, and for all our members and our citizens.”
His committee has filed six sponsored bills for the general session so far, two of which would increase the cigarette and cigar taxes to keep up with inflation. There are other bills that have not been filed that would create a trust fund for the suicide lifeline and expand Medicaid.
Harshman considers the property tax relief bill one of the most significant, though.
He said it would expand the current program for senior and low-income residents and change the eligibility requirements.
Supporting the residents of Wyoming was a major focus for the Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Committee. Three out of the seven bills sponsored during the interim addressed access to mental health care, which co Chair Rep. Sue Wilson, R-Cheyenne, said was key for the state.
The Psychology Interjurisdictional Compact would authorize psychologists not licensed to practice psychology in Wyoming the ability to provide services to residents, and the Licensed Professional Counselor Compact would enter Wyoming into an agreement with other states to allow for multi-state licensure privileges for professional counselors.
Both of these would give individuals seeking mental health services more options for providers.
A third bill would help assess providers to give an additional match for federal reimbursement for Medicaid, and Wilson said it would specially benefit the psychiatric residential treatment facilities. She said they are not well funded, and there has been a shortage of inpatient beds, especially for children.
“I’m hopeful that the upper payment limit program will enable us to just bolster the reimbursement that they get so that they’re able to take more kids, hire more staff and have the bed space,” said Wilson, who is leaving the Legislature before the next session begins. “Between those three, I feel that’s some good work going forward.”
She also brought attention to the Medicaid 12-month postpartum coverage bill, which would temporarily extend Medicaid medical assistance for pregnant women to a year postpartum.
The coverage currently only lasts 60 days, which Wilson said is a short time. She believes this will not only prevent additional expense to the state, but benefit the mother and the baby.
However, she said there’s still work to be done in addressing reduced OB-GYN coverage in the state.
For the Joint Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources Committee, handling state lands was the most significant topic. CoChair Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas, said five out of the nine bills sponsored by the committee dealt with the Office of State Lands and Investment.
“That is a testament to some of the challenges we faced with that agency,” he told the WTE.
He said while some of the legislation was routine, other bills made sure the agency prioritized land exchanges to make sure time isn’t wasted on exchanges that ultimately will not be approved by the Board of Land Commissioners. Boner said because the office is short staffed, its staff needs to be used appropriately.
The committee co-chaired by Boner and Rep. John Eklund, R-Cheyenne, also sponsored legislation that would clarify splitting the costs of building and maintaining fences when it comes to sub-developers.
Because such a large portion of time was put toward state lands, Boner said the committee will likely have to address veterinary technicians in statute at a later date. This was an agenda topic he felt needed more delving into.
“Some might be a little more controversial, but I’m proud of the work we’ve done,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of buy-in from the parties that are going to be affected by the legislation, and, overall, we have a very good track record on the Ag Committee of getting the vast majority of our bills passed into law. So, I hope that track record will continue.”
The Joint Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee, which was headed by Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, and Rep. Jamie Flitner, R-Greybull, filed four bills for the general session.
Ellis said she was pleased with the work they completed throughout the interim, and one of the significant topics covered was hunting licenses.
“Gov. Gordon established a Wildlife Task Force, and they’ve been really instrumental in looking at a number of issues facing Wyoming hunters, particularly trying to find ways to improve instate hunters’ chances of drawing certain desirable tags,” she told the WTE. “We’ll have a few bills that have come to us upon the recommendation of that wildlife task force that deal with that very issue of how we allocate in-state versus out-of-state hunting licenses.”
Other highlights she noted included a bill that would establish the Sutton Archeological Site to ensure the state is providing better security cameras and fences to prevent looting of the resources, and another that would revive film incentives in Wyoming.
“For those people that watch shows like ‘Yellowstone’ or ‘Longmire,’ I think many of them are disappointed to know particularly shows that are set in Wyoming like ‘Longmire’ – they’re not actually filmed within our state,” she said. “Our Department of Tourism has indicated they often receive calls from production companies indicating that they want to film in Wyoming, but because we offer no incentive like our surrounding states, it immediately ends the conversation.”
She said they’ve sponsored a bill that would create a multi-tiered rebate program, which could help Wyoming in diversifying its economy further.
Ellis is also a co-chair on the Select Committee on Tribal Relations, which is provided leadership and advice by both councils of the Northern Arapaho and Shoshone tribes. She said they rely on them to understand where the Legislature can be supportive of their objectives.
Four bills also came out of this committee, but Ellis placed an emphasis on two. She said the missing-persons alert systems and the State Indian Child Welfare Act task force bills were critical for the state moving forward.
“Years ago, we started becoming more aware of the epidemic of missing or murdered indigenous women and persons in Wyoming, and have done a lot to improve our reporting and tracking of those individuals who go missing not just on the reservation, but beyond,” she said.
They recently discovered an alert that captures individuals who aren’t covered by AMBER alerts, which are geared toward children. She said this is important coverage for missing individuals who are over the age of 18 and acknowledges that the person is in danger and it might not be the result of someone else.
She gave an example of a dementia patient who is lost and needs to be found right away.
“The Department of Homeland Security and Wyoming Highway Patrol will be taking steps to implement the Ashanti alert,” Ellis told the WTE. “But this legislation is critical for ensuring that future administrators won’t simply pull the plug on the probe. The people who have loved ones that go missing deserve the assurance of knowing that we have these kinds of programs in place and are required by statute.”
Many other bills that could have long-lasting impacts on Wyoming were sponsored by committees during the interim.
From the Management Council voting for a bill that would provide legislators with state employee health insurance, to the Joint Judiciary Committee drafting legislation that would require financial institutions to report financial exploitation of vulnerable adults, there will be a wide range of topics for the 67th Wyoming Legislature to take into consideration.
This doesn’t include the numerous bills that lawmakers bring to the table individually.
Rep. Dan Zwontizer, R-Cheyenne, has already filed a bill that would raise the acceptable age for marriage from 16 to 18, and Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, wants to see a $100,000 homestead exemption for primary residences.
State senators and representatives will also handle the supplementary budget and decide how the rest of the American Rescue Plan Act dollars will be spent, adding to a busy 2023 general session beginning in a little more than two weeks.