By Carrie Haderlie
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Via- Wyoming News Exchange
CHEYENNE — Lawmakers are considering increasing the size of the Legislature to 62 representatives and 31 senators after discussion during a months-long redistricting process has often resulted in gridlock.
For many years, the Wyoming Legislature has been made up of 30 senators and 60 representatives. But Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, said during Thursday’s Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Interim Committee meeting that a change in size would be neither new nor profound.
“Historically, the Legislature has had even more legislators than this amount. This is not a new concept for us to consider, or particularly profound in that way. The purpose is to identify the greatest amount of concern that we heard and provide solutions, really maximizing solutions to concerns,” Nethercott said.
The 62-31 plan proposes two additional House districts, one in Laramie County and one roughly between Converse and Natrona County, but otherwise generally follows the existing 60 House districts plan, according to Michael Swank with the Legislative Service Office.
It would alter Senate and House district nesting pairs, as it would add a new Senate seat to the Legislature, and it contemplates one Senate seat nested between Natrona and Converse counties and one nested between Platte and Laramie counties.
Every 10 years, the Legislature must undergo a redistricting process to ensure that voting districts match population shifts as measured by the U.S. Census, and lawmakers are tasked with ensuring each district is substantially equal to any other, at a plus or minus 5% deviation in size.
By adding two extra House districts to the map, the average district size goes down, meaning the deviation also goes down, Swank said.
“All districts would be within deviation in (the 62- 31) plan,” Swank said.
Previously contemplated plans allowed several counties in the Bighorn Basin area to be drawn at 6.2% below population, which Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, said created potential for future lawsuits. Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, said that after the meeting Thursday, the committee would no longer entertain discussion of new plans.
“There will be adjustments to these maps, there just won’t be major changes,” Driskill said.
Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, said she and other legislators spent hours since the last meeting drawing lines that would comply with the previously considered “I-80 compromise” plan, and while it was possible to draw compliant lines, she said it was not preferable.
“It is a map that all of us – all of us – felt did not meet our needs at all,” Connolly said. “While we were able to do it, we do not support it.”
She said the 62-31 alternative is preferable.
“That was a plan that, after lots of discussion with many of you, we felt like we could support,” Connolly said.
Nethercott said that months ago, she was against the idea of increasing the size of the Legislature.
“My initial reaction to that was no, that I didn’t think it was prudent for us to add more. During this process, it became apparent that the gridlock was profound, primarily as a result of the changing populations in our state,” Nethercott said.
Legislators have discussed for months the changing population of Wyoming, and how many rural places lost people in the 2020 Census, while some urban areas grew.
“The 62-31 plan, I think, addresses the gap period that we are in in Wyoming, where, as the rural counties experience decline and readjust and go through the fear of loss and fear of (lack of) representation, we recognize the growth of other counties,” Nethercott said. “This plan seems to do that. It is not perfect, but it does address the majority of those concerns.”
Other legislators expressed concern about how the 62-31 plan would split their communities, and over the short timeline for taking it to the public before the Legislature convenes Feb. 14.
“My overall concern is that we solved one problem and created four more we haven’t vetted,” Rep. Aaron Clausen, R-Douglas, said.
The new district would be right in the middle of Clausen’s current district, which he said is a place that represents many core issues facing Wyoming. The area is home to the Dave Johnston Power Plant, work on carbon capture, Glenrock energy projects, the largest uranium mine in the lower 48 states and major wind production, he said.
“It is an economic powerhouse in that spot, and to make them into a minority district to an urban area without having any public interaction, I can’t support this, specifically, without having a conversation with that particular part of the world,” Clausen said. “The stakes when it comes to representation for those guys is really high.
“I wish they had a better representative than me, and maybe this will allow that, but at the end of the day, I can’t endorse it without getting community buy-in,” Clausen said.
Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas, asked how much it would cost to add people to the Legislature.
“If we are going to expand the number of legislators, we are also going to need to have an initial appropriation for it,” Boner said.
Nethercott said the addition of three legislators would likely result in an additional appropriation of $200,000 a year.
Scott proposed his own plan, which the committee will consider sponsoring as a backup plan in the event the full Legislature does not support the 62-31 plan. Scott, who first served in the Legislature in 1979, said he can remember a time when there were more lawmakers in Cheyenne.
“Frankly, I think the 30-60 size has worked for us better,” Scott said. “I was in the House when there were 62 House members, and we did make it work, but it does make it more difficult.”
When asked specifically what the challenges were, Scott said they were logistical.
“The more members you get, basically the more unwieldy it becomes,” Scott said. “Also we have changed the desk size since then, but it was a squeeze to get them all in. … Having said that, we made it work.”