By Tom Coulter
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Via- Wyoming News Exchange
CHEYENNE — After state lawmakers decided last month to delay most of the 2021 general session beyond January due to COVID-19 concerns, plans for the 66th Wyoming Legislature are still up in the air, with a couple main options being considered by legislative leadership.
Lawmakers on the Management Council, which includes chamber leaders from both parties, decided during a meeting last month to postpone the session, as legislative staff raised concerns about the challenging logistics of holding a standard, in-person session starting in January.
A few aspects required by the Wyoming Constitution, such as the swearing in of new lawmakers, the adoption of rules and the delivery of an address from Gov. Mark Gordon, will carry on as planned Jan. 12, with lawmakers planning to convene virtually for those events.
However, the rest of the plan remains to be decided, with lawmakers mainly considering two options, according to an email sent last week to all members of the new Legislature by incoming House Speaker Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, and Senate President Dan Dockstader, R-Afton.
According to the email, after conducting some initial business Jan. 12, legislative leadership will assess in late January whether an in-person session could be held soon after, with the decision largely depending on local virus trends and the availability of COVID-19 vaccines.
“If conditions are favorable, an in-person session would be scheduled,” according to an email provided to the WTE. “This would most likely occur the first of March.”
The email also notes “there will need to be a remote participation option for legislators and the public” for any in-person session held this spring.
As a result, meeting rooms in the state Capitol Complex are being outfitted with cameras and other technology to allow for remote participation, and legislative staff are also developing virtual options for floor proceedings, according to the email.
“We’re confident we will have workable options for remote participation in place by March 1, 2021,” states the email.
The email also offers an alternative plan in case local public health conditions have not improved enough to meet in person.
“If, in late January, conditions do not appear favorable to having an in-person session by March, we would initiate a virtual session for early February,” the email continues. “The intent would be to consider the budget bill and high-priority or time-sensitive committee bills which the committees had recently reviewed.”
Outgoing Senate President Drew Perkins, R-Casper, who will co-chair the Joint Appropriations Committee starting next year, said approval of Gov. Mark Gordon’s supplemental budget – which includes roughly $500 million in cuts – will need to happen sooner, rather than later.
“The longer you wait on those changes, the less effect they will have, and the more compressed time the budget cuts have to fit in,” Perkins said. “If you can fit the budget cuts into a year and a half, it’s a lot better than trying to squeeze it into nine months.”
While lawmakers met for a virtual special session in May to create the legal framework to administer Wyoming’s share of the federal CARES Act funding, Perkins was doubtful of lawmakers needing to deal with another stimulus package that could be signed into law by President Donald Trump this week.
“If Congress extends the spending, unless the governor does something significantly different than what was already approved, we think he has the authority to go ahead and do that,” Perkins said. “But we’ll have to wait and see what’s in the bill.”
If lawmakers opt for the shorter virtual session in February, they would still be left with potentially as many as 24 days to convene for a session later in the year.
“If this option is selected, planning would immediately begin as to when and how to complete the remainder of the 2021 general session,” states the email.
The email from Barlow and Dockstader also acknowledges some legislators’ desire to hold a normal session starting in January, after a handful of conservative lawmakers, including Sen. Tom James, R-Rock Springs, and Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne, testified in favor of sticking to the normal schedule during the Management Council’s meeting last month.
“We have heard from some members regarding their desire to conduct business as usual in January,” states the email. “This is unrealistic, as we simply will not have enough session staff or technology available to accommodate either the House or Senate. Additionally, if we did meet and began having COVID cases, the work of the Legislature would grind to a halt, with no clear path to quickly resume.”
While much of the Legislature’s work will wait until later, newly elected lawmakers will be sworn in at the state Capitol starting Jan. 4 and running through the gavel-in date of Jan. 12.