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Legislative committees to review variety of bills this week

By Tom Coulter

Wyoming Tribune Eagle

Via- Wyoming News Exchange

CHEYENNE — After adjourning from its one-day virtual session last Tuesday, the Wyoming Legislature will quickly resume its work starting this week, with nearly every legislative committee set to meet via Zoom to consider bills.

In total, the legislative committees will consider more than 50 bills during their meetings this week, which are scheduled to begin Tuesday morning and continue through Thursday afternoon. Some bills advanced by the committees will then be considered during the Legislature’s upcoming eight-day virtual session, scheduled to begin Jan. 27.

Members of the public wishing to testify during any of the meetings can register to do so by clicking the “testify” button on the calendar page of the Legislature’s website. The meetings will also be live-streamed and archived on the Legislature’s YouTube channel.

The bills being considered by the legislative committees, which have already been reviewed during the interim session, could also gain a second life if they fail during the eight-day virtual session. Bills that don’t win approval in their chamber of origin could still be considered at the Legislature’s in-person session, which has tentatively been set for March 1, according to the latest legislative schedule.

“As public health conditions evolve, we will adjust the Legislature’s participation options as appropriate. We are encouraged by the rollout of vaccines and other health measures, which we hope will allow the Legislature to meet in-person starting March 1,” House Speaker Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, said in a statement Friday. “There are many challenges and opportunities facing our great state, which is why we remain committed to meeting in-person when it is safe to do so.”

While far from exhaustive, a round-up of some of the bills set to be considered during the committee meetings next week can be found below.

After the measure was narrowly advanced by the Joint Revenue Committee last month, a proposal to raise the excise tax on cigarette packs from 60 cents to 84 cents will be considered by the House Revenue Committee during its meeting at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday. The bill would also increase the tax on moist tobacco snuff from 60 cents per ounce to 72 cents.

The legislation, expected to raise roughly $6 million annually for the state’s general fund, drew mixed feedback during the committee meeting last month. With Wyoming’s current cigarette tax rate ranking among the lowest ten states in the country, proponents of the bill saw it as a way to raise some revenue while potentially helping people quit smoking.

Other groups, including the Wyoming Taxpayers Association and the Wyoming Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, opposed the measure during the committee meeting last month, arguing it was a regressive tax proposal that would negatively impact low-income residents.

So far, the tobacco tax increase has been one of few revenue-raising measures to win approval from a committee during the interim period.

Also on Tuesday morning, another legislative committee will look at a bill that would bring a substantial overhaul to the state’s laws on net metering, a billing mechanism that allows residents with solar panels to receive payment for electricity they add to the broader grid system.

Through the proposed bill, electric utility companies would no longer be required to compensate solar owners for the excess electricity they produce, except as determined by the Wyoming Public Service Commission.

“The public service commission shall conduct public hearings and establish an appropriate system to regulate the rates, terms and conditions of customer‑generators by all electric utilities for electricity produced from net metering systems first operational on or after July 1, 2021,” the bill reads. “The system shall prevent subsidization of customer‑generators compared to other customers of the electric utility.”

The bill being considered Tuesday marks another attempt by the Legislature to adjust the state’s net metering statutes, and if past meetings are any indication, there could be quite a few state residents wishing to testify. During a meeting in fall 2019 when a bill repealing the existing net metering statues was up for consideration, lawmakers heard hours worth of testimony from members of the public, essentially all of whom were opposed to the changes.

The net metering bill will be considered by the Senate Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday.

On Wednesday morning, a House committee will consider a bill that would provide tax relief for oil and gas industries when commodity prices exceed certain thresholds.

If approved by the Legislature, the proposal would temporarily drop the severance tax rate on oil and natural gas production from 6% to 3%, but only once industry price benchmarks have risen to sustainable levels.

For example, oil producers could use the one-time tax exemption for six months after West Texas Intermediate crude oil prices reach at least $45 per barrel. After hitting a subzero pitfall amid the COVID-19 pandemic and a Russia-Saudi Arabia price war, the WTI barrel price sat around $52 as of Friday afternoon.

The proposal, which was initially advanced by a legislative committee last summer, had the backing of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, whose officials argued the proposal was essential to jump-starting the state’s oil and gas industries after the COVID-19 pandemic brought much activity to a halt. However, others who testified during the summer meeting argued the state needs every bit of revenue it can get.

The bill will be considered by the House Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee during its meeting at 8 a.m. Wednesday.

Lawmakers will consider a bill Wednesday afternoon that would require school districts across Wyoming to provide suicide education and prevention training to students, with proponents arguing the proposal is essential to addressing the state’s high rates of youth suicide.

The proposal, if approved by the Legislature, would build on the Jason Flatt Act, which requires teachers to undergo two hours of suicide education and prevention training each year. That act, which has passed in 20 states, was approved in Wyoming in 2014.

However, since then, Wyoming has continued to struggle with its suicide rates, both in general and in younger populations. From 2016 to 2018, Wyoming had the fourth-highest suicide rate of any state among people between the ages of 10 and 24, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When the bill was initially advanced by the Joint Education Committee in November, several students at Cody High School testified in favor of the proposal, speaking on their own experiences with youth suicide as evidence of its necessity.

The legislation will be considered by the House Education Committee during its meeting set to begin at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday.

On Thursday morning, a committee will consider a bill that would allow Wyoming law enforcement officers to pull over a driver solely for not having their seat belt on, in an effort to reduce the number of people killed on the state’s roads each year.

In 2019, the Wyoming Highway Patrol reported its highest number of crash fatalities since 2015, and in 2020, about 62% of those who were killed in car crashes in Wyoming were not wearing their seat belts, according to WHP Col. Kebin Haller.

The proposal, which was advanced by Joint Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Interim Committee during its September meeting, had the strong backing of Wyoming Department of Transportation director Luke Reiner.

“A primary seat belt law would greatly facilitate safety in this state,” Reiner told the committee in September. “As the director, I see every fatality and accident that we have in this state … and some of them just absolutely break your heart. People would be alive today if they were wearing a seat belt.”

The bill will be considered by the Senate Transportation, Highways & Military Affairs Committee during its meeting at 8:30 a.m. Thursday.

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