By Tom Coulter
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Via- Wyoming News Exchange
CHEYENNE – The Wyoming Legislature’s first special session since 2004 ended Saturday night with three bills headed to the desk of Gov. Mark Gordon for his consideration, as lawmakers wrapped up their initial attempts to respond to issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The main task of the special session was to set up programs and timeframes for the spending of $1.25 billion Wyoming received through the federal CARES act. Though Gordon has the ultimate authority to spend the money, the approved legislation provides a broad outline of where that money will go.
As the Legislature was finishing up its work Saturday evening, the governor addressed both chambers, praising them for completing “the work we needed to get done.”
“We have built a plane while we have been flying it, and just like (the flyovers of) our Wyoming Guard yesterday and our United States Air Force today, we have lift under our wings,” Gordon said.
Yet while the session ended with praise, it still had a few unforeseen turns. The Legislature worked on four bills throughout the first day of the session, but it gave final approval to just three following a late-night move Friday by the House.
After press time Friday night, representatives overwhelmingly rejected on a third vote legislation to expand the governor’s flexibility to move funds between state agencies. The bill also would have allowed school districts to increase their cash reserves to make up for an anticipated drop-off in transportation reimbursements.
The move was in sharp contrast with the Senate, which overwhelmingly supported the bill and amended it to give additional authority to the governor’s office to divert some funding from Wyoming school districts for other uses in the coming school year. Before the House rejected the bill Friday night, House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper, criticized some of the Senate’s additions as “goofy talk.”
Because lawmakers were working through a mirror bill process, in which both chambers must advance every bill, the rejection by the House effectively killed the proposal.
Lawmakers in the House and Senate were able to reach agreements on three other bills that had been discussed in recent weeks by legislative leadership on the Management Council.
The legislation that could get off the ground quickest aims to protect local business owners through three grant programs which would be run by the Wyoming Business Council. The approved bill appropriates roughly $325 million of federal relief funds to the programs, which would expire at the end of this year.
The most immediate program, with an initial pot of $50 million, aims to get money out quickly to businesses impacted by public health closures. Under that program, grants would range from $20,000 to $50,000 per business, with applications open to independent, Wyoming-based businesses with 50 employees or less.
“June 1 is when I would expect that grant program to be ready to roll out,” said Rep. Mike Greear, R-Worland, whose committee helped craft the bill.
While that one aims to get short-term financial relief to businesses, another program in the bill offers larger stipends, up to $300,000 per business. That program received the bulk of the funding – $225 million – in the bill. Greear, in discussions with representatives, said he expects the larger program to be ready for applications by July.
The pressing needs of businesses compounded a sense of urgency underlying debate throughout the session, as Wyoming only has until the end of this year to spend the $1.25 billion in federal relief funds.
One of the bills approved by the Legislature establishes a frame for the governor’s office to use portions of that funding.
Through the bill, $450 million would be available to Gordon and his office for immediate use until July 15, at which point an additional $400 million would be freed up. All remaining funds from the federal relief bill would then be available starting Sept. 15.
The third bill approved by the Legislature was the one closest to failing, after an amendment to provide immunity to business owners from COVID-19 lawsuits was added to it by the Senate.
The legislation itself addressed a handful of specific issues, such as providing aid to landlords who hold off on evictions and allowing employees to make workers’ compensation claims if they contract COVID-19. Lawmakers from both chambers ultimately agreed to the amendment after finding a spot within existing statute to address the issue.
“We are making a sincere effort to make sure the most important policy goals go forth and deliver relief to our employers, to our renters, mortgagees and employees, and at the same time, accommodating the wishes from both sides,” Majority Floor Leader Rep. Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, said of the compromise.
Many members of the House were hesitant to support the bill with the liability shield included. After an hour of debate Saturday evening, however, the representatives gave final approval to the amended bill by a 38-20 vote.
As the three approved bills head to the governor for consideration, the Wyoming Legislature will have plenty of issues to work through in coming weeks.
Given the federal funds cannot be used to supplement lost revenue or balance the state budget, lawmakers will search for ways to address the state’s massive, looming revenue deficit.
Multiple committee meetings, which can be watched through the Legislature’s Youtube channel, will be held as soon as next week, and some of the committee work will focus on a potential second special session. During discussions over the past couple days, several lawmakers mentioned the likelihood of meeting for a five-day session in late June.
“I’ll tell you right now, you should probably schedule out the week of June 29,” Senate President Drew Perkins, R-Casper, told his colleagues Friday.