Republican lawmakers divided on scope of government
The Wyoming Legislature adjourned the 2023 general session on March 3, but its last orders of business weren’t put to rest until Friday when Gov. Mark Gordon let several bills become law without his signature. That included a near-complete ban on abortion, which divided anti-abortion lawmakers over its constitutional implications. Gordon expressed similar concerns in a letter to the secretary of state explaining his decision.
“I understand the Legislature’s effort to improve Wyoming’s pro-life legal framework … However, I am nonetheless concerned that, in practice, this bill would instead complicate and delay the resolution of these central and foundational constitutional questions,” Gordon wrote.
The governor’s comments reflected a debate that simmered among lawmakers for much of the session: How best to reconcile the fundamental conservative principles of local control and constitutional adherence with a Christian nationalist agenda?
The embrace of limited government and deference to the Constitution are not new to the statehouse where the GOP recently strengthened its longstanding supermajority. The discussion of those values and the degree to which they should dictate legislative action, however, has shifted with the growth of the Wyoming Freedom Caucus and its inclusion of an out-of-state political movement. As a result, the 2023 legislative session saw once inviolable ideals hotly debated on the House and Senate floors by competing camps of self-avowed conservatives.
“I’m just trying to figure out, in my mind, when we stopped believing in local control as a core principle of this body and of the majority party” Rep. Jared Olsen (R-Cheyenne) told lawmakers.
Representatives were debating House Bill 95 – Working animal protection act, which would have barred municipalities from enacting any bans or restrictions on using a “working animal” in certain settings, such as fairs and rodeos. Debate on the bill was mostly divided by a recurring split — the Freedom Caucus and its freshmen allies versus the rest of the body.
Bill sponsor Rep. Rachel Rodriguez-Williams (R-Cody) said the legislation was a way for Wyoming to get ahead of the animal rights activists she’d seen passing out flyers in downtown Cody urging residents not to support the local rodeo. The legislation mirrored bills states such as Arkansas and Oklahoma passed in 2021 with support of national anti-animal-rights groups The Cavalry Group and Protect the Harvest. If animal rights activists target Cheyenne Frontier Days, Rep. Ben Hornok (R-Cheyenne) said, the city may choose to shut down its $40 million cash cow known as the Daddy of ‘Em All. Other Laramie County lawmakers were skeptical of that risk and worried about the underlying philosophy of the bill.
“If we stand firm with the principle that we don’t like the federal government telling our state what to do, then it should follow very logically that we don’t want the state to tell our local communities what to do,” Olsen said. But the concept of local control “sometimes seems like a cop out,” Rep. Tamara Trujillo (R-Cheyenne) said. “Sometimes it just makes sense to handle it from the top.”
Rodriguez-Williams also shot back. “Local government is merely political subdivisions of this state,” she said.
Ultimately, the bill failed to pass the House and died. But the local-control debate lingered, attracting out-of-state attention in the process.
In late February, nearing a critical bill deadline, the Freedom Caucus criticized Speaker of the House Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) for holding back certain bills, a maneuver granted to the leadership position by the rules adopted earlier in the session.
Per those rules, Rep. Jeanette Ward (R-Casper) attempted to override the speaker, but failed to get the requisite two-thirds vote. Ward had called for the vote in an attempt to advance Senate File 117 – Parental rights in education — which would ban instruction on gender and sexual orientation from some classrooms.
About a week after Ward’s motion failed, national voices joined the conversation. Andrew Roth, president of the State Freedom Caucus Network, called Sommers out on Twitter for stalling three bills. Roth’s Washington, D.C.-based organization officially partnered with Wyoming’s Freedom Caucus just ahead of the session.
“This is in the most Republican state in America,” Roth tweeted. Shortly after, Wyoming U.S. Rep. Harriet Hageman chimed in on the social media platform. “This is about protecting our children. In Congress, I’m fighting for these very issues. I hope the Wyoming Legislature will do the same,” she said.
Later, Roth tweeted that his organization had sent texts to Republicans in Sommers’ district, listing the speaker’s phone number and urging voters to call him. “When you call yourself a Republican but act like a liberal, you gotta pay the liberal tax,” Roth wrote.
The online campaign was enough to get the attention of Fox News, but failed to influence Sommers. “I’m not gonna let anybody intimidate me,” Sommers told reporters on the last day of the session. Following the national commotion, Sommers penned an op-ed wherein he explained his decision to hold back legislation.
“Bills that are unconstitutional, not well vetted, poorly written, duplicate bills or debates, and bills that negate local control, restrict the rights of people or risk costly litigation financed by the people of Wyoming should not become law,” Sommers wrote. When it came to SF 117, local control was a specific problem.
“I’ve always fought against taking authority away from local school boards, town councils and county commissions,” Sommers said. He also expressed concern that the bill violated the single-subject rule of the Wyoming Constitution, which requires most bills to contain not more than one subject.
Earlier in the session, adherence to the Wyoming Constitution nearly halted a sweeping abortion bill.
“I’ve heard the word ‘unconstitutional’ thrown around so frequently this session, it baffles me,” Rodriguez-Williams told a legislative committee. “Honestly, I think it is being thrown around to fearmonger. And the people of Wyoming are tired of being fearmongered.”
The House Judiciary Committee was debating House Bill 152 – Life is a Human Right Act, a near-total abortion ban. The committee voted 5-4 to send the bill to the floor, but the vote was not totally split between anti-abortion lawmakers and those who would prefer to keep the procedure legal. Instead, Reps. Barry Crago (R-Buffalo) and Ember Oakley (R-Riverton) — who both work as attorneys and voted in favor of Wyoming’s 2022 trigger bill — opposed it due to concerns over its legality.
“It’s difficult for me to get up and argue against a pro-life bill, it’s not easy,” Crago said on the House floor. “But I’m doing it because I truly believe that going down this road is going to be detrimental to our cause of pro-life legislation.”
One constitutional concern was whether the bill’s language stepped on the judiciary’s toes by interpreting the state constitution. Oakley called the language “a middle finger” to that other branch of government.
“As we all know, it’s the Judiciary that interprets the law,” Oakley said. “It’s like the civics that we all learned when we were kids. I mean, the basics of our government are, of course, that the Legislature makes the law, executive enforces and the judiciary interprets,” Oakley said. Ultimately, Crago and Oakley voted for the bill on third reading.
A lawsuit filed in the Ninth District Court on Friday claims that the Legislature overstepped in passing HB 152 by violating the Wyoming Constitution.
In his closing remarks to the House on the last day of session, Gordon thanked lawmakers for “keeping in mind how important it is that we have Wyoming solutions for Wyoming problems.”
It echoed a metric Sommers said he often relies on to assess legislation. “Does it solve a Wyoming problem with a Wyoming solution?” he wrote in an op-ed.
That framework, however, was opposed by Freedom Caucus members, including Rodroguez-Williams who recently penned an op-ed calling it the “go-to method” for killing bills and “became a facade to hide behind, conveniently concealing from Wyoming voters a true debate on the issues at hand.”
The Management Council will meet this week to decide what topics and solutions lawmakers will tackle in the interim, restarting the process anew.