Good Sense Prevails in Cheyenne
As a sometime critic of Wyoming’s part-time “citizens” legislature – cramming so much lawmaking and money-spending into just a few weeks – I’ve got to admit: serious thinking and sensible decisions often prevail. And so it seems in 2012.
The media – Wyoming PBS included – focus on the sensational or goofy stuff: doomsday bills and gay marriage and wolves in New York City’s Central Park. But in the end – often at the very end – the legislators toss that stuff aside and work on what matters.
So, shallow headline-grabbing stuff – some of which would have been vindictive and damaging – has mostly been defeated. For example:
- drug testing for recipients of welfare (HB 82): Disguised as a cost-cutting tactic, this bill would have subjected a few hundred recipients of Wyoming’s successful back-to-work program (POWER) to expensive drug tests which, if positive, would kick people out of the program, despite the fact that other state’s have found as little as two percent (Florida) drug violations in similar programs;
- the “doomsday” bill (HB 85): A task force to study how to keep Wyoming afloat while the federal government collapses, including state currency and (in one facetious amendment) an aircraft carrier of our own – Rep. Dave Miller’s bill was perfect fodder for winking national press coverage, but the House voted it down 30-27 (close!) on third reading.
And some of the serious stuff that required long hours and complex formulas and language was dealt with and passed. For example:
- education accountability (SF 57): despite open squabbling between the legislature and Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill, the solons kept their eye on target, approving a plan to begin evaluating whether a decade of big investments in public education are paying off by improving students’ grasp of the knowledge and skills they’ll need to succeed;
- public records (SF 25): it will be a burden on local government, no question, but this legislation will allow citizens (and the media) to see what goes into government decision-making, by making communications like emails and “hand-outs” part of the public record, when they relate to policy-making. Despite efforts to amend the bill to block access to such information, transparency triumphed.
And some of the important stuff that was too complicated to fit in a headline – but would have benefited the wrong folks at the wrong time – was dissected and stopped:
- the coal tax change (HB 38): the coal industry wanted to change the complex calculations of mine-mouth coal prices, which determines how much severance tax the state gets – the new formula would indeed have been simpler, and supposedly “revenue-neutral”, but the number-crunchers found that down the road, the state would lose millions. Despite hearing-rooms full of industry lobbyists, the Senate forced the proposal to be withdrawn;
- the aquifer land deal (SF 93): Laramie residents want the state to acquire a ($15 million) chunk of ranchland that would provide a mountain-biking, dog-walking swath of open space connecting the University of Wyoming campus to national forestlands in the east…oh yeah, and protecting part of an acquifer that supplies city water. With powerful Senate Appropriations Chair Phil Nicholas pushing for it, they had a chance, but the deal smelled fishy (the landowner was a Nicholas client), and the effort failed.
Now, I’m not saying the legislature is perfect or even semi-perfect. They “kicked the can down the road” – a favorite phrase this year – on issues like highway funding (the state’s costly but essential road system has no systematic revenue stream, like water development does) or health care (the state’s hemorrhaging costs for Medicaid and other programs got a band-aid and another year of “study” before cuts will be faced).
But it has to be said that despite the heavy work load, low pay, and short sessions, in most cases good sense has prevailed in Cheyenne.