Legislative Update – Feb. 3-6
Hello Sublette County, this is Albert Sommers reporting to you from Cheyenne on Feb. 3. Today, nine bills passed second reading in the House, including SF0037, Omnibus Water Bill - Planning, which utilizes dedicated severance tax dollars to fund water planning projects that includes a Hoback River watershed study and a rehabilitation study for the Highland Irrigation District in Sublette County; SF0060, Monthly Ad Valorem Tax Revisions – 2, which attempts to clean up problematic language in a bill from last session that moved mineral ad valorem tax payments to monthly; and HB0049, Agency Fees, increases certain fees in the Department of Health and the Department of Ag.
During the interim, the Joint Appropriations Committee was assigned the task of examining fees that various agencies assess for services they provide. The committee narrowed the bill down to just a few areas that needed examination. The committee examined fees in surrounding states to determine where to set new fees. The bill raised licensure fees issued by the Department of Health for hospitals, assisted living facilities, birthing centers and other health-care facilities. This agency has a responsibility to ensure these facilities meet certain standards and the fees is this area had not been raised for years, and in some cases decades. The bill also raised licensure fees for food establishments, including grocery stores, restaurants and mobile food trucks. The bill would double the current licensure fees, which is still well below surrounding states. Colorado starts its licensure fees at over $300/year, and this bill would take Wyoming’s restaurant licensing fee to $200/year. During the budget markup process, the Department of Ag cut food safety inspectors because of a lack of funds. We cannot compromise the safety of the consumer. The Department of Ag provides food safety inspectors in counties where the county has not formed its own inspection services. The department does provide dollars to counties with their own inspection programs to help defray inspection costs and this bill will provide more money back to these county programs. There will be an amendment in third reading tomorrow to reduce by half the doubling of these food safety fees, and I will support that amendment.
These fees have not been raised in over 20 years, but I believe this amendment is appropriate for the economic climate we are currently in.
Today, four bills passed third reading in the House, with three bills passing unanimously and one bill having just one “no” vote. These bills amended tax lien enforcement statutes, provided for out-of-state bank charter conversions, added more duties to the Wyoming energy authority and amended timing for distributions from the earnings of the permanent mineral trust fund.
Four bills passed Committee of the Whole in the House, including SF0026, Animal Abuse Statutes Reorganization and Update. This bill did not change existing law but simply reorganized statutes to make it more user friendly for law enforcement. The reorganization had some unintended consequences coming out of the Agriculture Committee, but the Judiciary Committee cleaned up the bill’s language with an amendment. I initially would not have been able to support this bill, but the clean-up amendment solved my concerns.
Today the House heard four bills on second reading and we advanced those bills to third reading through a suspension of our rules. We did this in order to have a final vote on these bills today, which will allow us to work out any potential differences with Senate colleagues and get them moved to the governor’s desk. The House passed 13 bills on third reading today, all of which I supported, including a bill that updated occupational licensure, a bill that reorganized animal abuse statutes, a bill that gives the State Parks division the ability to utilize fees generated on state park lands for operations, a bill that ensures property tax payments to school districts are received by school districts in time to make their recapture payments and bill that increased fees in the Department of Health and the Department of Agriculture that hadn’t been increased in decades.
This is Albert Sommers reporting to you from Sublette County, after the finish of our eight-day virtual segment of the 2021 General Session of the Wyoming Legislature. I was in Cheyenne during these eight days, because as a member of House leadership it was important to be there for organizational purposes. The entire virtual session is available to view on the legislative website at https://wyoleg.gov/.
On the Home page, click on “Watch Floor Sessions Live” on the left side of the webpage. This will take you to past legislative standing committee and floor session meetings: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCZNA0zn1VU1ATv3XugYmFGw/videos.
Never has the public had this much access to the Wyoming Legislature.
During the past eight days, we worked committee bills from the 10 standing committees of the Legislature and a few bills from select committees. At the end of Friday, 19 House Bills and 14 Senate Files had passed both chambers and were headed to the governor’s desk for his signature. The virtual session worked relatively well; perhaps there was more debate than normal, but the process was successful.
The Legislature will resume work the week of Feb. 22, when standing committees will meet virtually to hear more bills. This process will allow bills to be ready for floor debate when we return for an in-person session starting March 1. During March, we will continue to debate a few committee bills, while individual bills will be considered before the Legislature at this time.
I have three bills numbered for consideration during March.
- HB0039, Optometrist Practice Act Amendments, which provides more flexibility to optometrists to work in rural Wyoming
- HB0094, Solar Electricity Generation – Taxation, which would tax electric generation of commercial solar farms at the same rate as wind farms in an attempt to equalize the taxation between these two renewable energy sources
- HB0101, Elk Feedground Closings – Requirements, which makes closing an elk feedground a decision of the governor upon recommendations from both the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission and the Wyoming Livestock Board. The bill also provides a public meeting process. Elk feedgrounds in western Wyoming have helped maintain robust elk herds and have reduced conflict between elk and cattle, but are also controversial because of diseases like chronic wasting disease. I do not support closure of elk feedgrounds, and I want to ensure a robust conversation takes place if closures are considered.
Most of my duties in the Legislature now revolve around my position as House Majority Floor Leader. The Majority Floor Leader schedules the work that will occur during the floor sessions. I previously served on the Appropriation Committee, but my duties as Majority Floor Leader don’t give me enough time to serve on Appropriations. I am back on the House Education Committee, which is where I started my legislative work. House Education will debate HB0061, School finance recalibration, which will debate K12 education funding.
Recently, in a Wyoming Public Radio “Open Spaces” broadcast, Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow misstated the shortfall total in yearly K12 funding. Between the School Foundation Program and School Capital Construction, Wyoming has an approximately $300-million annual shortfall in K12 funding.
Currently, K12 funding is backstopped by our “Rainy Day” savings account, the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account (LSRA). We are projected to have $1.3 billion in the LSRA at the end of 2023, if the Legislature does not use some of it to shore up important child and senior programs in the Department of Health. How much of the LSRA do we spend before the Legislature solves this K12 funding shortfall?
HB0061 will be the start of this conversation. I could support $100 million in cuts to K12, plus a penny sales tax for education, provided both are phased in over a period of three years. We will see if the Legislature can coalesce around a solution. I have my doubts, but the debate should help educate legislators and the public. I do not support cutting the entire $300 million per year shortfall from K12 education, because I believe it could devastate smaller districts like Big Piney. We have a constitutional duty to fund an adequate, equitable education for every child in Wyoming.
For details on these and all other 2021 bills, visit https://www.wyoleg.gov/Legislation/2021
I can be reached at [email protected] with questions or comments.