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Special session vote becomes campaign fodder

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Jasmine Hall with the Jackson Hole News&Guide, via the Wyoming News Exchange

JACKSON — The Wyoming Freedom Caucus and its allies want special session votes to play a role in the upcoming election.

Far-right lawmakers favoring a special session to respond to Gov. Mark Gordon’s vetoes have heavily criticized those who killed it. While Freedom Caucus allies in the Senate voted 16-15 in favor of returning to Cheyenne, the Wyoming Caucus and Democrats in the House voted against it 35-27. Both chambers needed a majority vote.

“When your lawmaker knocks on your door and boasts of his vote to defend the Second Amendment, ask how he voted on the special session,” three Wyoming Freedom Caucus representatives wrote in a Monday op-ed. “When a slick flier lands in your mailbox proclaiming the pro-life bona fides of your rep, check to see what she did when presented with a real opportunity to stand strong for the preborn.”

Reps. Jeremy Haroldson, R-Wheatland, Christopher Knapp, R-Gillette, and Rachel Rodriguez-Williams, R-Cody, said a vote against the special session was a vote against property tax relief, the Second Amendment and restricting abortions. Likewise, other conservative lawmakers echoed their call for voters to pay close attention.

But Republican lawmakers who shot down the special session counter that calling everyone back to the Capitol was a campaign “ploy” that would have cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars and grow government.

The debate comes ahead of August primaries and November’s general election with a presidential decision on the ballot.

House Speaker Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, was one of the leaders accused of handing over power to the governor, who is also a Republican, and he isn’t surprised by the rhetoric. He has defended his decision alongside Senate President Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, to vote no on the special session repeatedly over the last week.

But he said the push for a special session was more political than policy.

“They were going to try to use the special session as a campaign tool, regardless of which way the vote went,” Sommers said. “There’s nothing like being in session, and then they could go to the mic and make campaign speeches. It was just a ploy.”

While Sommers and Driskill both considered the session for property tax relief, they said it wasn’t worth the cost, estimated at between $35,000 to $50,000 a day, or up to $700,000 to $1 million if lawmakers maxed out the 20 days allowed. The most recent budget session cost $50,000 a day, according to an analysis by the Legislative Service Office.

It also would have cost legislators time back in their communities.

“There were people who had doctor’s appointments, vacations, jobs, businesses and farming,” Sommers said. “You name it, they had things to do. And this wasn’t an emergency.”

The special session didn’t just spur myriad press releases and op-eds in either direction — interested parties made their opinions known online.

The Wyoming Freedom Caucus posted the votes of every lawmaker on its Facebook page and wrote: “Just like Liz Cheney, these legislators have turned their backs on the people of Wyoming.”

Forty-plus comments largely favored the Freedom Caucus stance, but a few said that it would have been a waste of taxpayer dollars and that publishing their names was an attempt at intimidation. Others wrote that it was time to look for fresh representation, naming lawmakers such as Reps. Sandy Newsome, R-Cody, Barry Crago, R-Buffalo, and Rep. Dave Northrup, R-Powell. Those three Republicans all voted against adding a special session.

Even the Wyoming GOP wanted to weigh in. A Facebook post made Tuesday asked if the special session vote resonated with constituents.

“We stand in unity with heavy hearts as the path to a special session has failed,” the GOP stated. “Governor Mark Gordon’s recent vetoes have drawn a clear line in our state, revealing those who stand firmly with the Wyoming Republican Party Platform and those who stray. Our Platform, rooted in the enduring values of our biblical heritage, the foundational truths of our Constitution, and the resilient spirit of grassroots advocacy, serves as our guide.

“When a member representing the (R) behind the name diverges from these principles, it raises questions and calls upon us to reflect on the essence of our commitment to Wyoming’s legacy and future.”

One-man caucus

Only one legislator from the Teton County delegation voted in favor of the special session. Sen. Dan Dockstader, a Republican representing parts of Teton and Lincoln counties, was considered a deciding vote in the Senate because it came down to 16-15.

“Why am I always a vital swing vote?” said Dockstader, one of two Republicans in the delegation.

Calling it a difficult decision, Dockstader sent a letter to the House and Senate leadership and governor’s office with an explanation. It came down to Senate File 54, a property tax relief bill that would have provided a two-year 25% exemption on up to the first $2 million of assessed value of a single-family residence. No qualifications like being a primary homeowner or applications were required; it would have been across-the-board relief.

“Now, as to my decision to come down on the side of a special session — I need to do all I can to address repetitive increases in property taxes in my home valley and district,” he wrote. “In the past three years average increases of 15%, 20% and 20% were experienced with the likelihood of a similar increase this year.

“Ultimately, we need that last tax bill, SF 54. I have helped with my neighbors, but this one is for my home area.”

Now that the vote is being used as an election talking point, Dockstader said that wasn’t his goal. He wanted to get rising property taxes under control and wasn’t aligned with the Wyoming Freedom Caucus.

“I belong to the Senate District 16 caucus,” he said. “I’m not in anybody’s caucus. I don’t go to their meetings. I just go to the Senate District 16 caucus.

“There’s only one person there. It’s just me.”

He said the only reason votes with the Freedom Caucus overlapped was because he was from a conservative area in the state. But there were times when they did not align, and his swing vote was cast — for example, for funding for Jackson Hole High School expansion and postpartum financial relief for mothers and babies.

“Does it make a difference?” he said. “Sure.”

But he said he was his own vote, and the rest of the delegation was theirs. He hoped they would understand his decision.

Teton County largely votes no

Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Jackson, was a no vote on the session, and said Dockstader’s vote surprised him.

“I would disregard the premise that just because one tax bill didn’t pass that we needed to turn the whole Legislature on its head,” Gierau said. “Anyone that says that we would have just dealt with one tax bill, unfortunately, is forgetting about what’s happened in the previous sessions where we’ve tried.”

He said no one was happy about the veto of SF 54, but there are four other tax bills that will secure relief for residents. An expansion of the refund program, exemptions for longtime homeowners and taxpayers in the state, a 4% cap on tax increases and the doubling of the veterans’ exemption were all passed by the Legislature and signed into law by the governor.

“We’re going back there in 10 months,” Gierau said, on tackling SF 54 in the general session. “We’re already talking to the governor’s office about how we can collaborate to get something that works.”

However, Dockstader said the 4% cap that will go into effect after July 1 only stops double-digit jumps on property tax increases residents already have experienced.

“One step forward, two steps backwards,” he said. “Did we really gain any ground?”

The rest of the delegation was just as frustrated with leaving the 25% exemption on the table but believed there was room for future action.

“The majority of the bills the governor vetoed are not good for Wyoming, and I voted against them,” said Rep. Liz Storer, D-Jackson.

“While I remain disappointed over his veto of SF 54, we passed four other bills that will help people who really can’t pay their property taxes, and I’ll focus my efforts on tax policy over the long term rather than a short-term fix,” she said.

Rep. Andrew Byron, a Republican, didn’t consider the circumstances to be dire enough for an emergency special session.

“Those bills can all get worked during this upcoming interim and brought back in nine months,” the Hoback representative said. “I believe in limited government, checks and balances, and fiscal responsibility. A special session would have gone against those beliefs.”

And House Minority Floor Leader Mike Yin, D-Jackson, described the call for a special session as “a waste of everyone’s time and energy over the week.”

“The extremists in the Legislature should stop with the performative nonsense that just hurts the state of Wyoming and each of our communities,” Yin said Sunday night.

Who’s to blame?

Wyoming Freedom Caucus members in the House, a hard-right faction of the Republican Party, and allies in the Senate see votes against a special session as abandoning GOP values.

“These thirty-five Representatives stood in the way of property tax relief — even though they supported it just one short month ago,” wrote Reps. Haroldson, Knapp and Rodriguez-Williams in their Monday op-ed. “They blocked your Second Amendment rights — even though they cast an AYE vote to protect those rights on the House Floor. They gave a thumbs-up to the murder of innocent, preborn children — even though they proclaimed to stand for life in Cheyenne last month.”

A large part of the blame was placed on the legislative leadership.

Rep. John Bear, R-Gillette, chair of the Freedom Caucus, said in a call for a special session that the Wyoming Legislature adjourned too early.

“Speaker of the House Albert Sommers and President of the Senate Ogden Driskill chose to adjourn early, with three legislative workdays still available to complete the work of the people of Wyoming, foreclosing the ability to override the governor’s vetoes,” Bear said. “The decision of legislative leadership to adjourn early served as an open invitation to Governor Gordon to veto measures important to the people of Wyoming with no recourse.”

The motion to adjourn is made by the majority floor leader in each chamber, but deciding when to leave is discussed among the leaders.

Sommers said they were never asked to stay.

He said the body was tired and the budget session was a “long, hard grind.”

The House speaker added that the same lawmakers asking to return to override the governor were the same ones who caused delays during the budget session.

“They filibustered debate, they brought procedural motions, they tried to resurrect bills, they called for roll call after roll call,” he said, regarding the Freedom Caucus. “It was constant. They wasted all that time when we didn’t have a lot of time.

“And then they come back and want a special session. It just doesn’t ring true.”

Sommers wants to steer attention back to the interim, the time period between sessions when lawmakers draft bills and study issues deemed important to the state while also hearing public testimony.

“Would I have liked to get the property tax bill across the finish line? Yes,” Sommers said. “But we can take these up. In fact, starting yesterday, we started to take them up in Management Council.

“The No. 1 topic of the Revenue Committee is property tax again, and we assigned the gun bill to Judiciary Committee to have them work it.”

This story was published on April 3, 2024.


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