JACKSON – The 66th Wyoming Legislature is set to convene Tuesday, but what the session will look like remains to be seen, pending debate about how to meet in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The plan is to gavel in at noon, with an option for members of the Wyoming House and Senate to participate virtually. The session rules should be adopted, and Gov. Mark Gordon is expected to deliver his state of the state address, after which the Legislature should adjourn until Jan. 27. It will reconvene throughout February and March until its business is concluded.
But some of that could change.
“There is a group of folks that are working to say that we’re going to adjourn to go back into session the next day,” said Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Teton. “In other words, just keep going.”
The Wyoming Constitution allots the Legislature 60 days for its work every two years. Generally, 40 of those days are reserved for general sessions like the one lawmakers will enter Tuesday, and 20 are set aside for budget sessions.
In normal general sessions — those without a global pandemic as a backdrop — the Legislature moves through all 40 days more or less at once. But this year, the plan would break those 40 days up over three months, aiming to push the bulk of the session out until March 1. That could possibly give lawmakers the time and ability to get vaccinated before gathering in person in Cheyenne.
Some legislators aren’t fans of that plan.
Gierau, a member of the legislative management council, said the “right wing crowd” is calling to have the session proceed like normal— and that Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Laramie and Goshen, and Sen. Tom James, R-Sweetwater, have been among those spearheading that charge to do so. Neither senator returned the Jackson Hole Daily’s request for comment.
“They just want to have the session now. They want to do it in person and all that,” said Teton County Rep. Andy Schwartz, who represents House District 23.
But, he added, “I don’t think they have the votes if you count the entire body.”
Schwartz, Gierau and other Teton County legislators were in agreement that postponing the bulk of the session was the right path forward given the state of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rep. Jim Roscoe said he would prefer the full session take place at a later, safer time — especially since he knew protesters have been challenging mask-wearing protocols.
“When I was down there being sworn in, we had to be at the Capitol, and there were people burning masks on the steps,” Roscoe said.
Whether protesters will return remains to be seen, but Marti Halverson, an Afton Republican who formerly held Roscoe’s seat, encouraged people to show up.
“Citizens should arrive and demand access to the chamber galleries,” she wrote. “It will be interesting to see if we are prohibited from entering our seat of state government.”
The galleries — and two rooms in the Wyoming Capitol for people to view the virtual proceedings of the House and Senate — will be open to the public Tuesday, but because many members of the Legislature will be dialing in, it will be hard to hear from that seating area.
Halverson told the Jackson Hole Daily she asked people to show up because she didn’t want health orders to obstruct the Wyoming Constitution, which requires legislative sessions to “be open unless the business ... requires secrecy.”
“I do not think Gov. Gordon’s health orders override the Wyoming State Constitution,” she said.
But Schwartz said encouraging people to show up in that manner disregards public safety.
“I think she’s being totally irresponsible about the welfare of not only the members of the Legislature but the people who she is encouraging,” he said. “I can’t imagine they’re gonna be wearing masks in the gallery.”
Gierau shared Schwartz’ worries about COVID-19 and was concerned Halverson’s post might have unintended consequences, especially after last week’s violent storming of the U.S. Capitol.
“I know Marti, I served with Marti, I have a lot of respect for Marti Halverson,” Gierau said. “I don’t think Marti has an adequate understanding of the incendiary value of her words to a certain population of people who she is a leader of.”
Halverson said she was “absolutely not” concerned that her post would lead to violence. She said she hoped other people would do what she suggested despite the COVID-19 pandemic and the unrest in the nation’s capitol last week to affirm their constitutional right.