ESPC’s Position on Delaying the 2021 General Session

November 23, 2020

On November 24, the Wyoming State Legislature’s Management Council will decide whether to postpone the upcoming legislative session—which is scheduled to begin on January 12—until later this spring.

As part of that discussion, they’ll consider this recent memo from the Legislative Services Office detailing the staff’s recommendations for postponing the session.

Today we sent out a reminder to all our members and supporters asking you to let Management Council know that you support delaying the session until May, as recommended in the LSO memo.

Here is an excerpt from the memo:

The COVID-19 virus continues to spread throughout the nation and the State of Wyoming, equally impacting urban and rural locations. Daily infections and hospitalizations have grown throughout the last month. There is nothing to indicate that the spread of the virus will lessen in the coming months, or if it does momentarily slacken, that it might not return with rates of infection similar to what we are currently experiencing. As this virus continues to infect a larger share of Wyoming’s population, more and more of us have seen firsthand that COVID-19 is highly contagious and in some cases deadly.

The General Session of the Wyoming Legislature is set to begin on January 12, 2021 and to continue for up to 40 legislative days after that date. During a typical day of a General Session, up to 600 people pass through the Capitol Complex, including legislators, legislative staff, executive and judicial branch officials and employees, Wyoming Highway Patrol troopers, custodial staff, media, lobbyists, school children and members of the public. To further the necessary work of the Legislature, these people circulate freely throughout the Capitol Complex through the galleries, committee rooms, hallways and private offices. Close contact is helpful if not indeed required to express ideas, build compromises, and find solutions in a legislative setting.

For that and other reasons, conducting a remote General Session where upwards of 500 bills may be considered does not appear to be a practical, viable option. But that very need for a collaborative process through close contact between a large number of people provides an ideal forum for the COVID-19 virus to spread at a potentially alarming rate. Compounding the concern over the potential rate of spread is the disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on certain populations, including those over sixty years of age. The Wyoming Legislature has 45 members who are over sixty years of age, and of those thirteen are over seventy-years of age. Session staff historically (and somewhat of necessity) is generally comprised of retirees, who are often involved with the process as a civic calling.

At the direction of the Management Council, the LSO did quite a bit of research, considered the capacity of their staff, the demands of the session, the likely number of bills, and the limits (and possibilities) of the available technology. They have better insight into this than anyone else. Therefore, we take this staff recommendation seriously.

We also have serious concerns—if the sessions were to proceed as planned—about many members of the public and the media effectively being shut out of the legislative process, due to necessary limitations on the number of people who would be allowed to observe floor sessions and committee meetings. Many people would also be precluded from participating and/or observing the process because they are among high risk populations, and/or they have coworkers and loved ones who are at high risk for complications, and therefore must minimize all potential exposure to the coronavirus.

We also know from experience during the special session earlier this spring that an all-virtual session would likely be accomplished by the House and Senate using what’s called a “mirror bill” process. As we talked about at our most recent People’s Review: Live! last week, the mirror bill process is bad for transparency and severely limits public involvement.

Therefore, we believe it would be wise to let the pandemic play out further, and see if any of the several promising vaccines currently in the works are approved, effective, and become widely available over the next few months. This will also give the LSO staff the necessary time to better plan for a potential hybrid remote/in-person session, should that be determined to be the best approach.

Ultimately, we believe that delaying until May will:

  • Be safer for elected officials, staff members, and the public.
  • Help protect everyone, especially our most vulnerable friends and neighbors.
  • Help ensure more people will be able to participate safely in the 2021 session.
  • Help protect the integrity of Wyoming’s citizen legislature.

ESPC’s mission is to achieve transparent government, fair elections, and thriving communities. Our commitment to keeping our state government transparent—and helping the people of Wyoming participate in the process—is at the heart of our decision to advocate a May start to the session.

We need the process to be transparent. And we need you to be involved!

Please contact Chris Merrill, executive director, at info@equalitystate(dot)org with questions or concerns.

Tuesday morning update: Watch Chris’s testimony below.

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