November 20, 2020
Transparency experts on our latest People’s Review: LIVE! had a lot to dig into as they talked about how to ensure Wyomingites aren’t being shut out of the legislative process at a time when COVID-19 is changing the way lawmakers hold meetings and how citizens can participate.
Panelists kicked off the discussion with the November 19 Legislative Services Office memo recommending the upcoming general session be postponed until May in light of public health concerns; they went on to cover key details of the fast-paced legislative process, as well as how the shift to virtual meetings is impacting public participation. (The general consensus? Holding meetings via Zoom and streaming on YouTube is not without drawbacks, but overall it has made the people’s work more visible and accessible to more Wyomingites. That’s a win!)
Corporations Committee Bill Swap?
One issue that got a lot of airtime was last week’s eleventh-hour change-up of a draft bill at at a Joint Corporations, Elections, and Political Subdivisions Committee meeting—a move that raised concerns among lawmakers and the public alike.
The last agenda item of the three-day meeting was a discussion of a draft bill amending the state’s net metering laws. (Net metering is a billing mechanism that credits owners of small-scale and residential solar energy systems for any excess electricity they generate and add back into the power grid.)
More than 70 members of the public had signed up to testify on the bill, after having taken time to read it, understand its complexities, and prepare testimony on it. For the record, this level of civic engagement is fantastic, and demonstrates to lawmakers that the issue is one people care deeply about. In fact, many legislators commented on the considerable number of emails they had received from citizens about the bill.
But as the Casper Star-Tribune reported, the bill the committee ended up voting on and forwarding on for consideration during the 2021 General Session was not the same bill the public had prepared to weigh in on.
As Camille Erickson of the CST reported, “In an eleventh-hour change, the committee trashed the initial bill draft that would have overhauled the state’s net metering statute and elected instead to replace it with new legislation entirely.”
The process left members of the public scratching their heads and scrambling to respond to language they hadn’t seen beforehand and certainly hadn’t prepared to testify on. And as Senator Nethercott expressed in the meeting itself and on our panel discussion, it wasn’t how things are supposed to work. “It was a hijacking of the process,” she told the People’s Review: LIVE! audience.
Typically, when a legislative committee votes on whether to sponsor a bill for consideration in the General Session, they do so only after considerable research, discussion, and public input, and usually after working the bill three or four times.
But that’s not what happened in this meeting. Instead, legislators and the public alike were asked to weigh in on a bill version they were just seeing for the first time via screen shot.
“This is not the way to do it,” Senator Nethercott told her colleagues at the meeting as they barreled toward a vote. “We don’t have anything to work with. Why? Because this process hasn’t gone the way it’s supposed to have.”
Her point was valid. Regardless of the rules, the Legislature—tasked with conducting the people’s work—must strive to operate in the spirit of transparency, whether that’s technically required or not. Doing otherwise creates mistrust in the process, and sends a message to the public that their voice doesn’t matter. It runs the very real risk of turning citizens away from what many already feel is a complicated, intimidating process.
Had the process gone as it should have, Senator Nethercott told her colleagues, “we could have had that bill draft in a format that we would know, and we would be able to to show the public exactly what it is is that we’re voting on. But we don’t. It’s a big deal. It’s a big deal to these people. Look at the comments we received.”
Ultimately, the committee voted to advance the new bill to the full Legislature, and it will be taken up again at the General Session.
Get involved! (You. Yes, you.)
So how can ordinary citizens who care about Wyoming make sure they’re part of the conversation? How can you help shape policy in a way you believe moves the state in the right direction? Get involved! Marguerite Herman of the League of Women Voters of Wyoming and Shannon Anderson of Powder River Basin Resource Council both pointed out that joining advocacy groups like theirs and ESPC are also a great way to stay tuned in to the process and up to date on the issues you care most about.
We are really, really accessible. We shop at same grocery stores, we’re filling our vehicles up with gas just like you are. We’ve chosen to run for office to make time for our constituents and to serve the public. This is a priority for us and we feel valued when we have the opportunity to meet with folks face to face and remember why we’re doing what we’re doing.Wyoming Senator Tara Nethercott
Marguerite pointed out, too, that the Legislature’s website is a tremendous resource, especially during the session. It’s the best place to find bill drafts, agendas, calendars—and legislators’ email addresses, which she recommended you make good use of. “Please please please get in touch with your legislators!”
Senator Nethercott underscored that point. “We are really, really accessible. We shop at same grocery stores, we’re filling our vehicles up with gas just like you are. We’ve chosen to run for office to make time for our constituents and to serve the public. This is a priority for us and we feel valued when we have the opportunity to meet with folks face to face and remember why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
Thanks to everyone who joined us, and please mark your calendars for the next People’s Review: LIVE! at 5 p.m. on Thursday, December 17.
For more information on the net metering bill and what happened at the Corporations Committee meeting, check out WyoFile or this blog post from ESPC member Wyoming Outdoor Council.