By Tom Lacock
Wyoming Medical Society
Few people know the Wyoming Legislature better than Joan Barron.
From 1971-2014 Barron covered the Legislature from Cheyenne for the Casper Star-Tribune. Even in retirement she continues to spend time in the capitol researching legislation for her continued Sunday column in the Star-Tribune.
She has seen it all in her days covering the capitol, including high turnover in this year’s edition of the legislature. This year’s legislature will welcome 23 new members, including two former representatives moving into the senate. Barron says it is common for about 20 percent turnover in the Legislature after each election. She says the highest turnover she can remember was in 1993 when 27 of the 60-member house were freshmen.
“With nearly half the house being new people, there were problems,” Barron says. “I remember John Marton of Buffalo was the floor leader. The general file, which he managed, was bulging. Marton complained that the new committees were approving all the bills. They were reluctant to kill any. Of course, it bogged down the process but they did get through it.”
Carolyn Paseneaux was a member of that rookie class and said that class was a lot of fun, if somewhat undisciplined in the early days of their first term.
“We weren’t as dignified in ’93 as the new legislators will be in 2017. We were out of order on the floor sometimes as our training wasn’t as thorough as it is now for new legislators,” Paseneaux says with a laugh.
Paseneaux says that class learned quickly as the lack of computers on the floor of the house didn’t stop them from communicating with each other during debate or votes. Paseneaux says Marlene Simons of Crook County was a veteran of the House and had some unique ways of letting her colleagues know what she was thinking.
“Marlene wore a beautiful leather pendant with a carved eagle on it,” explains Paseneaux. “If she had the votes with all the boys in her area (Democrats and Republicans), the eagle on the pendant stayed as usual, face forward. But if not she turned it face down and turned sideways so I could see it across the room. I then communicated the message to fellow legislator Glenda Stark via scratching my head either the right or left side, and she in turn communicated to the other two. We would go forward if we had the votes, or wait until we did.”
Despite the memory of a challenging year in 1993, Barron said she believes a new legislature tends to get results most years based on the leadership in both chambers. She points out Senate President Eli Bebout (R-Fremont County) and House Speaker Steve Harshman (R-Casper) are new to their positions but they are veteran legislators and have both been committee chairmen. The big change could be that they are both considered more conservative than their predecessors.
“They aren’t free spenders,” Barron says of Harshman and Bebout. “I think the big question is how far will they cut. They don’t seem to have any idea of raising taxes at all, which seems to be the big, bad word there.”
Harshman has been the co-chair of the Joint Appropriations Committee and agrees that the state’s budget woes will be front-and-center in this session. He says the Legislature is three-quarters of the way towards solving the general funding issues of the state budget, but a lack of education funding could be a bigger issue on the horizon. According to some reports, that shortfall could reach $1.8 billion by the year 2020.
“In the end we could ride this budget through the rest of the biennium and be fine,” says Harshman. “We are going to get close. There will probably be a few more reductions and probably spend some of our savings and maintain that balance.
“The educational funding is this sort of double-whammy effect when local property taxes go down because mineral prices and income is down. With less local property tax money to work with, the state’s share of the education funding goes up because the local share goes down at a time when we have less money.”
While Harshman isn’t new to the house, he is new to his position as speaker of the house. Last year Kermit Brown was the house speaker but decided not to run for re-election. That left Rosie Berger as the presumed speaker until she lost her seat in November’s election. Speaker Pro Tem Tim Stubson vacated his seat and place in GOP leadership to make a run at the U.S. House of Representatives, and Hans Hunt left his position as Republican House Whip to take a federal committee position in the administration of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump. That left the house with no returning Republicans in leadership.
Harshman said after the primary and election, he decided to volunteer for the speaker position, one he says he is excited for.
“God has a plan for us, so I try not to make too big of plans,” Harshman says. “The way the primaries turned out and the way the leadership stepped down, there is a void. I think I have the right kind of experience to make sure the thing runs like it should, and really guide us through some of the budget issues that are going to face us.”
Fred Baldwin (R-Kemmerer) spent two years in the house before winning election this fall to the Senate. He says he thinks the result of a state budget in need of cuts and a high number of legislators will be less legislation making it through both chambers.
“I think we will spend less time looking at trivial bills, things like the jackalope as the state mythical creature and similar bills that are smaller things, and we will spend more time focusing on budgetary issues. I think there will be a lot of bills introduced but less bills get through,” Baldwin says.
As far as having a new group of freshmen legislators in the State House, Harshman says he is looking forward to the changes. He cites the fact two new legislators are just 29 years old, while another, Aaron Clausen (R-Douglas), is in his 30s. He adds that other freshmen such as Jamie Flitner (R-Big Horn) (the granddaughter of former State Senator Eddie Moore), Casper businessmen Pat Sweeney (R-Casper), Jerry Obermueller (R-Casper) and others can bring a fresh perspective to the process.
“That is what this is all about, bringing those new perspectives,” Harshman says. “Group genius — where the best ideas boil to the top, are refined and then become the best product we can produce. It is sometimes slow, and painful and frustrating, but it sometimes produces the best product.”