Sunday, January 8, 2017

5 thing to watch for as the 2017 Legislature begins

It couldn’t have come at a worse time. Well, who knows? Putting new eyes on old problems might prove helpful.

As Wyoming faces daunting education-funding deficits and other fiscal crises attributable to declining oil, gas and coal revenues, nearly 3 in 10 members of the legislature are new to the process.

Retirements and defeats rendered seven of 30 members new to the Senate. The House lost 18 of 60 members. But, these numbers don’t tell the whole story. Among those whose seats are filled by freshmen are longtime leaders. Gone are knowledgeable legislators like Gerald Geis, Phil Nicholas, and Tony Ross. Each served as Senate Presidents, accumulating 75 years of combined-legislative experience.

The House lost former Speaker Kermit Brown. Floor Leader Rosie Berger served 14 years before her defeat. She’d have become the first female Speaker since 1969. Mary Throne and her decade of service, including time as Minority Leader, is gone as is Elaine Harvey and her 14 years of accomplishments.

Years of experience were exchanged for newly-elected members with much to learn. Governor Matt Mead is right. Their learning curve is steep. Will they the take time to learn and legislate with vision rather than ideology? Will they follow their instincts or fall in line with their caucus? As legislators begin their work Tuesday, here are five inquiries that will answer those questions.

1.     Will legislators ignore the people and move ahead with legislation transferring federal lands to the state?
2.     Will Republicans finally deliver a healthcare plan?
3.     Will legislators exercise independence from the far-right’s national agenda?
4.     Do any Republicans have realistic ideas about the future of coal?
5.     Will the legislature continue shielding the “rainy day” account from the current thunderstorm?

How new legislators deal with legislation urging the U.S. government to transfer ownership of federal lands to the state will be most revealing. This baby seems to have no known parents outside of a few incumbent legislators. Governor Mead admits the idea is financially and legally impractical. Polls are clear. The public thinks the idea stinks. During a recent legislative hearing, nobody spoke in favor.

Still, the proposal has legs. Key legislators are listening to someone other than constituents. There’s some smoke-blowing in a backroom somewhere. Will the freshmen listen to the voters back home or take their marching orders from legislative leadership? That will tell us a lot about these folks.

Next, with uncertainty about Obamacare, it’s urgent that the legislature enact a Wyoming-specific healthcare plan. The incumbents failed. The best they could do was to oppose expansion of Medicaid. Among new members, is there anyone creative and thoughtful enough to save community hospitals from financial failure and insure the 20,000-working people who fall through the cracks?

Third is a question of independence. Outside organizations exercise oversized influence in the legislature. Ideologues like the thankfully-defunct WyWatch and the Liberty Group, with connections to national groups like ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) and the Koch Brothers, infected our legislature with a far right, Wyoming-irrelevant agenda.

Consuming valuable time debating divisive social issues pleases many of these national organizations but doesn’t contribute anything to solving real problems. Will the incoming class have the wherewithal to demand their colleagues focus on Wyoming solutions for Wyoming problems?

Next is the question of the future of coal. The campaign disclosed no fresh faces who’ll do anything but repeat the mantra about ending the partisan-nominated “War on Coal” and resurrecting the industry. Time will tell whether someone will provide leadership and create a reality-based vision for Wyoming’s economy.

Finally, there’s the so-called “rainy day” account. Legislators never developed a consensus for what “rainy day” means. Perhaps there’s no one better to demand a definition than people who weren’t in the legislature as longtime members thoughtlessly spirited away tens-of-millions for whatever they determined was a “rainy day.”

Old problems benefit from new eyes, but only when new legislators use their own eyes rather than those of lawmakers who’ve proved themselves unable to solve those “old problems.”

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