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Legislative session starts with flurry of bills

January 9, 2019

The 65th Wyoming Legislature is in and gearing up to craft the next generation of state law.

Plenty of the proposals before our senators and representatives are worth keeping an eye on. Some aim to chip away at the authority of local government; others would create new taxes and revise existing ones. Wyoming may soon even add an amphibian to its list of state symbols.

Bills are still rolling in, each day bringing a new batch. The 2018 session delivered more than 300 pieces of would-be legislation, and using that as a baseline for this year, 2019 hasn’t even hit the halfway mark. This list is an attempt to distill what has been proposed so far into the most meaningful potential new laws.

The News&Guide will follow significant bills throughout the session until their passage or death, and a new feature on our website will allow readers to do the same with ease. Our bill tracker will outline the critical stages in the legislative process, showing the changing status of various bills in an understandable way.

A few bills from Legislatures past are expected to be resurrected but haven’t yet appeared this session. Rep. Andy Schwartz, D-Teton, said he would try again to pass Medicaid expansion — a measure that has failed year after year — but he wants to build support before bringing forward legislation.

The deadline for bills to be introduced is Jan. 24 in the Senate, Jan. 29 in the House.

Anyone interested in reading the full text of a bill can find it under the “legislation” section at WyoLeg.gov.

Revenue

HB 66: Lodging tax

Though Teton County approved a 2 percent lodging tax in November, it may not have the option to reject it in the future. This bill would create a permanent, statewide 5 percent lodging tax, with 3 percent funding the Wyoming Office of Tourism and the other 2 percent going to municipalities. This would be to the dismay of those who fought the tax at the local level because of its promotional percentage.

HB 67: Sales tax revisions

This bill would repeal sales tax exemptions on a list of services and products, including groceries. It would also reduce the sales-tax rate from 4 percent to 3.5 percent.

Local Control

HB 51: Lawful fence standards — county pre-emption

This bill would remove counties’ authority to regulate fences. Right now Teton County’s land development regulations include provisions that require certain fences to be “wildlife friendly” to allow ungulate migration and movement. The bill was first introduced in last year’s legislative session after local ranchers fought to hike fence heights.

SF 49: County zoning authority — private schools

This bill would strip counties’ zoning power over private schools. It would prohibit counties from zoning that restricts “the location, use or occupancy of a private school,” if the school is sited on a property of 35 acres or more serving at least 50 students.

The proposal comes amid a heated debate over a plan to build a new school for the Jackson Hole Classical Academy in South Park. The plan has pitted private school parents against neighbors concerned about a threat to rural character.

Education

HB 68: School funding revenue

This bill seeks funding for K-12 public education in Wyoming that isn’t directly tied to coal, oil and gas revenue. The property tax increase suggested in HB 68 would be gradual, rolling out to a total of 9 mills in the next three years. One mill is equal to $1 in property tax, levied on every $1,000 of a property’s determined taxable value.

Teton County Assessor Melissa Shinkle said that would mean local property taxes increasing by at least 13 percent across the board. That could be devastating for local families trying to eke out an existence, she said, and she would prefer an alternative funding stream.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Shinkle said. “I don’t know many people that would say, ‘To heck with the schools.’ But I really wish the Legislature would find some alternatives to better evenly distribute that burden to all taxpayers and stop putting it on the backs of property owners … lots of people have kids in school that don’t own property.”

SF 64: School safety and security

Senator Affie Ellis from Cheyenne is spearheading an effort to set a baseline for school safety and security that’s standard across the state. This legislation would require the state superintendent to consult with homeland security, the attorney general and the state construction department to create guidelines to help district’s school boards to develop comprehensive safety and security plans. The plan would be submitted to the department of education during the school’s accreditation review. The bill also toughens up accountability for those who pass school buses unlawfully.

See the cover of the News&Guide for a full story.

SF 34: Hathaway Eligibility Act

This act, cosponsored by Teton County Sen. Mike Gierau and Sen. Liisa Anselmi-Dalton, D-Rock Springs, would repeal a provision that excludes certain noncitizens from the University of Wyoming’s Hathaway scholarship eligibility. The scholarship isn’t available to non-U.S. citizens. Students would still need to meet other requirements of the program, like going to school in the state and obtaining certain levels of academic achievement.

Health

SF 46: Opioid prescription limits

To combat opioid addiction and abuse in Wyoming this bill would limit the amount of opioids doctors can prescribe. There would be exceptions for things like chronic pain and cancer treatment. Some pushback is expected because physicians often don’t like having a third party in their patient-doctor relationship. There are also concerns about the state’s rural nature and how far patients might be away from health care if a prescription runs out prematurely.

Labor

HB 71: Equal-pay penalties

The Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Interim Committee is sharply increasing the fine any employer must pay if they’re found guilty of pay discrimination. The fine was increased from $25 to $200 to now more than $500 during the initial drafting process. Going to prison for between 10 and 180 days is also on the table as a punishment for wage discrimination.

Environment

HB 28: Shed antler and horn collection

This act — which has been attempted before — would allow the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission to regulate collection of shed antlers on the eastern side of the Continental Divide.

It’s a free-for-all on shed hunting east of the divide currently, though there is a total ban on the popular springtime outdoor endeavor on the divide’s western slope between Jan. 1 and May 1. The regulations are meant to prevent people from disturbing and harassing big game like elk when they’re on their winter range.

The legislation on the table would do away with the blanket seasonal prohibition across the state, allowing Game and Fish to set seasons for specific areas as it sees fit. The change would take effect this summer.

HB 73: Use of dogs in big game hunting

Using dogs to pursue big game is illegal in Wyoming, but legislators are pushing for one exception to the rule, allowing the use of a single, leashed canine for tracking purposes only within 36 hours of shooting or wounding an animal. As it’s written, the change would open up this use of dogs in time for the 2019 hunting season.

HJ 1: Wyoming support for grizzly bear delisting

Wyoming legislators will consider a resolution that requests the federal government to once again “swiftly delist” the Yellowstone region’s grizzly bears from the Endangered Species Act.

Delisting grizzlies already happened in 2017, when management authority turned over to the state. But just 15 months later a judge told the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service it had erred, violating the Endangered Species Act. The ruling overturned the delisting.

The legislators’ symbolic resolution is lengthy and includes a long list of reasons why Wyoming legislators believe the feds ought to delist grizzlies, including the 142 head of cattle the bears killed in 2018. The resolution even mentions the fatal grizzly bear mauling of Jackson Hole hunting outfitter Mark Uptain.

Crime

SF 33: Cruelty to animals — penalties

This bill, sponsored by Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Teton, would increase the penalties for those convicted of animal cruelty in Wyoming. The bill proposes doubling the fines.

SF 60: Protection of children — child endangerment amendments

This bill would change when a child can be taken into protective custody and revise the elements of the crimes of abandoning or endangering a child.

HB 10: Crimes against critical infrastructure

Born of the Standing Rock pipeline protests, this bill would make it illegal to impede or trespass on “critical infrastructure,” which includes everything from power-generating stations to cell towers, and a range of oil and gas facilities. Opponents argue the bill aims to suppress free speech by quashing protests against the fossil-fuel industry.

Voting

SF 32: Changes in political party affiliation

This bill would ban people from changing their party affiliation between the first day candidates can file for office and the primary election. After 6,000 Democratic voters registered as Republican in the run-up to the August primary, critics called it an unjust political ploy. Others argue it allows citizens to support the most suitable candidate, regardless of party.

SF 65: Open ranked choice elections

At the other end of the voting bill spectrum, this one would allow people to vote for more than one candidate, and candidates from either party, in order of preference. Freshman Rep. Mike Yin, D-Teton, is one of the bill’s co-sponsors.

Other

SF 57: Public records

Seeking to boost Wyoming’s government transparency, this bill would set a 10-day limit for agencies to release public records upon request. It would also require agencies to designate a public records person and impose penalties for failing to meet the deadline, knowingly or negligently.

HB60: Underage marriage-exceptions repeal

If passed, this bill would keep 16 and 17-year olds from getting married in Wyoming with the permission of a judge. The bipartisan act will increase the minimum acceptable age from 16 to 18 years old. Delaware passed a similar bill banning child marriage in May. A PBS Frontline investigation found that between 2000 and 2015, 1,200 children got married in Wyoming. The numbers dropped from 104 in 2000 to only 28 in 2015.

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