By Andrew Graham, WyoFile.com
Over more than 30 hours of live-streamed videoconferencing this weekend, the Wyoming Legislature passed three bills to begin spending $1.25 billion in federal funding to alleviate the pandemic’s impacts on the state.
With lawmakers both in the State Capitol building and connecting virtually from around the state, the Legislature generally stuck to the script for what was billed as a quick convening to pass urgent fixes and distribute federal relief funds.
The compressed, fast-paced session was not wholly devoid of legislative spats and fireworks, however. The Senate forced through a controversial measure that gives business owners some legal immunity from COVID-19 lawsuits. The House meanwhile killed a fourth bill in a resurgence of a fight between the chambers over education spending.
Still, barring unlikely vetoes from Gov. Mark Gordon, a host of state residents — landlords and tenants, business owners and the growing ranks of unemployed workers — can expect access to more government relief in the coming weeks.
The biggest spending bill, Senate File 1001 – Emergency appropriation-Covid-19-funds immediately releases to Gordon $450 million from the $1.25 billion the state received under the federal CARES Act. That federal law has separately pumped an estimated $1 billion into the state so far through loans to businesses, aid to hospitals and airports and direct payments to citizens, according to estimates from the Legislative Service Office lawmakers cited in debate.
The $1.25 billion was for expenditure by the state government on needs unreached by the federal programs.
If he doesn’t veto SF-1001, Gordon can spend the money on the state’s response to the public health emergency as well as in preparation for future pandemic impacts.
He can spend the money to combat “food insecurity.” He can also distribute it to cities, towns and counties, as well as health care providers, for the expenses they incurred battling the virus. The money can go toward building out the state’s healthcare infrastructure as well.
Lawmakers gave the governor ample leeway with the large sum of funding, but the Wyoming Attorney General has to review the spending’s legality and Gordon has to document it.
Through amendments brought by Sen. Affie Ellis (R-Cheyenne) and Rep. Lloyd Larsen (R-Lander), the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes are also eligible to receive funding to aid their response on the Wind River Indian Reservation. The reservation and tribal members have been hit hard by the virus’s health and economic impacts.
In a second bill, lawmakers allotted $325 million to three grant programs for Wyoming-based small businesses. Lawmakers placed a number of restrictions on the programming. Businesses have to be headquartered or have “principle operations” in Wyoming and employ 50 or fewer full-time workers, according to the Legislation, House Bill 1004 COVID-19 Business relief programs. Businesses will apply to the Wyoming Business Council to get the relief.
An amendment in the Senate to exclude Wyoming’s many nonprofits from the funding failed to pass. Nonprofits that prove an impact from COVID-19 will be eligible for the funding just like any other business, House Minerals, Business and Economic Development Chairman Mike Greear (R-Worland) told WyoFile. However, he anticipates the Business Council would write rules to exclude nonprofits “that lobby or engage in government activities,” he said. “I don’t think they’re going to get anything and I don’t think they should get anything.”
The $325 million comes out of the $450 million appropriated to Gordon in the first bill. The Business Council is likely to administer the three grant programs over the course of the summer, Greear said. The Legislature intends to meet again at the end of June. If it does not, the weekend’s legislation automatically releases another $400 million to the governor on July 15.
With another successful bill, Senate File 1002 – Emergency powers-Covid-19, lawmakers created a program to stem evictions by reimbursing landlords for unpaid rent from suddenly unemployed tenants. Lawmakers allotted an extra $15 million for that program, which will be administered by the Wyoming Community Development Authority, bringing the total released to Gordon up to $465 million.
SF-1002 also specified that anyone who contracts COVID-19 is eligible for workers compensation.
At the same time, the bill protected employers from seeing an increase in their payments to the state’s unemployment fund if their workers receive unemployment insurance under that new clause.
The bill provided broad protections and awards to businesses.
Senators pushed through an amendment giving business owners immunity against lawsuits brought over COVID-19 infections, provided the business “in good faith” follows public health orders.
The bill also rewarded employers who had been making their legally required payments to the state’s workers compensation fund. Such employers can receive a credit against a future payment, echoing a similar measure passed during the 2020 Legislative session.
The Legislature rejected, however, an amendment to give hazard pay to state workers exposed to the virus.
Bill falls to end funding dispute
Lawmakers killed only one of the four prearranged bills they brought into the session.
The House voted to drop House Bill 1003 – Emergency budgeting-COVID-19 on its final reading Friday night. Because the rules of the special session required bills to advance simultaneously, that ended the measure’s run. The bill directed school districts to take money leftover at the end of the school year — many districts had reduced expenses after shuttering facilities — and save it in anticipation of hard times ahead.
The bill also gave Gordon more authority to move funds around within agency budgets, and from one agency to another. The measure would have given him more flexibility to respond to both the pandemic and a looming budget deficit.
Senators, however, amended the bill to also allow the governor the prerogative to cut into education funding. House members prickled at that step. Speaker of the House Steve Harshman (R-Casper) decried what he labeled “goofy talk” from the Senate, which he said was seeking to score political points.
For more than four years, the House and Senate have been engaged in a fierce dispute over education funding. The House, led by high school teacher and football coach Harshman, has blocked the Senate’s repeated attempts to make deep cuts to public schools.
In the Senate on Saturday, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Eli Bebout (R-Riverton), a longtime advocate for education cuts, jabbed back at Harshman. “The House is more concerned about what the goofy Senators are doing,” then responding to a fiscal crunch, Bebout said. “We’re not goofy.”
Though Gordon has veto power over the special session bills, it would be surprising if he exercises the right to prevent any from becoming law.
Gordon and his staff had requested many of the new programs carried in the legislation over the weekend, and the Legislature largely stuck to his wishes of “efficient” and responsive appropriations of aid.
Only on HB-1004 can the governor exercise “line-item vetoes,” where he can strike parts of the bill but still allow it to become law, according to the Legislative Service Office. That’s because the governor can use his veto pen on individual lines only in legislation that contains more than one appropriation of funds.
When lawmakers first began discussing a special session, some in the executive branch believed the governor already had the authority to distribute the $1.25 billion.
Lawmakers can create new programs in statute, however, and the governor cannot. The federal government placed tight restrictions on how CARES Act dollars can be spent, and only gave states until the end of the year to spend the money. Creating new programs allowed added flexibility for the state to get the money out.
“We believe these are federal funds and can be distributed by the executive branch to existing programs with the flexibility that I have,” Gordon said at a press conference last week. “I don’t really relish the thought of having to do that, and that’s why I wanted the Legislature to be here.”
A special session also minimized unseemly political fights during a crisis. Lawmakers consider budgeting to be one of the legislative branch’s fundamental purviews.
“These are extraordinary times and they call for an extraordinary relationship between the legislature and the executive branch,” Gordon said. “I’m fully engaged with them in all respects.”
For experienced attendees of Wyoming’s legislative sessions, Friday and Saturday’s gathering in the Capitol was surreal. An estimated 30 lawmakers attended in person, but were spread throughout the building and connected to a live-streamed video conference on computers.
The other 60 lawmakers connected virtually from around the state. To maintain distance from each other in the Capitol, few lawmakers were seated at their desks in the House and Senate chambers. During breaks in debate, lawmakers emerged from conference rooms, offices and committee meeting chambers in which they, too, had been plugged into their computers.
The Legislative Service Office operated a skeleton crew, and some staff, like House and Senate clerks, successfully performed the roles played by two to three people during a regular session.
Lawmakers, journalists and staff passed only occasionally, and often masked, through the empty hallways of the restored capitol that just in February and March had hosted crowds of lobbyists, government officials, reporters and onlookers.
Because of the virus, the Capitol was closed to the public with the exception of journalists. At the start of Friday’s proceedings, a state trooper escorted a man and his young son out from the Senate gallery.
The man argued with the trooper before leaving peacefully, referring to himself as a “citizen reporter” and asking “isn’t this an open public meeting?” He also referred to policy makers who closed the capitol as “domestic terrorists,” according to a video posted online.
From a technological standpoint, Chris Merrill, a transparency advocate and director of the Equality State Policy Center, called the special session a success. The LSO executed an ever-evolving series of debates, committee hearings and votes over video that anyone in the state could tune into online, with few hitches. “On short order the Legislative Service Office staff just did phenomenal work to make this as transparent a process as possible,” Merrill said.
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.