Hate-crime bills fail, again

Protestors on the front lawn of the Campbell County Library on July 14, 2021. The group of two dozen protestors objected to the library's promotion of LGBTQ content in the library's collection. (Nick Reynolds/WyoFile)

By Nick Reynolds, WyoFile

Wyoming lawmakers defeated two proposed bills intended to combat bias-motivated crime Tuesday, likely eliminating any chance for similar legislation to advance in the upcoming budget session.

Members of the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee voted down legislation that would have updated statutory language to create a de facto hate crime law in Wyoming. The move all but assures the Equality State will remain one of just a handful of states lacking such a law.

Lawmakers also defeated legislation that would have brought law enforcement agencies’ crime-reporting protocols inline with federal standards. Including sexual orientation and gender identity in crime reports could have helped quantify the need for special protections for minority populations, advocates said.

The state’s continued non-compliance with those federal reporting requirements, which were updated in 2015, will cost law enforcement agencies up to 10% of their annual allotment of federal grant funding from the U.S. Department of Justice, said Cara Chambers, director of the Division of Victim Services within the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office.

Hate-crime-law proponents expressed dismay at the outcome.

“This is a Legislature with no appetite for nuance, that sees some of its constituents as not as important,” Sara Burlingame, executive director of LGBTQ advocacy group Wyoming Equality, told WyoFile. “And that’s a damn shame.”

Growing pressure

Lawmakers have faced growing pressure from both activists and the federal government to address bias-motivated crimes and discrimination.

Last year, a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights urged Wyoming to pass hate-crime legislation after a months-long investigation into the prevalence of such crimes around the state. High-profile anti-LGBTQ incidents in Wyoming, meanwhile, have attracted national media attention in recent years.

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Wyoming’s business community has also pressured lawmakers to consider anti-bias crime legislation, including better reporting of such crimes.

“Data can drive policy and we feel that a more complete picture of the problem will help to resolve the issues that are driving the increase in bias-motivated crimes,” Chris Brown, a lobbyist for the Wyoming lodging and restaurant association, said Tuesday. “Accurate and consistent reporting sends a message that bias-motivated crimes are taken seriously, and improved reporting may help increase the likelihood that members of vulnerable communities come forward to report when they’ve been the target of a bias-motivated crime.”

Committee members entered Tuesday’s meeting with a pair of proposals that some lawmakers saw as a compromise from past iterations of anti-bias crime bills. One bill draft proposed to update Wyoming’s anti-discrimination legislation to include the term “religion,” along with a proposed amendment by Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne) to implement criminal penalties for those found guilty of bias-motivated crimes. The bill, along with a proposed amendment to insert sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) language into the bill’s text, failed.

Though few gave their rationale for opposing the bill Tuesday, lawmakers have historically opposed implementing SOGI language into Wyoming’s anti-discrimination statutes either based on adherence to language in the Wyoming Republican Party Platform opposing it or the belief that federal law was already sufficient to protect underrepresented constituencies like the LGBTQ community.

Karlee Provenza (D- Laramie)

Others, like Rep. Karlee Provenza (D-Laramie) voted it down over concerns around levying additional responsibilities on a criminal justice system that disproportionately impacts marginalized communities without working to address the root causes of discrimination, she said.

“We’re asking a structure that has the same biases that we want to protect people from to solve our hate problem when it can’t even solve its own,” Provenza said.

To help target the root of the problem, another bill draft would have required law enforcement to comply with a uniform crime-reporting system and share data with the National Incident-Based Reporting System, a federal database that numerous agencies across Wyoming have thus far failed to participate in.

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“How can we come up with a bill …  to address bias motivated crimes, when we don’t have the data, when we don’t trust the data?” House Minority Leader Rep. Cathy Connolly, (D-Laramie), asked committee members Tuesday. “We don’t know if the data that we have is good enough, and we’re hearing all sorts of different reports from different jurisdictions across the state about how and if and when they report.”

That bill ultimately failed largely for fiscal reasons. Some, including the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police, hinted compliance would require a new infusion of funding for software and reporting. Without a new appropriation from the Legislature, that requirement could have been seen as an attempt to “defund the police” through a diversion of resources, Rep. Rachel Rodriguez-Williams (R-Cody) said.

Co-chair Sen. Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne) pushed back on that comparison, saying that it was police departments’ own lack of compliance with federal law that was causing them to lose funding.

“There is no one here on This Joint Judiciary Committee and let me reiterate, no one here that wants to defund the police,” she said. “No one has alleged that. No one has asserted that, and no one is supporting that … There is a concern about a lack of compliance with the law by law enforcement, which will result in a loss of resources.”

Headwinds

With both bills defeated, lawmakers now lack a vehicle to address these issues heading into the budget session.

While lawmakers can bring individual bills in a budget session, such measures require a two-thirds majority vote to be taken up by a committee. And even then, history has shown individual efforts to bring anti-bias crime bills have often faced serious headwinds once they reach the committee stage.

In the 2021 general session, two such bills — one preventing hiring discrimination based on one’s sexual orientation or gender identity, another creating penalties for bias-motivated crimes — failed to gain traction in the more moderate Wyoming House of Representatives.

Some feel it is unlikely legislative leadership will allow a similar effort this year. While Rep. Mike Yin (D-Jackson) told WyoFile he is currently gauging the committee’s feelings on the subject ahead of its final meeting next month, any prospect for survival outside of the Judiciary Committee remains slim, Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne) told WyoFile. The main priorities this winter will likely consist of the budget and redistricting, leaving little room to discuss anything that already was not discussed in committee.

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“There’s certainly people that are invested in seeing this happen,” Provenza said. “And I understand wanting to see LGBT people included in the language, I totally understand that. But I also think that given the reality of what the session is and the reality of who our legislature is, I don’t know what a bill would look like even if we sponsored one.”

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.