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Senate starts session with surprise leadership shakeup

In defiance of Senate President Odgen Driskill, the upper chamber voted to oust Sen. Tara Nethercott as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee and to reinstate Sen. Dave Kinskey to head the powerful panel.

Sen. Dave Kinskey (R-Sheridan) on the Senate floor on Feb. 12, 2024 (WyoFile/Ashton J. Hacke)

by Maggie Mullen, WyoFile

CHEYENNE—The 2024 budget session turned contentious almost immediately Monday as the Wyoming Senate promptly voted to defy the chamber’s president and shake up leadership of the Senate Appropriations Committee. 

The Senate voted 17-14 to reinstate Sen. Dave Kinskey (R-Sheridan) as chairman of the Legislature’s most powerful committee. 

In April, Senate President Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) unilaterally stripped Kinskey of the position — though not his membership on the committee. At the time, Driskill said he was troubled by committee members’ concerns about Kinskey’s performance at the helm, the Sheridan Press reported

Driskill named committee member Sen. Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne) to lead the panel. The position comes with considerable responsibility, particularly ahead of a budget session: Appropriations is responsible for parsing the governor’s recommendations, weighing agencies’ requests and crafting the draft budget that serves as a starting point for the most important piece of legislation lawmakers will consider this session. 

“I object on the basis of process not personalities, or the people this will affect today,” Sen. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle) said. 

The fact that Steinmetz brought the appeal was not surprising. When the original shakeup occurred last year, Steinmetz publicly objected. 

Sen. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle) speaks on the Senate floor on Feb. 12, 2024 (WyoFile/Ashton J. Hacke)

“In an unprecedented manipulation of legislative power, the Wyoming Senate President took it upon himself to notify a committee chairman that he had been removed from his position and subsequently replaced him with another,” Steinmetz wrote in a press release titled “President or King?” 

More specifically, Steinmetz said the action violated Senate rule 22-8, which states that “no change shall be made in any committee except by vote of a majority of the members of the Senate.”

While Steinmetz’s appeal wasn’t unexpected, it was highly unusual. 

“[This] is going to set a precedence in here that we haven’t ever set before. We haven’t ever in all of my years, taken a vote to override the presiding officer,” said Sen. Bill Landen (R-Casper), who has served in the body since 2007. 

It remains to be seen how much Kinskey’s reinstatement will affect the budget-making process from here on out. The committee’s budget hearings wrapped up weeks ago, and at this point, the chairman doesn’t have much power, according to Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander). 

“If [Kinskey] was opposed to certain sections, it doesn’t mean that he can rewrite the budget bill now,” Case told WyoFile. “The votes have been cast.” 

Case worried, however, that the vote to reinstate Kinskey is a sign of a forthcoming budget fight.  

“Certainly the [Senate] members seemed to believe there were merits to changing the chairman. I don’t know if there’s another agenda behind that,” he said. “There’s been talk that people would like to not pass the budget.”

Senate President Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) addresses the Wyoming Senate on Feb. 12, 2024. (WyoFile/Ashton J. Hacke)

Debate and resolution

Aside from Steinmetz, Sen. Dan Dockstader (R-Afton) was the only lawmaker to speak in favor of appeal. 

Dockstader said he had great respect for both Nethercott and Kinskey, and he reminded the body he’d even endorsed Nethercott in her unsuccessful race for secretary of state. 

“But our decision here is the rule in question,” Dockstader said. “And I think that’s what we should be voting on.”

Sen. Jim Anderson (R-Casper) praised Nethercott’s work as chair through the off-season. 

“She worked well with all of us — ALL of us on the committee,” Anderson said. 

Meanwhile, Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) brought a motion to table the appeal but was unsuccessful. Even Nethercott voted against the delay. 

Driskill took measures to explain his decision and woefully apologized to the body. 

“I’m sorry it’s got to this point,” Driskill said. Ultimately, though, he stood by his decision. 

Driskill said his decision was perceived as a knee-jerk reaction, but said he’d consulted with several former governors, appropriation chairs and senate presidents. 

“Every single one of them told me if you have non-functional committees, you’re obligated to take action,” Driskill said. 

He also said he consulted with the Legislative Service Office. More specifically, Driskill said LSO made it clear that it “was a gray area, but it was very clear that I could do it as long as I did not remove [Kinskey] from the committee.” 

In a statement to WyoFile sent Monday evening, Driskill said he respects the Senate’s decision.  

“I stand firmly behind the will of this body,” he said. “I have the highest regard for both Senate Vice President Kinskey and Senator Nethercott, who honorably chaired the Appropriations Committee since May 2023. I want to extend my sincere gratitude to Senator Nethercott for her willingness to take on the chairmanship.” 

Sen. Tara Nethercott stands on the Senate floor on Feb. 12, 2024. (WyoFile/Ashton J. Hacke)

Both Kinskey and Nethercott also expressed regret and both vowed to forge ahead. 

“I want everybody to know that when the [Senate] President and I met yesterday, I assured him that no matter what happened, that everybody on this committee would work together collegially and professionally to move forward, win, lose or draw, that we would deliver a budget for the state of Wyoming, a budget of which the Senate and the Legislature could be proud,” Kinskey said. 

Nethercott stuck to the high road in addressing the chamber following her ouster and implored her colleagues to remain focused on the task at hand. 

“I’d like to remind us all of our constitutional obligation to pass a budget,” she said. “I am confident that the budget that’s been worked on, so much is in a place where he will be able to shepherd it through. So I look forward to your continued cooperation, and I thank you. And rest assured, I respect and appreciate all of you moving forward.”

Mike Koshmrl contributed reporting to this story.

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.