CHEYENNE — State lawmakers will discuss a wide swath of issues during the 2023 interim, from education to energy and mental health to state revenue.
At a Thursday meeting of the Wyoming Legislature’s Management Council, all other legislative committees presented interim topics requests to the 10-member board, setting the stage for the 2024 budget session. House Speaker Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, chairman of the Management Council, said most legislative committees should plan to tackle around three topics during the interim, so as to appropriately explore a set number of topics, with the goal of proposing legislative options next year.
The Joint Education Committee will study K-12 mental health issues, including the impacts on student academic performance and well-being, as well as staff recruitment, retention and well-being.
“Priority number one is K-12 mental health,” co-Chairman of the Joint Education Committee Rep. David Northrup, R-Powell, said Thursday. “We are going to look at the mental health situation in the schools — not just the kids, but also the staff.”
Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, co-chairman of the committee, said that there is a “very clear need” for mental health assessment in Wyoming’s schools. Other priorities for his committee include early childhood programs, as well as reading assessment and intervention programs for grades K-3.
The Select Committee on School Facilities will continue to monitor statewide school facility needs, and even look at ways for Wyoming communities to build their own schools with local funding, when possible, and if found constitutional, said Rep. Landon Brown, R-Cheyenne.
“We do want to look at the potential of allowing those communities that do have the opportunity to afford to build their own school or facilities to allow them to do that, and take that burden off the state’s shoulders,” Brown, who is chairman of that committee, said.
Currently, state statute “places a burden” on communities that could fund their own schools, he continued, by limiting major maintenance funding later on.
Senate President Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, a member of the Management Council, said he would like the committee to take a “deep dive” into major maintenance issues when it comes to Wyoming’s schools, “taking a hard look at how we do the maintenance dollars in a lot of these schools.”
The Select Committee on Tribal Relations will study higher education and K-12 education issues on the Wind River Reservation, including at St. Stephens Indian High School, according to its co-chairperson, Rep. Ember Oakley, R-Riverton.
“We would like to have discussions including the Department of Education, local school boards, and ensure that we are giving the support that is needed,” Oakley said. “We’d like to hear about the needs for the schools, from St. Stephens, as well as some of the other reservation schools.”
The Joint Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Committee will study increasing military career readiness for grades K-12, as well as evaluating ways to assist veterans attending the University of Wyoming and Wyoming community colleges. Brown, co-chairman of that committee, said that the Wyoming Military Department has notified the committee that it has seen a reduction in students who are “militarily ready,” or prepared to take a timed, multi-aptitude test called the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) assessment.
“We do see that there is an opportunity here for us to look at increasing military career readiness within the K-12 system,” Brown said.
Rep. Scott Heiner, R-Green River, co-chairman of the Select Federal Natural Resource Management Committee, told the Management Council that his committee is required by statute to review federal policies. The committee will receive updates on federal oil and gas leasing and drilling issues in relation to the federal administration’s actions on energy development on federal public lands, including the administration’s “30 by 30 Plan.”
“With the BLM, what we would like to do is talk about coal, oil and gas leasing,” Heiner said. “We know that that hasn’t been happening as much as in the past, and we would like to see if there is anything we can do as a state to improve upon that.”
Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas, said the committee is “very interested” in the effect federal policy has had on oil and gas leases in Wyoming.
“One of the benefits of this committee is we point out in very specific terms how significant the reduction has been, and we will continue to clarify that, I think, for anybody who wants to pay attention,” Boner said.
The Joint Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee will prioritize a general discussion of “energy issues that are currently affecting the state, including nuclear energy, mining, coal, oil-and-gas and rare-earth minerals,” as well as carbon dioxide and carbon capture, utilization and sequestration. They will also talk about oil and gas refineries and capacity in Wyoming.
“Improving refining capacity will affect gas prices, will affect our ability to have the product in Wyoming. Right now, it is coming out of the South, and we are concerned about that. What can we do to improve the outlook and improve the capacity,” said Sen. Dan Dockstader, R-Afton, co-chairman of the committee.
Following a discussion of half a dozen tax issues, Management Council directed the Joint Revenue Committee to focus on an electrical generation tax, followed by property tax issues during the interim. The Council removed education revenue and severance tax parity from the committee’s interim topic list.
“The committee wants to take a look at more broad property tax relief, and also, they want to look at personal property tax,” Sen. Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester, co-chairman of the Revenue Committee, said during the discussion. A proposed Senate bill during the last session regarding personal property tax relief “had legs,” Biteman said, but needed further study.
“There was concern that the price tag was too steep,” Biteman said, adding that the Senate directed his committee to couple personal property tax discussions with ideas for broadening the state’s sales tax base.
“In order to get major property tax relief, which is expensive, you are going to have to figure out a way to pay for it,” Biteman said. “Broadening the sales tax base would definitely help.”
There was discussion during several committee presentations about looking into an electrical generation tax or gross receipts tax on the production of electricity, and ultimately that topic was assigned to the Revenue Committee.
After an amendment by the Management Council, the Joint Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Committee will make its first priority “transportation and highways,” rather than “military affairs.” Several lawmakers asked the committee to address highway issues, from potholes to closures, as well as issues along Interstate 80. Boner, who is a co-chair of that committee, asked for specific direction from Management Council for addressing the I-80 corridor.
“Any specific direction the council can give us in terms of what we are going to do, exactly, on I-80, that hasn’t been tried already, I think we would benefit from that,” Boner said.
Management Council member Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, said he’d like the committee to do two things: look at a differential fuel tax on diesel and consider weigh stations along I-80. Neighboring states, he said, often charge a differential fuel tax on diesel of 25 to 50 cents at truck stops close to the interstate. That type of tax, Hicks continued, would primarily affect truck traffic going from one end of the state to the other.
“Eighty percent of the truck traffic on I-80 is truck traffic,” Hicks said. “It comes in one side and goes out the other. We know based on WYDOT data that one 80,000-pound truck does as much wear and tear to the interstate as 3,000 passenger vehicles.”
When it comes to closures, Hicks suggested the committee look at shutdowns on I-80 due to blowovers. Although there are signs along I-80 that say roads are closed to high-profile, lightweight vehicles, Hicks said many drivers read the sign and “go right on.” A potential fix, he said, would be to place scales at various locations so that lightweight vehicles driving through closures could be identified.
“I don’t know what the remedy is, what the fine is,” Hicks said. “But this is absolutely ridiculous. Over and over, (I-80) is shut down because of high-profile semis that blow over.”
Carrie Haderlie is a freelance journalist who covers southeast Wyoming from her home near Saratoga. She has written for the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, Laramie Boomerang, Wyoming Business Report and several other publications for many years, including covering the Wyoming Legislature.