Wyoming Legislature update – Dec. 23, 2016
State budget, transfer of Federal lands, speed limits, new bills
by Albert Sommers, House District #20 Representative
December 27, 2016
Hello Sublette County, this is Albert Sommers reporting on issues that will be debated in the 2017 General Session of the Legislature, which begins on January 10, 2017 in Cheyenne. I have new assignments this session, which will require even more of my time. I hope to be able to continue providing you regular reports from the legislative session.
I have been appointed to the House Appropriations Committee. This committee’s job is to review state agency budgets and prepare the budget bill for the session. During a General session we address the Supplemental Budget, because the 2017/18 biennial budget was developed last session. The Supplemental Budget is the Governor’s opportunity to bring unexpected issues into the budgetary process, but this session we will mostly be trimming the budget due to reduced revenue projections. I spent the week of December 12th in Cheyenne listening to various agencies present their budget reductions and requests to the current Joint Appropriations Committee. Few agencies have asked for any new dollars. Even though the new Appropriation Committee doesn’t take over its duties until January 3rd, we were asked to participate in this week-long series of meetings to familiarize ourselves with agency budgets. The Governor cut over $200 million from agency budgets during the summer, but I learned the details of these cuts during this week of meetings. It appears to me, even though these cuts were made, we still have a structural deficit in our General Fund budget. The Governor utilized a one-time rate hike holiday in state health insurance and diversion of the statutory 1% severance tax to balance the budget. Nearly all of the 200+ positions cut by state agencies were vacant positions, while real cuts were made to programs supporting people. We will begin developing the budget bill during the second week of the session.
The transfer of federal lands to the state has been a topic that was debated in elections around the state, and continues to be debated due to a joint resolution coming out of the Federal Natural Resource Committee. This resolution would be a constitutional amendment describing how any lands transferred from the federal government could be later relinquished by the state. I have always felt this was just a political issue, and that the federal government would never agree to transfer large swaths of federal land to the state. However, the issue continues to be debated. Our ranch holds federal grazing permits, and my landlords have gotten harder to work with, but I do not believe the answer is to transfer the federal lands to the state. I simply don’t believe the state has the resources to manage these lands or to protect all the existing uses utilizing federal lands, and I worry about any subsequent sale of these lands by the state. Our ranch is dependent upon federal lands to maintain an economically viable operation. All of the people who live in Sublette County have recreated on federal lands and receive services generated from these federal lands. Most of us receive income directly from the resources on federal land or from others whose jobs depend on the resources from federal land. I do support the concept of a constitutional amendment that would protect existing uses on federal lands, if those lands were transferred to the state, and I support the idea of ensuring that any land transferred from the feds to the state not be eligible for resale. However, the devil is in the details. I have met with folks concerned about potential transfer of federal land, and I would be interested in your thoughts. I really believe this is just a political issue with no reality, but one never knows.
I have developed a few bills for this session, but based upon my current committee assignment, I will have to be very judicious about which ones I run. My time will be very limited due to my assignment to Appropriations and my election as Majority Whip. One bill that I have created would give county commissioners a better avenue to petition the Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT) to reduce speed limits in areas of the county where specific concerns occur. I have heard from a large number of constituents that 70 MPH is too fast in certain areas, especially areas of high wildlife travel. I worked with WYDOT to obtain a night time speed limit on the stretch of US 191 south of Pinedale to just past the East Fork River. I believe this bill will create a meaningful process to allow county officials the ability to affect speed limit reductions in locally critical areas. I will likely run a bill that gives incorporated towns the ability to allow property owners within those towns, who are not town residents, to vote in municipal elections. This is strictly a home rule decision, and it would be a town council’s decision to allow this expansion of voting rights or not. I have a few other bill drafts I am looking at, but I do not want to tackle more than three for the session. If you have any questions or concerns about the upcoming legislative session, please give me a holler at firstname.lastname@example.org.
January 2, 2017:
I am responding to the discussion of the transfer of federal lands to the state in your Wyoming Legislature Update of December 23, 2016 that appeared in Pinedale Online. You asked for our thoughts.
I appreciate your perspective that we all receive benefits and services from our public lands. I agree with you. It is easy to focus on specific problems, and we tend to take for granted all that we are satisfied with. Individual management issues need to be dealt with as individual issues.
Though not directly stated I gather you do not support the transfer of federal public lands to the state, for economic reasons if for no other (witness fire suppression). Yet you do favor a constitutional amendment defining management of those lands if transferred. The two positions are contradictory.
If we are to prevent the transfer of public lands to state or private ownership we need to focus exclusively on that objective. Any distraction, such as the proposed amendment dilutes support for that position. One opposes the transfer while at the same time the state prepares for it to happen.
As you say, this is a political issue; impressions mean more than logic. Any indication that Wyoming is willing to accept federal lands is a signal to proponents showing support, and is a similar message to our congressional delegation. The amendment is meant to seem innocuous but is in fact a distraction and is the first step on a slippery slope that needs to be rejected. We should not even go there.
You "believe this is just a political issue with no reality, but one never knows." This suggests we complacently sit by and watch it happen. I propose that our active involvement, both yours as an elected official, and ours as the public can result in keeping public lands public and available to, and benefiting all of us. In two public hearings held so far the vast majority of those present (all but 2 out of 300?) were opposed to both the transfer and the amendment.
This is not a Wyoming amendment. It was written by an out of state organization consisting primarily of energy companies and very wealthy individuals, and is supported largely by those same interests with ties to some of our legislators.
At some time in the future, if it seems imminent that the federal government will divest itself of our public lands, the state can prepare to receive those lands based on the reality at that time rather than pure speculation as at present. The federal process will allow plenty of time for that.
I ask that you oppose the transfer of federal public lands to state and private ownership, and oppose the proposed amendment.
Thank you, Albert, for this public discussion.