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Wyoming Legislature 2015: Political Speech Boogaloo

Although many excellent bills in the 2015 Legislative Session did not become law—asset forfeiture reform, drone regulation, and RS2477 rights of way, to name a few—a number of excellent amendments to the Wyoming Election Code passed and were signed by Governor Mead. Given the campaign finance “reform” efforts nationwide that amount to little more than censorship by red tape (or even more direct efforts), one could describe the 2015 session as a political speech boogaloo.

House Bill 39 seemed an easy bill to pass, because the law it repealed was unenforceable following our lawsuit last summer, Brophy v. Maxfield. The bill repealed Wyoming’s $25,000 aggregate contribution limit, which has been $50,000 since January 1 of this year. That means, for example, that our clients Dan and Carleen Brophy could previously only give the maximum allowed contribution to up to 25 legislative candidates in a Wyoming election. Considering that 75 legislative seats are open every Wyoming election year, some candidates would be unable to raise money from the Brophys, or the Brophys would have to lessen their contributions to other candidates in order to contribute widely. Although the bill garnered little discussion in committee or on the floor of either house, it clocked a number of nay votes, passing the House 53-7 but very narrowly passing the Senate 16-14.

House Bill 38 became law this week in Governor Mead’s final round of signatures. This bill eliminates political committee (“PAC”) contribution limits for candidates for statewide office (that is, governor, secretary of state, treasurer, auditor, and superintendent of public instruction) and raises the PAC contribution limit for legislative races from $3,000 to $5,000. Until January 1 of this year, there was no PAC contribution cap, so it is especially interesting and encouraging that the law was changed before it even affected a Wyoming election. The Legislature deserves credit for recognizing that the past two Wyoming election cycles for statewide offices (2010 and 2014) featured successful campaigns that were self-funded with hundreds of thousands of dollars each (passing $1 million in Governor Mead’s first campaign). The only way to enable non-wealthy candidates to compete with this is to allow them to raise as much money as possible.

HB38 went through several amendments in both houses and eventually went to conference committee. The vote was also divided initially, but passed 52-7 (1 excused) in the House and 27-2 (1 excused) in the Senate in its final form. What is perhaps most interesting about HB38 is that the candidate contribution limits received the entire discussion. Another part of the bill will allow corporations to give money to Wyoming PACs, but this money may only be used for “administrative costs or costs of soliciting contributions” and cannot be passed on to candidates. Given what has occurred in other states with PAC funding structures like this, it could lead to, well, interesting results (hopefully not interesting, novel, and oppressive prosecutions).

House Bill 126 will cost money to implement by changing the Secretary of State’s campaign software, but is worth it. In Wyoming, when candidates run for office they must report money they receive (contributions) and spend (expenditures) on their campaigns. Sometimes candidates track the money by themselves, but most set up a campaign committee with its own bank account (as well as a campaign chair and treasurer for oversight). Nevertheless, when candidates do this the law’s reporting requirements still require them to file separate reports with the Secretary of State to declare they themselves received “$0” contributions and spent “$0.” Thanks to HB126, this bit of red tape can now be avoided by simply letting the Secretary of State know that said candidate will exclusively use a campaign committee. Eliminating the risk of a $500 fine and ineligibility to run for office by forgetting to plug in a few zeros is an example of real campaign finance reform.

Senate File 49 was an extensive and welcome change to how initiatives and referenda will occur in Wyoming. The bill revised the entire ballot measure process and streamlined it for citizens seeking to overturn a law passed by the legislature (or, conversely, pass a law rejected by legislature) through referendum or to pass laws originally through initiative. This bill also eliminated unconstitutional restrictions on signature collectors for initiatives and referenda, changes proposed by WyLiberty before the 2014-15 interim and supported throughout. Specifically, signature collectors are no longer required to be Wyoming residents and may be paid per signature collected. Both of these requirements have been struck down as unconstitutional in other states, so the Legislature wisely avoided similar costly lawsuits here and—as ballot measure proponents nationwide can attest—made signature collection far more feasible by allowing the use of professionals, who typically charge per signature collected.  

Finally, Senate File 54, a housekeeping bill, was great housekeeping. It clarified the duties of county clerks in elections and removed unconstitutional provisions relating to term limits. The bulk of the bill amended all references to “receipts” in the Election Code to read “contributions.” Although these terms are basically synonyms, nationwide election law typically uses the term “contributions.” A little uniformity goes a long way.

Credit is due to the Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee for seriously tackling most of these bills in the 2014-15 interim amidst many others. The only non-committee bill, House Bill 126, had strong bipartisan sponsorship. By focusing its efforts on making our election laws stable, understandable and only as restrictive as necessary, the Legislature has improved a system that will continue to allow citizen engagement in Wyoming elections and our political process as a whole. Despite cries from the so-called “reform” community, this is as right as representative democracy can get.

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Monday, 23 October 2017
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