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Powerful Management Council Extends Control Over Legislative Research

Wyoming citizens face a new threat from the State Legislature. However this threat is not a new tax proposal or another attempt to further regulate daily life. Rather, this threat is a power grab by legislative leadership to further concentrate power over the legislature in the hands of the top legislative offices. This will shift even more control over the rank and file lawmakers from Wyoming voters to micromanaging legislative leaders.

This pure power play comes in the guise of prioritizing research assignments in order to reduce LSO staff costs for the various joint interim standing legislative committees. The mechanics of how this power play works and its implications for future legislation should worry citizens who want to protect their constitutional primacy over their own elected lawmakers.

Role of Management Council

The second most powerful committee in the State Legislature after the Joint Appropriations Committee is the Management Council. This committee includes the leadership of both parties and of both houses of the legislature. The Management Council decides which topics the legislature’s standing committees consider during the interim between annual legislative sessions. By law, it also can control access to the LSO’s research services. “All priorities based upon limitation of time and appropriation of the office shall be established by the management council and followed by the interim committees and individual legislators.” W. S. § 28-8-104(b)

Role of LSO

Why does control over the research requests to the Legislative Service Office (“LSO”) matter so much? Wyoming lawmakers do not have individual support staff that can perform policy research. Instead, according to an October 2007 Wyoming Lawyer article, “The Legislative Service Office (LSO) was created by statute in 1971 to provide services to the Legislature on a non-partisan basis. Before the LSO was created, the Legislature was staffed on a part-time basis for its sessions.”

Role of Interim Committees

The Management Council’s authority to approve interim study topics for the various joint legislative committees is immense. This authority effectively predetermines which bills eventually become law because bills proposed by these committees get preferential treatment and typically pass both houses of the legislature.

During the 2016 Budget Session 69% of the committee bills introduced eventually passed both houses of the legislature and were presented to the Governor for his signature or veto. (The deadline for the Governor to either sign or veto bills has not expired, so some bills that passed the legislature may not become law.)

The outcome for committee bills contrasts sharply with the fate of bills proposed by individual legislators or groups of legislators. The vast majority of these individual bills fail. Only 29% of non-Committee bills reached the Governor’s desk during the 2016 Budget Session. In fact, many of the bills brought by individual lawmakers were not even brought to the floor for consideration.

So, although a majority (62.5%) of the bills submitted during the 2016 session came from individual lawmakers, most (59%) of the 124 bills that actually passed both houses of the legislature were bills sponsored by a committee. Simply put: Successful legislation is more likely to come from interim committee work, not from proposals by individual legislators.

All of this means that any legislative proposal must go through an interim committee as an interim study in order to have a better chance of success. This is why it is so troubling that Senate President Phil Nicholas moved to convince the Management Council to write a letter requiring committee chairs “to serve as ‘gatekeepers.' According to the Senator Nicholas, management council’s job would be to vet members’ requests for research from the office’s staff to decide whether the requests are worth the time

Consequences of Consolidated Power

This demand that committee chairs should do more to limit research requests by committees might seem reasonable on the surface as a tool to reduce spending by the legislature. However, this will also mean that the committee chairs, who are beholden to legislative leaders for their positions, will have authority to censor the information available to committee members for interim work that will produce most of the successful future legislation. Those committee chairs will also be in a position to silence dissenting viewpoints on the committee by refusing to allow research that might challenge the chairperson’s (or leadership’s) preferred policy perspective. In a world where information is power, the ability of legislative leaders to further limit access to information means that those leaders are further concentrating power in their own hands at the expense of the voters who elected the committee members.

Ultimately, those who care about local participation in public issues and oppose centralization should be alarmed by this corruption of the process by which the people may speak through their elected representatives. If we fail to protect the information flow and lively discourse upon which crucial votes are cast future legislative leaders will retain the ability to override the voices of dissent. An authoritarian, centralized process such as this will tempt leaders to manipulate fellow lawmakers by leaving them in an information vacuum. History has shown that individual citizens suffer the consequences of such concentrated power most harshly of all.

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