SHERIDAN — As local lawmakers prepare for the first special session of the Wyoming Legislature since 2004, they’ve expressed mixed feelings on topics ranging from the scope of bills they will consider to the amount of time scheduled for the session.
The special session will begin at 8 a.m. Friday. The session will be conducted virtually, though some legislators have said they plan to travel to Cheyenne while others will attend from their homes or offices.
The Management Council has drafted three bills to appropriate funding from the federal government along with rules for the two-day special session set to convene Friday. The Joint Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee has a piece of legislation in the works that will also establish a number of programs to aid businesses affected by COVID-19 and related health orders.
The bill from the Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee — approved Monday by the committee members — divvies up funding into three programs aimed at helping small businesses.
One program provides a stipend to businesses whose normal operations were interrupted as a result of any closures or public health orders instituted to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
The stipend provides $15,000 to such businesses plus an additional $2,000 for every full-time employee and an additional $1,000 for every part-time employee; the total shall not exceed $50,000 for each business. Preference for this program will be provided to businesses that have not received funding through the Paycheck Protection Program.
A second program creates business relief through a loan for businesses with fewer than 100 employees. Loans may not exceed $300,000 and shall be made to cover actual losses businesses have incurred as a result of COVID-19. The program also could include options for loan forgiveness.
The third program would reimburse business expenses incurred to protect the health and safety of employees — for example the purchase of cleaning supplies, personal protection equipment or other safety equipment related to COVID-19. Businesses could receive a stipend for up to $500,000.
The Wyoming Business Council would administer the programs, if approved by the Legislature in its special session later this week.
The three programs total approximately $275 million, funded from the $1.25 billion in coronavirus relief funding provided to the state from the federal government.
Alongside the business relief programs, the federal funding — as currently proposed — would give a boost to some health care facilities, offer relief to landlords in an attempt to reduce evictions and provide funding for some capital construction projects.
The legislation from the Management Council also gives the governor additional authority to move money between agency budgets without the Legislature’s approval.
Some Sheridan legislators, though, would rather see more of the funding from the federal government going toward Wyoming’s businesses and fewer strings attached.
Sen. Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester, told The Sheridan Press on Friday that he’d like to see more than the roughly 22% of the $1.25 billion going toward local businesses. He’d prefer to see $500 million split between the business relief programs. Rep. Mark Jennings, R-Sheridan agreed, saying too much of the funding goes toward “growing government and not enough direction towards helping the people who can show harm to their business or their personal.”
In addition, Biteman said he’d like to see the portion of the Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee legislation that sets aside funding for loans be amended to make the funding a grant to Wyoming businesses.
The loan program, Biteman said, just puts government in the way of getting the funding out quickly. Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, noted that the funding must be spent by the end of the year or be returned to the federal government.
In the bills developed by the Management Council, Kinskey also took some issue with how the funding will be distributed.
“It’s so Cheyenne-focused,” Kinskey said, adding that most of the funding requests will have to go through the State Loan and Investment Board. “I’m curious if there’s not an approach to get it to county commissioners and towns, political subdivisions, whatever their fair share is. … Say ‘Here are the rules, stay within them’ but trust that the hospital or whomever can figure out what their greatest need is for relief.”
While the funding cannot be used to replace lost revenue for the state, Rep. Mark Kinner, R-Sheridan, said he hopes the state’s U.S. congressional delegation will lean on the federal government to provide additional flexibility in how the funding may be used.
In addition to concerns about where and how money will be distributed, legislators have said the funding from the federal government will only go so far in solving Wyoming’s broader problems.
“It’s a lot of money, but we have a lot bigger things in front of us,” Rep. Cyrus Western, R-Big Horn, said. “We can use it for temporary relief, but it won’t come close to fixing our long-term problems.”
Kinskey echoed that sentiment and added the state needs to continue working to diversify its economy beyond the extraction and energy industry.
While the special session will likely include heated debate regarding how funds should be distributed across the state, legislators also have raised issue with some of the rules proposed for the session.
For example, to offer any amendments to the proposed legislation, the Management Council has proposed requiring a total of seven sponsors. Biteman pointed out that the change goes against the Legislature’s normal operating procedures.
“I think Management Council needs to be reined in,” Biteman said. “I think they’ve kind of overstepped their authority. They are kind of turning into a super committee.
“We’re all duly elected and there shouldn’t be a super legislative body within the Legislature that dictates to the rest of us how things are done,” he continued.
Kinskey also questioned procedural changes. For example, if any legislator introduces a separate bill, it will go to the rules committee to determine if it will be heard on the floor, while normally it would be introduced then go through a committee.
“I want to understand why the process is set up as it is,” Kinskey said. “Is it to rubber-stamp this?”
Sheridan legislators have also debated the efficacy of holding the special session virtually. Some, like Kinskey and Biteman, have said they’ll go to Cheyenne for the session. Kinner, on the other hand, said he’ll likely participate from Sheridan.
Either way, though, legislators will have to participate in the session virtually.
Members of the public who would like to listen in to the session or submit comment may do so through the Legislature’s website at wyoleg.gov.