Legislative Update – Sept. 13-15


Sept. 13 – Hello Sublette County, this is Albert Sommers reporting to you on national policies coming from President Biden that will affect Wyoming citizens.

On Thursday, Sept. 9, President Biden ordered sweeping new federal vaccine mandates on nearly 100 million Americans. His order requires all employers with more than 100 workers to demand their employees either get vaccinated or be tested for COVID-19 once a week. Further, President Biden is requiring all health facility workers be vaccinated in order for that facility to be eligible to receive federal Medicare and Medicaid payments. Most nursing homes, hospitals and clinics in Wyoming are heavily dependent upon these federal funds, as they serve populations eligible for Medicare and Medicaid.

Gov. Gordon issued a fast and appropriate response to President Biden’s edict: “The Biden Administration’s announcement to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations or weekly testing for private businesses is an egregious example of big government overreach. Our Constitution was written and fought for to protect our liberties as American citizens. This administration’s latest pronouncement demonstrates its complete disregard for the rule of law and the freedoms individuals and private companies enjoy under our Constitution. In Wyoming, we believe that government must be held in check. I have asked the Attorney General to stand prepared to take all actions to oppose this administration’s unconstitutional overreach of executive power. It has no place in America. Not now, and not ever.”

Gov. Gordon can take this fight to the federal government, and the Wyoming Legislature can support his efforts primarily by funding that effort.

Republican leadership of the Wyoming Legislature released a press release on Friday, Sept. 10: “We stand in strong support of Gov. Gordon’s stance against a federal vaccine mandate. Our republican form of government leaves decisions of this gravity to the states. We believe the Biden Administration’s federal vaccine requirement is arbitrary and likely unconstitutional. The Governor and the Attorney General are provided the tools through Wyoming Statute 9-14-102 to take legal action to prevent the enforcement of overreaching Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations such as the proposed vaccine mandate. We are confident they will use that authority to good effect to protect the rights of Wyoming citizens.”

As a member of legislative leadership, my name is on this response.

I do not support vaccine mandates for COVID. That decision is best left to the individual. However, I also struggle with government telling a private business that it cannot require employees to follow health-care guidelines, to have a healthy work environment.

The 100-percent free market approach says that workers have a choice who they work for, and if an employer makes requirements that employees do not like, then the employer will have no employees.

However, challenges arise to the free-market concept when a business has a monopoly in a community and workers have few choices for decent alternate jobs, or when customers or workers are being harmed by business practices.

Moreover, if Wyoming passes a law forbidding private business from imposing vaccine mandates on employees, while the federal government imposes regulations forcing businesses to impose vaccine mandates on employees, it puts a business between a rock and hard spot.

Vaccine mandates will continue to be a hotly debated issue as Wyoming decides how to thread the needle, protecting the rights of workers, consumers, and private businesses. The governor will likely call the Legislature into a special session to address Biden’s vaccine mandates and the Legislature is examining avenues to push back against this federal overreach, while protecting the rights of workers and businesses. Stay tuned, more to come. 

Sept. 14 – Hello, Sublette County, this is Albert Sommers reporting to you from interim work of the 66th Legislature. I was appointed by Gov. Gordon to serve on his Colorado River Work Group, and the work group met in Rock Springs on Sept. 7.

The Colorado River Work Group consists of municipal, agricultural, industrial, conservation/ recreational and legislative members. These members represent all of the groups with an interest in Wyoming’s share of the Colorado River, which includes the Green River Basin, Hams/Black Fork Basin and the Little Snake River near Baggs, Wyoming. The members include Ben Bracken and Brad Brooks, representing municipal interests; Aaron Reichl and Ron Wild, representing industrial interests; Chad Espenscheid, representing agricultural interests; Jen Lamb, representing conservation interests; Rep. Albert Sommers and Sen. Larry Hicks, representing the Wyoming Legislature and Wyoming State Engineer Greg Lanning.

On Sept. 7, the work group heard updates on issues related to the Colorado River. The drought and resulting poor hydrology of the Colorado River has seen Lake Mead drop to its lowest level since it began to fill after construction. Lake Powell and Lake Mead are managed with the goal of balancing water needs in the basin. Extremely low water levels this year will result in water being governmentally regulated in Lower Basin states.

The Colorado River is managed by a couple of multi-state compacts and a series of laws and court decrees. All of these together are called “The Law of the River.”

Based upon the Colorado River Compact of 1922, the Upper Basin, which includes Wyoming, shall not cause the flow at Lees Ferry, which lays just below Lake Powell, to be depleted below an aggregate of 75-million acre-feet for any period of 10 consecutive years. In the event curtailment of use shall become necessary to maintain the flow at Lees Ferry as required by the Colorado River Compact, the extent of curtailment by each Upper Basin state is determined by the Upper Colorado River Compact.

If curtailment were to occur, then all post-1922 water rights could be subject to curtailment to satisfy the Upper Basin’s responsibility to the compact.

We have not hit those thresholds yet, but as drought continues, curtailment becomes more likely. The federal government has the right to manage the large reservoirs in the basin within the scope of the “law of the river” and we will see some draw down of Flaming Gorge to satisfy water responsibilities in the Lower Basin. By 2026, the Feds and the Colorado River Basin states will have to develop further guidance on the management of these reservoirs.

Wyoming must develop a strategy for the future. The governor, the Wyoming State Engineer and Wyoming’s commissioner to the Upper Colorado River Commission have all the legal authority to make these critical decisions. It is my hope that this newly formed Colorado River Work Group can tackle some of the tough issues surrounding future Wyoming water policy on the river.

I subscribe to the old adage: “You are either at the table or on the menu.” Everyone in Sublette County has a stake in this discussion.

I can be reached at [email protected] with questions or concerns.

Sept. 15 – Hello Sublette County, this is Albert Sommers reporting to you from the interim of the 66th Legislature. On Sept. 8-9 in Casper, I attended the meeting of the Joint Education Committee. We continued our discussion of K-3 literacy and funding of community colleges.

K-3 literacy is critical to a child’s success throughout life. A long-term study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found nationally that students who were not proficient in reading by the end of third grade were four times more likely to drop out of high school than proficient readers. In fact, 88 percent of students who failed to earn a high school diploma were struggling readers in third grade. According to documents we received, these struggling students also generally fail to receive the assistance they need to catch up.

The committee reviewed a bill that would narrow the number of screeners and assessments for reading. The reason for limiting the number of these instruments is to assure greater consistency and to ensure students that need to be identified are in fact identified by these instruments. The bill also requires literacy-centered professional development for elementary school teachers to ensure all elementary teachers have the expertise to teach or recognize literacy-challenged students. The committee will take action on this bill at our next meeting.

The committee also received testimony from the University of Wyoming on how it is beefing up literacy training in its elementary school teacher preparation program. UW is increasing the number of hours of literacy/reading training that beginning teachers receive and they are developing a literacy-based professional development program for existing teachers. I came away impressed with UW’s renewed effort on literacy training for new teachers, hopeful that it translates into teachers who are better prepared to teach reading to struggling readers.

Community colleges are the backbone of Wyoming’s workforce development, including welding, instrumentation, Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) and nursing programs. As state budgets have been cut, how does Wyoming maintain a quality post-secondary education for its citizens?

Wyoming has been awarded over $1 billion through the American Recovery Plan Act. Can we utilize some of that money to help fund our community colleges? The Joint Education Committee is examining two endowment programs utilizing ARPA money to help support students and the community colleges. One endowment would be for $100 million and the earnings from the endowment would be split among all colleges’ block grant. The other endowment would fund an adult scholarship program for adults who are at least 24 years of age.

Currently, the Wyoming Hathaway Scholarship primarily funds students as they graduate from high school. Adults find little financial aid to help them find a new career. I like endowments because they can establish and maintain sustainable programs from the earnings on investments, while protecting the principal, or invested funds. We will continue to work these bills during the next meeting.

Thanks.

I can be reached with questions or concerns at [email protected].

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