Defense of Marriage bill defeated
Members of Wyoming's House of Representatives soundly defeated a proposed constitutional amendment that, if passed by voters, would have prohibited the state from recognizing any union other than of a man and a women, including same-sex marriages legally made in other states or countries.
The House voted down HJR 17 - Defense of marriage on a 25-35 vote, sending a strong message that Wyoming will not enshrine discrimination in its constitution. The measure would have placed the proposed amendment on the 2010 general election ballot for a vote of Wyoming citizens.
The bill, sponsored by Reps. Owen Petersen, Ed Buchanan and others, was pushed by Wyo Watch and a Colorado group, Focus on the Family. They argued it would protect the institution of marriage in Wyoming and secure the benefits of marriage for society far into the future.
But speaker after speaker questioned their claims.
"What is the common good?" asked former speaker Roy Cohee, the Casper representative who now chairs the House Transportation Committee. "Is the common good to tear at the fabric of society?"
"I'm here to make a choice today," he said. Cohee told the members that they had been getting emails and phone calls from people on both ends of the Wyoming political spectrum, demanding passage of the amendment or votes against it. He asked for consideration of the silent middle of the electorate. House members should consider the answer they would get if they asked 10 of their good friends at home about the proposal, he said.
"Those folks that do not call you," he said, "they would say, 'Don't you have something better to do?'"
Noting that some proponents had argued the Bible says homosexuality is a sin, Rep Sue Wallis of Gillette recounted many other sins listed in Leviticus for which the penalty is death, including gathering firewood on Saturday, adultery, shaving, cross-breeding livestock, and eating non-kosher foods like shrimp.
Her Gillette church welcomes same-sex couples and "couples of all kinds," she said. The bill should not have been titled the Defense of Marriage Act, Rep. Wallis declared. It truly was the "Defense of State-sponsored Bigotry Act," she said.
Rep. Pat Childers of Cody told the House about his lesbian daughter who has become a successful professional but would be denied rights accorded heterosexuals. He suggested the state should find a legal way "to allow these people to have their rights" such as a civil union process that does not involve a religious sanction of marriage.
"Why don't we separate that?" he asked, and keep church and government separate.
Rep. Pat Goggles of Arapahoe, the lone Native American in the legislature, noted he solicited the votes of gays in his district when he ran for election. They elected him, he said, "to speak on their behalf."
"I look upon this state as the equality state," Goggles said. "And I urge you to maintain this status as the Equality State."
Rep. Dan Zwonitzer of Cheyenne noted that Wyoming historically is the site of the murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay man killed in Laramie in 2008. But it is also the Equality State, the place where women were first given the vote and the state that elected Nellie Tayloe Ross, the nation's first governor, and the first female public official, Esther Hobart Morris.
A campaign in 2010 over gay marriage would bring many outside interests to pour money in the state to push both sides of the issue in an ugly contest. "Our state will be ripped apart at the seams," he warned.
Rep. Cohee pointed to the words of Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence that say all people have a right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Cohee said he has been married 40 years. "How can my marriage be defended" by a state law?
Rep. Childers noted his lesbian daughter "was born that way." Wyoming does not discriminate against people for whom or what they are.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Rep. Childers said. "This bill is wrong."
Rep. Steve Harshman of Casper handled the debate from the Speaker's chair. He declared the bill had failed and called on members to stand to be counted - 25 yeas and 35 nays.
The story got big play in the state, in Cheyenne, Casper and on television. (Watch Channel 13's Feb. 6 broadcast.)
A personal note
It was a rewarding moment for all who worked so hard to defeat this discriminatory legislation. Thanks to Bob Spencer of Wyoming Equality and other members of the ESPC coalition. But also kudoes to the students from Casper and Bert and Carolyn Toews who drove to Cheyenne Monday to picket and sing for peace and tolerance in front of the Capitol. And thanks to the students from the University of Wyoming who rallied in Cheyenne Tuesday afternoon while the House Judiciary Committee took testimony from both sides in Room 302.
And a special thanks to all of you working behind the scenes across the state: Mary, Shannon, Terry, Bob and Bob, Liz, Dee, Tom, Melanie, Erich, Jolene, and many others - you know who you are.
Mental health/First responders
The Senate approved SF 18 – Mental injury – workers’ compensation after sponsor Sen. John Hastert successfully convinced the senators that it could cover First Responders in a two-year trial.
Sen. Hastert originally hoped to cover all workers who suffer mental injuries at work. But fears of unknown costs forced narrowing the bill only to cover First Responders such as EMTs, fire fighters, and police. It’s hard to convince people that advances in mental diagnoses over the past 20 years make it possible for a doctor to determine whether someone truly is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Over the past six months, critics of the idea raised all sorts of fears, including the idea that a worker would claim a mental injury if denied a promotion. Current state law says a mental injury must be tied to a physical injury – itself a somewhat irrational concept. How does a broken arm or smoke inhalation cause PTSD that a First Responder suffers after seeing a friend killed in a blast at a fire or a baby horribly beaten at a crime scene.
Hastert noted there have been few cases, anyway, so the benefit probably does not carry a high cost. The idea of a two-year trial period carried the day when President John Hines cast the deciding vote in a 15-14 victory for all those who work in public safety agencies, both paid and volunteer.
Ad valorem tax on helium
The House Revenue Committee this morning approved HB 287, Helium – property tax. There have been long-standing problems with taxation of helium, a federally-owned “strategic” mineral. Last year, the Legislature approved a bill to impose severance taxes on helium extraction. This bill imposes property taxes as well.
The bill was sponsored by House Speaker Pro Tem Frank Philp (R-H34, Shoshoni), along with co-sponsors Pete Anderson (R-H10, Pine Bluffs), Ed Buchanan (R-H4, Torrington), Kathy Davison (R-H20, Kemmerer), Jim Roscoe (D-H22, Wilson) and Senator John Schiffer (R-S23, Kaycee).
Helium is produced along with sour gas in the fields in southwestern Wyoming, where the gas has to be processed to remove impurities, which in themselves may be marketable – such as sulfur and helium. Back when dirigibles were in vogue, the federal government designated helium as a strategic mineral, and its extraction and sale is closely controlled.
To date, the only company extracting helium is ExxonMobil at its Shute Creek plant. ExxonMobil has a long history of stiffly resisting taxation, going back to the late 1980s when it refused to pay taxes on extraction at Shute Creek on the grounds the gas had no value.
ESPC lobbyist Sarah Gorin urged the committee to approve the bill, noting that the roomful of legal talent obviously portended a dispute, so the state “might as well get on with it.”
Lawyer/lobbyists no doubt billing at least $250/hour included Patrick Day of Holland & Hart, who led off opposition to the bill on behalf of ExxonMobil; Walter Eggers of Holland & Hart also was in the room. Brent Kunz of Hathaway & Kunz, who has represented ExxonMobil for many years, was present, along with Sara Tays, an ExxonMobil lobbyist flown in from Texas.
The committee ran out of time to hear from all the opponents, but voted the bill out in an effort to get it debated on the floor on Monday (the last day for bills to get through Committee of the Whole in the House).
Representatives Amy Edmonds (R-H12, Cheyenne), Ken Esquibel (D-H41, Cheyenne), Patrick Goggles (D-H33, Ethete), Mike Madden (R-H40, Buffalo), Mark Semlek (R-H1, Moorcroft), and Sue Wallis (R-H52, Recluse) voted for the bill. Committee chair Pete Anderson (R-H10, Pine Bluffs), David Miller (R-H55, Riverton, and Owen Petersen (R-H19, Mountain View) voted no. Chairman Anderson indicated he wanted the bill to go to the floor, but voted no to indicate that he thinks there needs to be more discussion.
Bump in the night
Sen. Cale Case’s effort to set up a legal framework enabling counties that do not have zoning laws to regulate lighting failed on third reading Friday. Sen. Case’s outdoor lighting bill was aimed at preserving Wyoming’s dark skies.
Opponents raised questions about unintended consequences of the bill, including giving a club to “someone” who wants to stop progress.
Sen. Charles Scott of Casper urged the members not to be afraid of things that go bump in the night. The bill really would encourage the use of focused, more efficient lighting, he said.
The Senate was having none of it and killed the bill when 15 senators voted No.
Keeping them down
A rushed hearing over the noon hour just barely gave two Cheyenne servers time to tell the House Labor Committee about their work situations at local establishments that do not make certain they make at least the minimum wage.
They commented on a bill that would have raised wages for tipped employees from $2.13 an hour (say it again, two-dollars-thirteen-cents per hour) to the startling wage of five dollars an hour.
One worker said she averages about $4.50 an hour when serving and about $5.50 when bartending at a local hotel, counting both tips and her hourly pay. The other server reported making slightly more. Both noted that employers expect them to perform duties that should receive the federal minimum wage such as busing tables, hosting, handing cashier duties, and other clean-up and maintenance. They don't get the money.
Both servers got a good lesson in power when restaurant association lobbyist Lynn Birleffi showed the committee a poster declaring workers are owed minimum wage. The poster must be put up where employees can see it, she said.
Workers who don't get the minimum should tell their employers, Ms. Birleffi said. If the employer refuses to pay, the workers should report it to the department of labor. Raising the minimum wage from $2.13 per hour would devastate the industry, she added, and drive up menu prices. That should not happen because their are a few "bad actors" in the industry, she asserted.
What Ms. Birleffi did not admit that workers fear losing their jobs if they complain. Other servers who told the ESPC they would testify cancelled for just that reason. One told the ESPC that it has been very difficult to see menu prices go up at place she has worked for 15 years. In that time she said she has not seen an increase in her base pay.
The committee voted 3-6 to defeat the bill. Reps. Goggles, Ken Esquibel of Cheyenne, and Kathy Davison of Kemmerer supported it.
Reps. Dave Bonner of Powell, TimothyHallinan of Gillette, Elaine Harvey of Lovell, Lori Millin of Cheyenne, Lisa Shepperson of Casper, and Chairman Jack Landon voted to kill the bill.