Kerry Drake

Kerry Drake

Wyoming Columnist

You can’t beat a melodrama that features a daring rescue by two heroines, spellbinding oratory by the entire cast and so many red herrings that the audience is left not only wondering whodunit, but why on earth they did it?

This entertainment was all available as free online streaming, courtesy of the Wyoming Legislature.

Lawmakers really outdid themselves Friday and Saturday, meeting in a virtual two-day special session for the first time.

I wish I could give them a rave review. They did accomplish what they set out to do in an emergency session called by Gov. Mark Gordon to decide how to spend a whopping $1.25 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds. Overall, it was an exceptional example of state executive and legislative branches coming together during a crisis.

But sometimes even an exceptional performance can be marred by events beyond a playwright’s control, and even a top-notch production crew can’t foresee everything that can go wrong.

The Senate tried to hijack the proceedings with another bill giving businesses broad immunity to lawsuits during the pandemic. When the House rejected the bill, the Senate amended the must-pass Senate File 1002, deciding business owners need only show they made a “good faith effort” to follow the orders of state and county health officers to avoid legal liability for people sickened through their enterprises.

The same amendment was rejected by the House as not germane to the bill. Joint conference committee members knew they had their work cut out for them.

Sen. Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) threw down the gauntlet, letting the other side know that if it wouldn’t budge, the bill was dead.

Negotiators agreed SF 1002 was too important kill. It creates a program to help tenants keep from being evicted by using federal funds to pay their rents, exempts charging employers’ unemployment insurance accounts for claims directly tied to COVID-19, and allows employees who get the disease to be covered under worker’s compensation.

Rep. Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) appeared ready to end the meeting and ask for a new committee to be appointed.

But two legislators persevered, ending the stalemate. Rep. Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie) pointed out that State Statute 35-4-114 already offers all persons immunity from lawsuits filed during a disease epidemic if they follow the orders of the state health officer.

“Everyone stop being stubborn,” Sen. Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne) said. “If you want to meaningfully resolve this issue … it may be that a previous legislature gets to take credit for providing protections to businesses during the times of a pandemic. And that’s OK.”

An hour and a half later, when the group reconvened, Nethercott offered an amendment that added “business entities” to the existing law, to give owners confidence that they really are protected. She expanded the bill to cover orders by county and city health officials. Her relieved colleagues readily accepted the compromise, especially after she promised the Joint Judiciary Committee will keep working on the issue.

The next half-hour turned into a mutual admiration society. If they had been in the same room, and not on screens, I think social distancing would have been thrown out the window, with high-fives all-around. Maybe a few hugs, too.

When the issue went to the full House, everyone heaped praise upon the committee and especially Connolly and Nethercott. Still, few seemed totally satisfied with the grand bargain. Twenty representatives — one-third of the chamber — took turns speaking. It was an impressive display of democracy in action, as many expressed heartfelt concern about making the right decision

I don’t think they did. Opponents wisely warned the bill may be unconstitutional. It should have been a fatal flaw. Instead, the House signed off on the bill by a 38-20 vote.

But the whole can of worms can be opened again in six weeks, when the Legislature holds another special session.

In the meantime, there’s plenty of fat for legislators to chew on. Rep. Clark Stith (R-Rock Springs) warned about legal shakedowns by people filing frivolous lawsuits, trying to get insurance companies to settle for $20,000 or $25,000 a pop to avoid a trial.

Rep. Charles Pelkey (D-Laramie), a lawyer, said the state may have an immunity statute for six weeks before it’s rewritten, “causing enormous confusion in the legal system.”

“Wyoming is the business-friendliest state in the nation, but we don’t do that at the expense of the fundamental rights of our citizens,” he added.

Bottom line: The Senate shoved a hastily written amendment it passed on third reading in front of House conferees, who were essentially told, “Compromise or it’s your fault that this vital bill dies.” It was unfair, childish and wrong. But the Senate got what it wanted.

Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) said, “I think what we’ve done with the process has been a real shame, and a black mark on us. I think we are better than this.”

The House has nothing to apologize for. While I admire the art of compromise, when it comes to legislative melodramas, there’s nothing wrong with the hero calling a bluff and walking out of the room.

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and can be reached at kerry.drake33@yahoo.com

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