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Attempt to force bill from Speaker's desk fails in House

CHEYENNE — An attempt to extract a parental rights bill from the House Speaker and send it to the House Agriculture, State and Public Lands, and Water Resources Committee failed Tuesday.

Rep. Jeanette Ward, R-Casper, put forward a motion to suspend Rule 4-7 for the Wyoming Legislature that allows House Speaker Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, to determine whether to introduce or refer a bill to a committee, in the hopes that Senate File 117 would be introduced and debated by the body.

She said constituents were inquiring about the status of the bill, and it had been in Sommers’ desk for 24 days, after it was passed out of the Senate by an 18-12-1 vote at the end of January. Although she tried to continue to explain her support for the bill, she was interrupted by the House Speaker and told debating the merits of the legislation was not allowed in the rules.

Her motion didn’t require a second and could not be debated on the floor, because a motion to suspend the rules “cannot be amended, debated, laid upon the table, referred to committee or postponed.”

The House quickly voted down the motion 34-27, which Ward told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle was an expected result. She believed House members should have considered the bill in the interest of their constituents.

“My constituents have been asking what the status of this bill is and requesting that we try to remove it from the Speaker’s desk,” she said in a statement. “The issue of parental rights is clearly prominent in our time. Other states have passed similar laws, and the people of Wyoming have asked for this. We owe it to them to hear this bill.”

House Majority Floor Leader Chip Neiman, R-Hulett, backed her motion for similar reasons, along with other members of the Wyoming Freedom Caucus. He told the WTE via text message that the vast majority of his district supported the legislation, and he had to try for them.

“It is the prerogative of the body. Every bill is available to be pulled out, if the body so chooses and you have the votes to prevail,” he said.

“I have absolutely no problem with the body pulling a bill from my drawer.”

Ward said she supported SF 117 because it gives power over education to the parents “by preventing school districts and schools from having age-inappropriate conversations with children in kindergarten through third grade, specifically about gender identity and sexual orientation.”

The Parental Rights in Education bill mirrors similar legislation passed by the Florida Legislature and signed into law by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis last March. It has been called the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by opponents and restricts public school teachers from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity in their lessons for K-3 students.

There are other provisions included in the bill passed by the Wyoming Senate that build in requirements for school boards and create an avenue for parents to file a formal complaint if they witness violations.

If the complaint isn’t addressed for reasons such as failing to notify a parent or guardian of services related to a student’s “mental, emotional or physical health or wellbeing,” or prohibiting parents and guardians from accessing their student’s education and health records, further action can be taken. A hearing can be requested, and a parent could bring legal action against the school district to seek injunctive relief.

There are exceptions for school districts to withhold information if disclosing it would result in abuse, but it is designed to not to “abridge any other rights or remedies under law available to parents.”

Sen. Dan Dockstader, R-Afton, was the sponsor of the bill, and he has said this bill is strictly designed to protect parental rights, telling the media the “Don’t Say Gay” name wasn’t appropriate.

However, the vote on whether to bring the bill out of the House Speaker’s desk and refer it to committee didn’t depend on the legislation’s content for some.

Rep. Landon Brown, R-Cheyenne, said he voted down the motion because the House elects leaders to make the decisions that best represent the body and the state of Wyoming.

“We elected Albert Sommers as our Speaker of the House, and we gave him the authority to pocket veto bills as he sees necessary,” he said. “We also gave the exact same opportunity for the Majority Floor Leader, and if a motion came up tomorrow to change the Majority Floor Leader’s hearings on his bills by suspending the rules, I’d say the exact same thing.”

Brown also said he recognized the “gamesmanship” of trying to refer the bill to the House Agriculture Committee instead of the House Education Committee. He compared it to an abortion bill being sent to the Senate Agriculture Committee a few years ago, and said it is not where those decisions need to be made.

“They don’t see the Education Committee as being a friendly committee to that bill,” said Brown, a member of the House Education Committee and former chairman. “So, they’ll do anything they can to keep that bill away from us.”

Another “no” vote came from Rep. Karlee Provenza, D-Laramie, who also sits on the House Education Committee.

She said she believes the bill is “awful,” but there was more to her vote than disliking the legislation. She agreed the bill shouldn’t go to the House Agriculture Committee, and said it would be bad policy just to vote it through.

Provenza also emphasized the importance of respecting leadership for their decisions. She said there have been many other bills pulled out of their drawers this session, and they’ve all failed. She didn’t consider any of those the appropriate circumstances.

“There might be times where it makes sense, so I would agree that we can use the rules, but I should still respect the Speaker, and I should still respect the Majority Floor Leader,” she said. “I might not understand or appreciate the decision that they’ve made, and there’s been plenty of that. But if we disrespect the process and the institution of the House of Representatives, then that is just chiseling away at democracy. It’s chiseling away at the integrity of this body.”

Ward argued she was using all the tools available to her to bring the bill forward, because it is not physically possible for all bills to be heard. She said that there are merits in the powers of leadership to hold back bills, but there are also justifications for making a motion to suspend them.

House Speaker Sommers told the WTE later Tuesday evening that members of the Freedom Caucus had made him aware of motions they had to bring to the floor, and it was civil. He told them when the best time was, and he suspected it had to deal with the Parental Rights in Education bill.

“It’s just part of the process. It’s not the first time that’s been tried, and probably won’t be the last,” he said. “Maybe it might be tried again tomorrow, who knows?”

But he said when he first came into the Legislature, motions were never made to pull bills out of the Speaker or Majority Floor Leader’s drawers. He had bills that failed to be introduced and referred, and he said he “walked right back to the House,” because he respected the chain of command.

Sommers said he appreciated the body respecting his decision on this bill, although he has not made a final decision on whether he will release SF 117.

He said he would never support the state trying to take power away from locally elected school boards, and he believes this bill “flies in the face of local control.”

“I also always ask the question, ‘Is this bill solving a Wyoming problem?’” he said. “And I’m not sure this bill was.”

This story was published on Feb. 22, 2023.

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