By Andrew Graham, WyoFile.com
Gov. Mark Gordon and Secretary of State Ed Buchanan characterized an effort by legislative leaders to maintain some control over the Capitol building after restoration work finishes this year as creeping legislative overreach.
The pushback from the state’s executive branch comes on a bill to let lawmakers control decisions over the Legislature’s chambers, committee rooms and office spaces in the restored Capitol. In the past, those rooms, like all state buildings, have been under the control of the State Building Commission, made up of Wyoming’s five statewide elected officials.
Lawmakers pushing the measure said they have a responsibility to oversee projects the Legislature funds, and cited the hundreds of millions they’ve appropriated for the restoration project.
The bill, Senate File 149 – Capitol complex oversight, initially gave the Legislature an immediate say on building decisions to be made over the “Capitol complex,” a 16-block area in downtown Cheyenne. A senator also raised concerns about the process by which the bill, sponsored by legislative leadership, was brought into the Legislature. Though sponsored by the Management Council, the bill never received a public hearing in that committee.
By the time it left the Senate, SF149 had been significantly scaled back. Still, the bill directs the State Building Commission to write a master plan for the Capitol complex that would cover maintenance, restoration and construction projects on buildings within the area. The commission would then need to inform the Legislature’s Management Council any time it deviated from the plan.
The commission also wouldn’t be able to approve any “architectural or structural” changes to the Capitol building or its grounds without first informing the Management Council and then letting a legislative session pass. The mandate would give lawmakers a chance to act if they dislike a proposed change.
The bill also delineates which areas of the Capitol building will belong to the Legislature and remain under its control, and which will be controlled by the State Building Commission.
In an interview last week, Gordon and Buchanan said lawmakers seemed to be encroaching on the control of the executive branch. If the turf in question is relatively minor to those who don’t work in the Capitol, the spat shows Gordon and other executive branch officials are worried about a creeping legislative power grab.
“There is a feeling that there’s maybe been a little migration into areas that were traditionally more executive branch function,” Gordon said. Today, the Legislature appropriates the money for construction projects, but most detailed decisions about state buildings are made by the State Building Commission.
There is an important distinction between the two branches of government, Gordon said. The governor, secretary of state, superintendent of public instruction, state auditor or state treasurer are elected by the entire state. He noted that Management Council sponsors of the bill, such as Speaker of the House Steve Harshman (R-Casper), Senate President Drew Perkins (R-Casper) and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Eli Bebout (R-Riverton), were not elected statewide.
“If you’re in the Legislature you get to leadership by your colleagues [electing you],” Gordon said.
Too much legislative control over building decisions can lead to regional warring as individual lawmakers seek to bring a construction project to their district. The wrangling this legislative session over where a new skilled nursing facility for veterans will be located is an example, Buchanan said. At this point in the sixth week of the session, lawmakers have already changed the location of the facility from Buffalo to Casper multiple times.
On the Capitol oversight bill, “we really just want to see a bill that recognizes the statutory authority of the State Building Commission which … is made up of the five statewide elected [officials],” Buchanan said. “There’s a lot of good reason for that,” body, he said, “chiefly so that you can make decisions on projects and where they’re located in a depoliticized manner.”
Gordon worried about further legislative mission creep.
“In this particular case one thing I get worried about is where does that 16 block area stop?” he said. “Could it conceivably be expanded by the Legislature to the entire state so that everything comes under their purview?”
If the executive officials say they’re trying to protect the Capitol building and other state buildings from politics, Perkins said he has the same concern.
Perkins and the state’s five statewide elected officials have a “great personal relationship,” he said. The bill in part considers a future where that may not be the case, he said. Perkins cited a recent national political showdown between Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Republican President Donald Trump. In the midst of the bitter fight over the recent government shutdown, Pelosi at one point denied Trump access to the House chamber to give his State of the Union speech and suggested he could submit it in writing.
Under current statute, Perkins said, the opposite could conceivably happen. “What if the five [statewide elected officials] were mad enough at the Legislature that they wouldn’t let them use their spaces?” he said.
“Those are the halls and the offices and the rooms of the Legislature,” Perkins said. “Management Council felt very, very strongly about the Legislature maintaining control over those.”
Others in the Senate did not share Perkins’ concerns and saw a historical change. “This is kind of different,” said Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) when the bill came up for its first vote on the chamber floor.
“Those old buildings they’ve been there for 150 plus years,” Case said. “They’ve never needed a deal in law to manage the Capitol like this.”
Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne) raised concerns about the bill’s constitutionality. Some conservatives in the Republican party have considered the Capitol rehabilitation project a boondoggle for years given the large price tag — the Legislature set a $299 million cap for the project just before the state entered a time of fiscal scarcity.
As originally introduced into the Legislature, SF149 created a committee with shared powers over the Capitol complex that included lawmakers. After discussions with the executive branch, Perkins said, the bill was altered to instead just delineate control over spaces of the Capitol and the Herschler office building. “We said fine, we’ll just designate which ones are ours,” Perkins said,
The State Building Commission would maintain control of the building’s engineering systems, meaning an angry five elected officials could still make things mighty hot, or cold, for 90 lawmakers.
At a House Rules Committee meeting on Wednesday evening, an LSO attorney laid out other potential questions in splitting governance of the Capitol building. If the State Building Commission put a rule in place for the executive branch’s areas, one against carrying firearms, for example, the Legislature might choose not to apply the same rule to its areas.
In the crafting of SF149, some saw a power play executed by legislative leadership in the dark. Perkins dismissed that suggestion on the Senate floor.
Though the bill entered the Legislature sponsored by the Management Council, that committee doesn’t appear to have taken a public vote on the subject.
The Management Council met in December, well before the session began, but the bill does not appear on the agenda for that meeting. The minutes for the meeting have not yet been released. It does not appear on the agenda for a Jan. 17 meeting, after the session opened, either.
At that meeting the committee went into executive session to receive legal advice on “possible options for the management of the Capitol building after the grand opening,” LSO director Matt Obrecht said, according to audio. The group would afterwards consider legislation in “open session,” Obrecht said.
After executive session the committee adjourned, and didn’t take any public testimony on the bill or discuss it publicly.
The committee received a draft of the bill via email, said LSO spokesman Anthony Sara.
The committee took an email vote to sponsor the bill on Jan. 23, according to an email ballot obtained by a lobbyist via a public records request and provided to WyoFile.
Senate File 149 was officially introduced to the Senate the next day on Jan. 24, the last day. It passed committee on the last day possible and barely dodged other deadlines on its way through the Senate.
The poor procedural handling earned a rebuke from Case on the chamber floor during its final Senate vote. Case is a former chairman of the Select Committee on Legislative Facilities, Technology and Process, which manages some of the Legislature’s rules and processes. Management Council failed to live up to the standards it seeks to instill in other legislators, Case said.
“I had taken advice to have good meetings,” Case said “To have an open public process, to take discussion from both sides and to do the work of the committee in the light of day. And I think we have to admit in the development of this bill that some of that went by the wayside.”
Two days earlier, Perkins had dismissed a concern from Case about poor process. The bill was discussed by the Senate Appropriations Committee, which had taken public comment, Perkins said. “I believe this has gone through the same process everything else goes through,” he said.
As in his recent interview with WyoFile, Perkins also emphasized that legislative leaders had met with the statewide elected officials, even if the two bodies didn’t quite reach agreement.
“This was not done in a hole,” he told senators.
The House Rules Committee asked for public comment at its Wednesday evening hearing of the bill, but no one took the opportunity to testify.
Perkins laid out a simple choice for his chamber before their final vote on the bill. “If you think the Legislature shouldn’t have a say and control should go back to the State Building Commission and [the Department of Administration & Information], then vote no on the bill,” he said.
The Senate voted 20-9 to pass the bill. The House Rules Committee voted unanimously to move it to the House floor.
Ultimately, lawmakers are concerned about the money they have invested in the Capitol restoration project, and want to maintain the expensive grandeur expected to be revealed this summer.
“Really that’s why we’re here, is we want to make sure things aren’t painted teal green” said Harshman at the House Rules Committee meeting, “and so on in the people’s house.”
It’s not only lawmakers that were involved in the Capitol project or worried about the money spent on it, Gordon said. “There is a notion that one branch of government has a better appreciation of the caliber or the assets that are there then another,” he said. “I think that isn’t correct.”
In his interview, Perkins’ said Gordon’s concern about creeping legislative control over building projects is unfounded. “There are legislators that get too far down in the weeds,” on building projects, he conceded. “The Legislature has no business deciding what tiles should be used.”
But it is part of the Legislature’s job to monitor the appropriations it makes for business projects and make sure they aren’t wasted, he said. Perkins cited a much-needed repair of the Wyoming State Penitentiary, where lawmakers recently headed off a pricey contract to go with a far cheaper bid they believe will be as effective.