SHERIDAN — Legislative leadership has indicated a special session of the Wyoming Legislature may take place in the “very near future” as industries across the state feel the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a letter to the members of the 65th Legislature, Senate President Drew Perkins, R-Casper, and Speaker of the House Steve Harshman, R-Casper, indicated that ongoing discussions regarding the public health crisis have prompted the need for additional work from legislators.
The Legislature’s Management Council will meet remotely April 16 to assign specific topics to joint interim committees related to the current COVID-19 pandemic, the economic impact to the state and appropriation of funds from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, according to a press release announcing the meeting.
The joint interim committees will then conduct meetings remotely during the month of May to study the topics and consider draft legislation for a potential special session in late May or early June.
“What is becoming clearer every day is the need for a Special Session or even potentially multiple Special Sessions this interim to address the health and economic impacts on Wyoming wrought by this virus and collapse of the energy commodity markets,” the April 1 letter from Harshman and Perkins, said. “We also believe it is important that the public knows that the Wyoming Legislature, though not in session, has been preparing with the Executive branch to address this crisis. This will become very apparent with the flurry of legislative activity that will be required before we can meet in a Special Session.”
Sheridan County legislators have been reaching out to local governmental and nonprofit agencies to check in and assess needs.
On the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Mark Kinner, R-Sheridan, said he’s focused on how federal funding coming Wyoming’s way will be utilized. He expressed concern for nonprofits who will be heavily utilized in coming weeks and months along with schools and mental health services.
And while he’s eager to see the Consensus Revenue Estimating Group report in April, it will only provide limited help in the Legislature’s decision-making process.
“It will only deal with numbers so far,” Kinner noted. “It won’t look forward.”
Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, agreed that a special session will be required, at the very least, to appropriate the funding coming from the federal government. But he also noted concerns for the state’s revenue streams.
He said that due to the drop in prices for oil and gas and the reduced production, among other factors, the state will lose revenue.
“Every one of those things adds up to hundreds of millions of dollars at a time,” Kinskey said. “When we left Cheyenne we already had a deficit of $200 to $300 million deficit that was being filled with savings. So that rainy day fund is being depleted…”
Kinskey acknowledged that the fund still has more than $1 billion, but it won’t take long for it to be used.
He also noted that the governor has the authority to shift $250 million in response to the crisis.
In addition, Kinskey said, “just because money is appropriated doesn’t mean that money has to be spent.”
Along with dozens of other elected officials, Kinskey and Kinner also expressed concern for local businesses.
“My first concern is with people who have lost jobs and businesses who are just seeing their business dry up,” Kinskey said.
Kinner said the state is working to gain additional guidance on the funding, but officials have received word that the funding cannot be used to replace lost revenues or for anything that has already been appropriated.
“We’re just now beginning to really feel the economic pain,” Kinskey said. “It’s not just the social isolation, there is very real economic devastation out there with the measures that have been taken.”
While other countries have taken different approaches to the pandemic, Kinskey said now is not the time to second guess and Wyoming is committed to its current course of action.
If the Legislature does meet for a special session, the method will need to be addressed. Some legislatures have met in larger spaces than normal to allow for 6 feet of separation, others have gathered just a few members at a time and still others meet virtually.