Committee revives controversial gun bill in surprise vote
The Joint Agriculture Committee Tuesday revived a controversial gun rights bill on a split-second, unannounced vote moments before the committee adjourned in a move lambasted by critics for its lack of transparency.
The bill, last session’s Senate File 81 – Second Amendment Preservation Act, would prevent agents of the state from enforcing any federal law or regulation that restricts a citizen’s right to carry firearms. A heavily amended version of the legislation passed the Senate by an overwhelming margin in March, but died without a hearing in the House when it failed to meet a key procedural deadline.
Tuesday’s measure passed on a 7-4 vote.
Freshman Rep. Robert Wharff, R-Evanston, told committee members Tuesday he believed if the bill had been assigned to the Agriculture Committee during the session, it would have advanced to the floor, where he said he believed it had the votes to pass. The Joint Agriculture Committee is considered by many the Legislature’s most conservative committee, and has colloquially been known over the years as the “Guns and Ag” committee, according to committee member and former gun rights lobbyist Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne.
Nullification bills like the Second Amendment Preservation Act have become popular with many Republican-led state legislatures in recent months as they prepare for anticipated federal gun restrictions. Despite previous court rulings that have found similar laws in states like Kansas to be unconstitutional, more than a dozen state legislatures have considered some form of nullification legislation, with Missouri passing a version in its most recent legislative session.
Roughly 20 minutes before the committee adjourned for the afternoon, Wharff, a gun rights activist who often worked closely with Bouchard during their time as lobbyists, introduced a motion to bring up the legislation in this July’s planned special session.
While the majority ruled in-favor of Wharff’s motion, several lawmakers — including Committee Chairman Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas — raised transparency concerns about the late addition to the agenda and expressed the sense the committee was being pressured into a controversial vote at the last minute.
Members of Management Council, the body that oversees the entire legislature’s operations, have said the special session is specifically designed to address the allocation of new federal COVID-19 relief funds. They have asked committees to tailor their agendas toward that objective. Management Council has not yet defined a process for committees to bring forward unapproved policy discussions for the special session, Boner said.
“I’m not trying to do anything nefarious,” Wharff said during the meeting. “I’m trying to work within the process … I’ve never gone through a special session, and I’ve been involved in the process since 2003. I’ve reached out to legislators I know and none of them have gone through a special session either. So these are kind of new waters for me.”
Wharff would like the bill to pass through committee primarily because committee legislation typically has a better chance of passing, he told lawmakers.
However, several members of the committee noted that committee bills receive deference because interim committees vet bills through an extensive public comment and fact-finding process. Wharff’s motion, they argued, achieved neither.
“I’m concerned that procedural sloppiness is going to end up in the bill’s demise, ” Boner said, noting that he “supported the Second Amendment Preservation Act in the Senate and was glad to vote for it.”
That breach of protocol also raised concerns from Sen. R.J. Kost, R-Powell, who said he was concerned lawmakers were being pressured into voting for a bill they had not had a chance to discuss, and that the public was not made aware of prior to the meeting. The Second Amendment Preservation Act was not on the meeting’s agenda, which is typically available to the public at least two weeks in advance.
Wharff had only told committee members he would be introducing the legislation the night before the meeting, Boner told WyoFile.
“The point of the interim committee process is to have a well thought-out discussion, you can prepare ahead of time … obviously, this is not that,” Boner said before the vote. “I have never seen this before in my six years in the legislature.”
But Wharff said nobody explained the rules to him, even when he requested them. Seeing no language indicating he couldn’t bring such a bill, Wharff believed he was within his right to do so at the end of the meeting, when “other business” is typically discussed.
“I tried to find out what the rules were going to be, and nobody would tell me what the rules were,” said Wharff. “I’m not going to apologize for bringing forward a bill that my constituents want, and which I think is needed.”
Bouchard also challenged the authority of Management Council to decide what committees discuss and when.“We don’t work for (Management Council). We work for the people,” Bouchard said before the vote.
However, Management Council sets committee budgets , Boner said in an interview Wednesday morning. And to bring a bill to the floor for debate, committees must first vote on a draft of that legislation in an open meeting, he said.
Tuesday’s meeting, Boner noted, only approved a motion to create a draft of the bill, and the committee still has one more tentatively scheduled meeting prior to the special session in July. Management Council could withhold funding, and thus staff, for that meeting, effectively killing the Second Amendment Preservation Act as well as any other bills the committee was considering.
“If our leadership is not on board with the activity of sponsoring the Second Amendment Preservation Act, this whole effort is dead in the water,” Boner said.
The last-second introduction of a bill is not unprecedented, however, and has been a growing trend in the Wyoming Legislature often employed by leadership. During the 2021 General Session, for example, leadership in the House of Representatives introduced a sweeping rewrite of the body’s school finance bill immediately before third reading.
“This is something you’d expect to see out of Washington D.C., where they throw something at you and expect you to vote on it immediately without having read it,” Boner said of Wharff’s effort. “I think that element of how they went about procedurally, definitely had some elements of what you’d see ‘in the swamp,’ as they say.”
Wharff may have believed his actions were in-line with recent precedent, Boner said.
Wharff said that he and other lawmakers believe members of leadership are held to a different standard than rank and file members. The introduction of a Medicaid expansion bill through Revenue Committee several weeks ago, he said, was a sign of that. If leadership can take advantage of process for their preferred legislation, he said, then other members should have the right to as well.
“They do this all the time,” said Wharff. “They don’t like it when we do it but I’m going to be honest, I am tired of playing the games.”
Wharff said he is prepared to fight any challenge from Management Council.
“We’re playing chess,” Wharff said. “It’s their move. There are options available, we’ll look at them, and the best option I have to counter their move is the one I’ll play.”
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