Marijuana, fuel tax, seat belt bills die in Legislature

Tom Coulter, Wyoming Tribune Eagle via Wyoming News Exchange
Posted 3/24/21

With about a week and a half left in the Wyoming Legislature’s general session, a slew of bills addressing everything from marijuana to seat belt use failed due to them not being considered by Monday night, their swift deaths brought about by a procedural deadline.

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Marijuana, fuel tax, seat belt bills die in Legislature


CHEYENNE — With about a week and a half left in the Wyoming Legislature’s general session, a slew of bills addressing everything from marijuana to seat belt use failed due to them not being considered by Monday night, their swift deaths brought about by a procedural deadline.

Monday was the final day for bills to gain initial approval in their chamber of origin, and more than two dozen pieces of legislation that had gained committee approval were not heard by that deadline.

The list of bills brought before the bodies is typically determined by House Majority Floor Leader Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, and Senate Majority Floor Leader Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, in consultation with legislators and members of the public.

The Wyoming Tribune Eagle has compiled a list of noteworthy bills that died through the procedural process without a vote.

After generating roughly four hours of testimony in a committee meeting earlier this month, a bill authorizing the legalization and regulation of marijuana in Wyoming died without any discussion on the House floor.

Sponsored by Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne, House Bill 209 was pitched as a way for state officials to address the topic of marijuana legalization proactively, rather than waiting for possible federal actions that could catch Wyoming ill-prepared for a new regulatory landscape.

With a 30-percent excise tax on marijuana products included, bill proponents also argued the measure could bring considerable revenue to the state, noting initial estimates that the measure would bring roughly $47 million annually to Wyoming.

The House Judiciary Committee approved the bill by a 6-3 vote, with two lawmakers who voted in favor stating they were opposed to legalization but wanted to bring the discussion to their colleagues on the House floor. However, that debate will have to wait at least another year following the cutoff deadline Monday.

Another marijuana bill, a proposal requiring state health officials to compile a report on medical marijuana in Wyoming, gained committee approval last week, but it also failed to receive a hearing in the House prior to Monday night.

A pair of revenue-raising proposals, one to increase the state’s fuel tax rate and another to hike its tobacco tax rate, failed without consideration in the Wyoming House of Representatives, the chamber where revenue measures are required to begin.

House Bill 26, which gained approval from the House Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Committee last month, would have raised the state’s fuel tax from 24 cents per gallon to 33 cents and marked the first fuel tax hike since 2013. Had it passed the full Legislature, the bill was estimated to generate roughly $61.4 million in annual revenue, divided between the Wyoming Department of Transportation and local governments.

The measure was pitched as a way to aid the long-term budget struggles of the Wyoming Department of Transportation and local governments. For WYDOT, a report released late last year found the department is facing an annual funding shortfall of roughly $354 million in unmet needs, with more than $100 million of those needs for the preservation of Wyoming’s roads and bridges.

Meanwhile, a proposal to raise Wyoming’s tobacco tax by 24 cents per pack of cigarettes faced a similar fate as the fuel tax proposal. The legislation, which the House Revenue Committee endorsed during a virtual meeting in January, also would have increased the tax on moist tobacco snuff from 60 cents to 72 cents per ounce.

The tobacco tax increase was estimated to generate roughly $6 million annually for the state’s general fund. During the committee meeting in January, proponents of the proposal argued it would bring significant public health benefits to the state, potentially saving tens of millions of dollars in health care costs by encouraging smokers to quit.

However, other associations, including the Wyoming Taxpayers Association, were opposed to the bill, arguing it was a regressive tax and doubting whether higher taxes on cigarettes would lead to long-term changes in individual behavior.

Both revenue proposals died without a hearing in the House by Monday.

In the Senate, a bill allowing law enforcement to pull over drivers in Wyoming solely for not wearing their seat belts – a proposal designed to address the rising number of highway-related deaths in the state – was not considered by the body prior to the Monday deadline.

Senate File 11, which was advanced by a legislative committee in January, would have joined Wyoming with more than two-dozen other states that have a primary seat belt law in effect. During the committee meeting earlier this year, officials from the Wyoming Department of Transportation and the Wyoming Highway Patrol spoke of the need for a primary seat belt law in the state, noting a recent study that found the number of Wyoming drivers who wear their seat belts had dipped from 2018 to 2019.

Although the proposal was also backed by the Wyoming Trucking Association and the Wyoming Public Health Association, it was not heard by the Senate prior to the cutoff deadline. Driskill, the Senate Majority Leader, mentioned the public pushback to the proposal during a discussion with reporters earlier this month.

“We know 100% that if you wear seat belts all the time you’re going to have less highway deaths, so how do you explain that we don’t have a mandatory seat belt law?” Driskill said. “And that the majority of our population has made a choice that they want it to be a choice whether they wear it or not.”

The proposal was not the only legislation aiming to address highway safety that failed during this session. House Bill 11, a proposal requiring infants under the age of 2 to be in rear-facing car seats, was rejected by a 34-26 vote in the House of Representatives earlier this month.

Although several bills that would restrict abortions in Wyoming continue to move through the Legislature, a pair of House bills addressing reproductive rights in the state did not receive a hearing in the chamber prior to the Monday deadline.

Titled “Abortion-Informed Consent,” House Bill 70 would have required doctors to offer women an opportunity to view an ultrasound or hear a heartbeat prior to performing an abortion procedure. Doctors also would have been required to outline the risks and alternatives to obtaining an abortion, with any violation of those requirements posing the possibility of revoking a medical license.

Another abortion-focused proposal that failed to receive consideration, House Bill 134, would have prohibited any abortion from being performed in Wyoming after a fetus has a detectable heartbeat. Sponsored by Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper, the legislation was co-sponsored by nearly a third of lawmakers in the House, as well as seven senators.

While Gray’s proposal did not move forward, there was a last-ditch effort to put the bill up for a House vote Monday night. With just a few minutes left prior to the deadline – and a high-profile Medicaid expansion bill up next on the docket – Rep. Mark Jennings, R-Sheridan, made a motion to immediately consider HB 134 instead. Such a motion to override the legislative rules would have required a two-thirds approval from the House members, and it failed to gain the necessary votes.

Although HB 70 and HB 134 will not move forward in the remaining days of the legislative session, several anti-abortion bills continue to move through the Wyoming Legislature, which is tentatively scheduled to wrap up its general session April 2.

Three bills have gained final approval in the Senate and await further consideration in the House – one to require physicians to attempt to save any infant born alive following an abortion, another that would create additional criminal penalties on a murder charge if the victim was pregnant and a third that would prohibit drug-induced abortions in the state.

In the House, legislation that would prohibit the University of Wyoming and community colleges from using state funds on group health insurance plans that cover abortions is likely to receive a final vote from the body Wednesday, the deadline for bills to gain final approval from their originating chamber.

Another House proposal, one that would prohibit any abortions being sought solely due to a fetus’s sex, race, color, national origin, ancestry or diagnosed disability, has gained initial support from the body and awaits a final vote Wednesday.