Learning the Ropes

“The Legislature does its work by committee,” observed the late John Patton, a former local state legislator.

John passed away four years ago. He’d served in the Legislature for a decade in the 60s and 70s, and resumed his service in 2009. He passed away at the age of 84 while serving in the 2105 legislative session.

I never fully appreciated what John meant until I began to serve in the Legislature. The state of Wyoming budgets on a two-year cycle and spends $9.3 billion during that time in state and federal funds. That is $16,000 for every man, woman and child in the state, every two years, or $8,000 per year.

Government is big business, even in conservative Wyoming. It’s far bigger than it should be.  That size is a problem—not just for Wyoming, but for our nation.

The scope of government is such that legislating requires the work to be divvied up.  The Legislature has 10 standing committees: Judiciary; Appropriations; Revenue; Education; Agriculture; State and Public Lands & Water Resources; Travel, Recreation, Wildlife & Cultural Resources; Corporations, Elections & Political Subdivisions; Transportation, Highways & Military Affairs; Minerals, Business & Economic Development; and, Labor, Health & Social Services.

Thus, “the Legislature does its work by committee.”

Each committee has five to seven members, each of whom try to develop expertise in the committee’s subject area. During the legislative session, all bills are assigned to the relevant committee for study, and committees recommend to the House or the Senate whether to pass or amend a bill.

Committees do not offer the final word, but a place to start. Legislators that serve multiple terms typically will rotate service among committees, giving them a broader understanding of the issues facing Wyoming.

I was initially appointed to the Wyoming Senate to serve the unexpired term of John Schiffer.  John passed away from cancer, and had served over two decades in the Legislature representing Johnson and Sheridan counties. The list of committees on which he served or chaired is remarkable.

John was described to me by the late Tom Kinnison, one of his peers, as “the most effective legislator I ever served with.” High praise indeed, given that Tom himself was an accomplished legislator.

After he’d died, John was given an award posthumously recognizing his service. His wife, Nancy, accepted it on his behalf and gave an insightful talk about how he’d become so effective.  She described years of work and ceaseless learning. She gave hope to every new legislator in attendance that, with dedication and persistence, they too might develop a similar mastery.

I contacted Nancy a month or so after John’s passing to see if John had any files I could review to better prepare myself for my first legislative session. She told me, “What you need, he took with him.”

I now understand more fully what she meant. The current legislative session is my fifth. Properly representing Johnson and Sheridan counties demands my best efforts. I have learned much along the way, but there is always more to learn.

Dave Kinskey represents Wyoming Senate District 22 which consists of Johnson County and eastern Sheridan County. A businessperson and former Mayor of Sheridan, he can be reached during the legislative session at [email protected]

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