By Andrew Graham, WyoFile.com
Wyoming Republican Party leadership withheld campaign money from incumbent legislators who voted during the 2018 legislative session to subsidize Wyoming’s commercial air service, according to a party letter to Republican lawmakers.
The letter, which was not previously public, reveals a tactic Republican party officials used to punish party disloyalty by lawmakers.
The party’s State Central Committee, its governing body, met in February while the Legislature was in session and voted to oppose the air service bill, Senate File 40 Commercial air service improvement.
In a Nov. 14 letter to Republican lawmakers, party Chairman Frank Eathorne wrote that the central committee resolution was used to make party funding decisions in the 2018 election cycle. Eathorne’s letter also cited staff disorganization in the first part of 2018, which he said led to fundraising struggles that meant the party had fewer resources to help candidates.
Campaign finance records bear out the letter’s assertions. With a governor’s race, a slew of statewide races for U.S. Congress, the U.S. Senate and races for secretary of state, treasurer, auditor and superintendent of public instruction, the party’s donations to legislative candidates was limited. Just four legislative incumbents received party money, according to the secretary of state’s website. But the four were among the 27 lawmakers who voted against SF40.
As part of a group of bills inspired by Gov. Matt Mead’s ENDOW initiative and backed by legislative leaders, SF40 sailed through the Legislature. Sponsored by then Senate Vice President Michael Von Flatern (R-Gillette), the bill set up a Commercial Air Service Improvement Council and directed it to develop a plan to set up a one-carrier system to provide air service to a major hub airport for Wyoming communities that choose to participate. The offering appropriated $15 million to contract for the air service.
The measure passed the Republican-controlled Legislature by wide margins, including a 22-8 Senate vote and 40-19 House vote. Gov. Matt Mead, also a Republican, signed the bill into law and touted it as among ENDOW’s achievements in an essay written as governor and published in the Casper Star-Tribune on Sunday.
Linking campaign funds to lawmakers’ votes is a stark example of how an increasingly conservative party apparatus — the county and state committees that set the party’s agenda — is pushing lawmakers to adhere to party resolutions in their decision making. On Saturday, the GOP’s state central committee delivered its 2019 priorities to lawmakers in Cheyenne before the start of the legislative session.
Asked about the funding decision in an interview last week, Speaker of the House Steve Harshman (R-Casper) questioned whether the Wyoming GOP would continue to accept differing points of view.
“Are we going to be like Ronald Reagan and have a big tent?” he asked.
Republicans have a supermajority in the Legislature and hold all five statewide offices. But the calculations for elected officials crafting policy for the whole state is different than for party officials, Harshman said. Lawmakers often compromise to advance policy.
“I’m the Speaker of the whole House,” he said. “That’s different than being a member of the party.”
New Senate President Drew Perkins agreed. “We have to remember we represent not just the Republicans or the Democrats in our district,” he said. “We represent everybody in our district.”
Republican legislators hoped to hear more about the party’s funding decisions, Harshman said. “We gotta make sure we’re all communicating with the party and the party with the legislators.”
But Eathorne’s letter revealed another in a series of efforts by party officials to impose their resolutions on decision-makers around Wyoming.
Shortly before the 2018 legislative session, a Republican party official appeared at a Joint Revenue Committee meeting to read lawmakers a party resolution against any new taxes. The committee had been ordered by the Legislature’s Management Council to pursue new revenue ideas over the course of 2017 as lawmakers grappled with a hole in public education funding.
In December, Eathorne attended a Management Council meeting and read the party’s resolution against crafting new protections for people based on their sexual orientation and gender identity. The committee removed LGBTQ protections, and all other protected classes, from discrimination policies that govern the Legislature and its employees at the Legislative Service Office.
Eathorne hasn’t restricted himself to legislative committees either. He read the same resolution to a Eastern Wyoming Community College board of trustees in Torrington in May, as they were considering policies to protect transgender students and staff from discrimination. Community college trustees in Wyoming are elected on a nonpartisan ballot.
WyoFile did not receive a response to voicemail messages to Earthorne seeking comment by press time on Monday.
On Saturday, the GOP’s state central committee delivered its new set of priorities for the coming session to lawmakers at the Republicans’ caucus meeting in Cheyenne. The central committee is elected by county parties and the Republican caucus is made up of all Wyoming’s Republican legislators.
There were four party resolutions that were read to lawmakers by a party official, according to people in attendance. Meetings of the Republican caucus are not open to the public.
The first priority encourages lawmakers to enact legislation restricting voters from changing parties for primary elections. Some conservatives blamed voters switching to the Republican party for Mark Gordon’s primary victory over candidates Foster Friess and Harriet Hageman.
The second priority pointed to the party’s resolution against crafting new protections for people based on their sexual orientation and gender identity. The Central Committee urged lawmakers not to pass any legislation protecting people from discrimination directed against them because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The third priority was a reiteration of the party stance against any new taxes. The fourth opposed the legalization or decriminalization of marijuana.
It’s not clear when the priorities were voted on by the State Central Committee. The next scheduled meeting for the committee is Jan. 11, according to the Wyoming GOP’s website.
Resolutions for the 2019 session were not available on the website, though a 2018 version of the sexual orientation and gender identity resolution is posted.
In his letter to lawmakers, Eathorne referred to Von Flatern’s air service bill as “SF40 Wyoflot.”
The Wyoflot nickname has been used by some state conservatives to deride the airline subsidies as socialism — Wyoflot is a play on the Russian state-owned airline Aeroflot. Senate File 40 did not, in fact, create a state-run airline, but instead created a council of lawmakers and gubernatorial appointees to try and improve air service to Wyoming. The legislation created a $15 million account to be used for contracts to keep commercial airlines flying to Wyoming airports.
Proponents of the legislation argued the state needed the measure to keep air service from drying up, which would harm economic development efforts.
Opponents saw interference with free enterprise and the picking of winners and losers when it came to which cities would receive the subsidy.
Harshman, who rode a wave of popularity in his chamber and bucked House tradition to serve a second term as speaker, asked what will define a lawmaker as conservative enough for the party’s Central Committee. He trumpeted his own Republican bona fides with a nod toward potential social-issue fights to come.
“I am probably the most pro-life speaker in the history of Wyoming,” he said. “I’ve probably saved more money than any individual legislator. I have just a perfect Second Amendment record. I think [if] there’s some folks that say, ‘Well I don’t know if he’s conservative enough,’ they don’t even know me.”
In interviews with legislative leadership this week, it appeared they’re interested in a more flexible tack on revenue reform than are party officials.
After killing a slew of tax bills last session without debate, Harshman told WyoFile last week that given the imbalances in Wyoming’s revenue streams, sales and property tax bills should be debated on the House floor this session. Perkins shares that goal, he said, though he saw more appetite for broadening the sales tax than raising property taxes.
Lawmakers sometimes have to vote on measures that are politically difficult, he said, and that deal with realities facing the state over ideology.
“You align with the party because you believe their philosophy aligns with your personal philosophy,” Perkins said. “But at the end of the day our job is to the citizens of Wyoming. That is the difference between a politician and a statesman.”