Harshman redux may save Wyoming schools again


Sometimes a politician is fortunate enough to hold the right office at the time when their service is needed the most.

Such is the case with Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper), the outgoing and incoming House speaker. Traditionally, the leader of the House serves one two-year term and then retires from politics altogether or takes a break before running for Senate.

But a majority of Harshman’s Republican colleagues were savvy enough to realize a week ago that it would be for the good of the chamber, and the state, for him to remain the speaker. Harshman obviously believed so too. When the last session ended the Natrona High School head football coach certainly didn’t sound like a man interested in moving to a life outside politics. There was a brief flirtation with a run for governor, which might have been successful despite a crowded primary field.

Harshman’s defense of education funding was the high-water mark of his speakership, and it will be needed again next session despite higher oil prices bailing out state government again and erasing much of the $1 billion “structural deficit.” At least for now.

Harshman had already broken with House tradition when he leapfrogged Rep. David Miller (R-Riverton), who would have succeeded Rep. Kermit Brown (R-Laramie) as speaker in 2017 if Harshman had not challenged him. Taking on Miller again wasn’t really a surprise, and neither was his second victory.

In his premature “farewell” to the House last March, Harshman bragged that “there’s no doubt that the 60 members in this House have singularly saved K–12 education in this state.”

A $27 million cut from education in the next biennium wouldn’t typically qualify as salvation. But when considered against the draconian cuts passed by the Senate — which at one point took a meat cleaver to the schools budget, approving $90 million in cuts for the next year without specifying a single reduction — Harshman’s solution warrants the term.

The sponsor of the Senate amendment, Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper), might as well have said, “We have so little respect for public education, we don’t have to even pretend to justify what we’ve done.”

Harshman protected education funding as much as he could, especially with Senate President Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) on the other end of the Jonah Building focused on gutting the schools budget. Bebout, the only Wyoming politician to serve as both House speaker and Senate president, will still be very much in the fray over education funding as co-chairman of the powerful Joint Appropriations Committee. It’s another position Bebout has held before, and he’s an expert in making other senators toe his spending line.

That’s another reason it’s important for Harshman to come back for a second term in the speaker’s chair.

Bebout’s successor as Senate president, Sen. Drew Perkins, like Harshman, is a Casper Republican. He likely won’t be gunning for school budget cuts with the intensity Bebout did, but Harshman will still have a fight on his hands.

Miller is as conservative a Wyoming politician as I’ve ever covered, which means I rarely agree with him. But I appreciate the fact that he doesn’t mind talking to people of different political stripes. He even seems to enjoy it at times.

I also appreciate that he’s one of the few Republicans in the Legislature who has actually gone on record saying that Wyoming needs an individual and corporate state income tax. Of course he neutered the admission in his next breath when he said that it would never happen and he could never support such a move.

The House still has plenty of social conservatives who demand smaller government but want to regulate women’s reproductive rights and not recognize the right of LGBTQ individuals to live free of discrimination. Overall the persistent march to the right seen in recent sessions has been tempered by more moderate voices in the House, and that’s demonstrated in the body’s leadership. In addition to Harshman, Republicans selected Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) as speaker pro tempore and Rep. Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) as the majority floor leader.

Sommers, like Harshman, is a strong defender of funding public schools. He told WyoFile reporter Andrew Graham, “We have the tools in place to really solve the education funding piece in the short term.”

Barlow has risen through the ranks quickly. His opposition to the so-called “critical infrastructure” bill was, to me, one of the highlights of this year’s session. The veterinarian/rancher emphasized the potential for energy companies to run roughshod over the rights of private property owners. I opposed the measure on the grounds that it would virtually shut down all protests of energy projects, like the 2016 Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline in South Dakota.

But Barlow’s stance was key to the House failing to override Gov. Matt Mead’s veto. I hope he’ll use his parliamentary as House floor leader to keep the inevitable sequel from ever seeing the light of day. I suspect we’ll have a chance to find out in January. The new majority whip, Rep. Tyler Lindholm (R-Sundance), is a libertarian-leaning representative who has supported LGBTQ rights. His mainstream views on such issues are in sharp contrast to the legislator he defeated, Rep. Dan Laursen (R-Powell).

The Senate, however, will move further to the right next session, both in leadership and new membership. Conservative Sen. Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) will replace the more moderate Sen. Michael Von Flatern (R-Gillette) as vice president. The new majority floor leader will be Sen. Dan Dockstader (R-Afton). Both Driskill and Dockstader will likely follow in Bebout’s shoes as education budget-cutters.

Three new state senators are among the most conservative representatives to serve in the House in recent years. Sen. Lynn Hutchings (R-Cheyenne) is back in the Legislature after losing her first Senate bid in 2014. Former Reps. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle) and Bo Biteman (R-Ranchester) didn’t wait long to pursue life in the upper chamber, serving just two and one House terms, respectively.

Democrats have a small physical presence in the Legislature, with just nine members in the House and three in the Senate. But they will once again be capably led by veterans Rep. Cathy Connolly and Sen. Chris Rothfuss, both of Laramie.

Wyoming Democrats know they don’t have much power on their own, but they can still effectively influence legislation by working with the more moderate wing of the majority party. And they offer one transparency advantage I wish Republicans would finally copy — when they meet to discuss party strategy and the public’s business, their caucus door is always wide open.

Kerry Drake is a veteran Wyoming journalist, and a contributor to WyoHistory.org. He also moderates the WyPols blog. He has more than 30 years experience at the Wyoming Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune as a reporter, editor and editorial writer. He lives in Casper.

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