Group says legislators least conservative in five years

CASPER — Wyoming lawmakers are the least conservative they’ve been in five years, a new report from a top conservative group in Washington D.C. says.

However, a close review of the survey shows some oversights in the compilation of the numbers, including key differences in how the group evaluated members of the House and Senate.

Numbers released this week by the American Conservative Union – which oversees the influential Conservative Political Action Conference – shows members of the Wyoming Legislature scored a lackluster 52.6% on its annual review of state legislatures across the country, a slight decrease from the more than 53% average seen in 2018.

Nobody scored higher than 90% on the 2019 rankings, the first time that has occurred in the five-year history of the rankings. Meanwhile, just six state lawmakers – Sens. Bo Biteman, Anthony Bouchard and Tom James, as well as Reps. Roy Edwards, Chuck Gray, and Dan Laursen – scored higher than 80% on the ACU’s rankings, the smallest such group since the organization began tracking Wyoming lawmakers in 2016.

Cheyenne Republican Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (23%) was the lowest-scoring Republican, while Democratic Sens. Liisa Anselmi-Dalton (Rock Springs) and Mike Gierau (Jackson) were the highest-scoring Democrats, coming in at 35% each.

“In the 2019 session, a group of Wyoming lawmakers appeared to lose sight of the Western values of limited government and individual liberty,” ACU Chairman Matt Schlapp said in a statement.

It was another down year for the Wyoming Legislature which, despite its Republican supermajority, has failed to score above 61% since the ACU began rating Wyoming lawmakers in the wake of the 2015 session.

“We find it very interesting to compare how different states tackle issues and how the views of government held by lawmakers vary within states over time, and vary from state to state, Luke Schneider, a public affairs and policy analyst for the ACU Foundation’s Center for Legislative Accountability, wrote in an email. “We strive to maintain a very precise scope and rely on the exact same set of principles for every rating guide.”

The context of the numbers are important, however.

The ACU’s annual ratings are guided by a consistent set of principles centered on fiscal and economic policy, social and cultural issues (think support for the Second Amendment, religious freedom, school choice and pro-life causes) and “government integrity” issues like transparency and election security. Still, the pieces of legislation evaluated by the ACU every year can vary widely in their content and sometimes fundamentally conflict with the ACU’s stances.

The selection is also arbitrary: legislation to prevent crossover voting – a key policy positions for Wyoming conservatives – was absent from both sets of rankings, while the popular Wyoming Works Program – a grant program for career and technical education that easily passed both chambers – was criticized by the ACU in its rankings for “socializing” higher education costs.

Another piece of legislation to clean-up the language in the state’s Build Wyoming Program – which received nearly unanimous support in both chambers – was described by the ACU as “placing taxpayers at greater financial risk and reducing state investment income” in its ratings, despite a lack of a definitive answer from the Legislative Service Office in its fiscal note of whether this would actually occur.

There are also different standards for the House and Senate,which were each evaluated on a different set and number of bills: Where the Senate was evaluated on 20 pieces of Legislation before them in 2019, the House of Representatives was subject to 30.

As a result of this, the state’s overall score was fairly low, there were marked differences between the House and the Senate in their final ratings. In 2019, Senate Republicans averaged a score of 64% on the ACU’s ratings, significantly higher than the 51% scored by House Republicans. A similar standard was seen among Democrats, with House members averaging 14% less conservative than members of the Senate.

Partly to blame for this may be a number of key omissions between both chambers. The most notable example may have been a controversial corporate income tax which, while voted for by most members of the House of Representatives, was absent from the scoring sheet for members of the Senate, who rejected it.