Right Leaning Activist Groups Are Having An Impact On The Legislature

Dec 2, 2016

Credit Bob Beck

  


Over the last several years a number of right leaning activist groups have gotten themselves heavily involved in Republican politics in the state. WyWatch was a group that pushed anti-abortion and family value legislation and Wyoming Gun Owners pushed for expanded gun rights. But the group with perhaps the biggest impact is the Wyoming Liberty Group.  

When it started in 2008 the Wyoming Liberty Group saw itself as a conservative government think tank that expressed concern over what they saw as excessive government spending during the energy boom. Amy Edmonds is the group’s policy analyst.  

“We work on free market principals, we are very passionate about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, freedom, and all those wonderful things. So we are looking for free market, limited government solutions.”

Edmonds says those values are shared by a majority of Wyomingites, but she doesn’t think the legislature shares those values. 

“The state has now landed itself in what pretty much everyone calls a structural deficit. And a lot of that is because the state has not been willing to suppress the urge to grow, grow, grow. “

Edmonds says because of this the state is forced to make serious budget cuts and potentially harmful decisions. But she says the Liberty Group is poised to help. Outgoing Speaker of the House Kermit Brown said they are not a help…”they’re a hindrance.” He’s been offended by the groups negative legislative reports and legislative rankings over the years, where lawmakers are rated by their votes on key Liberty Group issues.  Brown added that if you don’t agree with the group, they say you are wrong.

“They just have a…in my opinion anyway…a really stilted understanding of the budget. They think the legislature is a bunch of free spenders and they hate capitol renovation, they hate everything about it.”

Brown said groups like the Liberty Group have helped push the state to be more conservative as then it has in the past. He said that’s not all bad, but decisions should be thought out. 

“What’s concerning to me is when my party starts to do knee jerk conservative things that are not supported by the facts, or rational thinking. That’s what concerns me. “

Liberals in the state are equally concerned. Longtime political observer Rodger McDaniel served as a Democrat in the Wyoming Legislature and has been involved with state government for over 30 years.  McDaniel said parts of Wyoming started to turn more conservative 15 years ago and the Liberty Group was able to capitalize on that.

“It not only brought far right ideas into Wyoming politics, but brought enough money to make sure that voice was pretty dominant.”

That money comes from rich, conservative donors, who are relatively new to the state.  That money has also found itself in political campaigns. While it’s not unusual for groups to use money to attack a member of another party, Republicans in the state were surprised how supporters of the Liberty group and others turned against GOP moderates this year. A group of conservative legislators joined others to run a negative campaign against Cheyenne Senate candidate David Zwonitzer, who lost to a more conservative candidate.  

Rosie Berger
Credit Wyoming Legislature

But most surprising was the defeat of Majority Floor Leader Rosie Berger in Sheridan County. Berger was defeated by newcomer Bo Biteman who used money from those connected with conservative groups to run a negative campaign against her. Berger said Biteman was able to feast on some surveys and pledges offered by some of these groups, the most notable was the Wyoming Liberty Group’s no tax pledge that she refused to sign, because it could have a negative impact as lawmakers try to address Wyoming’s revenue shortfall.

“It puts a policy maker in a box. Until you see proposed legislation, until you see your budget, whether you have a surplus or a shortfall, how are you able to make a really good decision?” 

As for the legislature, Berger doesn’t mind that these right leaning groups fight for particular pieces of legislation, but she doesn’t care for the fact that they seem to attack those who aren’t behind a bill 100-percent.

“There’s no wiggle room for acceptance of individuals who have questions, who may want to amend, or look for compromise.”

Apparently some involved with the Liberty Group have acknowledged that they need to be kinder and gentler. That’s why they brought in Jonathon Downing to be its new Director.  

Downing has represented a number groups over the years and he’s well-liked by the majority of legislators. Downing said the plan is to be less aggressive and work closely with lawmakers as they face the challenging task of addressing the revenue shortfall.  

“As we look at the future and what those deficits may look like, that’s where we’d like to play a role of providing solutions to elected officials to recognize and realize that if you make a cut here or reduce spending here, this is the impact you are looking at long term.”

But they still plan to hold legislators accountable and inform constituents about key votes.

With so many new legislators serving this year, some veteran lawmakers fear that the group could intimidate them and stymie compromise on serious issues.