by Bruce Feustel
With a friendly “You’re on the clock!” former Sheridan, Wyoming Mayor Jim Wilson launched another segment of the local Legislative Forum. Sponsored by the Sheridan County Chamber of Commerce for over 15 years, a series of leaders of municipalities, nonprofits and other organizations tell area legislators about their wishes and concerns for the upcoming legislative session. The delegation of Wyoming Senators Bruce Burns and John Schiffer and Representatives Rosie Berger, Jack Landon, Jr., Mike Madden and John Patton listened attentively and asked for advice.
Over two days last week, I observed this legislative forum. Many legislators have town hall meetings or other functions where they meet with constituents, but this forum had a strong reputation for thoughtful planning, participation by over 30 organizations, efficiency, and a relaxed attitude in which the legislators talked sparingly, mainly to help presenters give them more precise information.
At the forum, the delegation heard from groups like Habitat for Humanity and Easter Seals, governmental entities like the city of Sheridan and Johnson and Sheridan counties, and the public library. The legislators encouraged the speakers to talk about their services, plans for dealing with current budget shortages, expectations in the coming legislative budget session, and outlook on pending legislation.
As important as anything else, the legislators heard about real life problems caused by recently passed laws or budget cuts. A county fire warden explained the impact of losing one state mechanic who had previously been crucial to repairing firefighting vehicles from around the state. While some short-term state spending might be reduced, this position saved the state thousands by keeping complex equipment functioning in the field.
In this forum, the legislators all get to hear the same information at the same time. When legislative action was required, one or another of the delegation would say “I’ll take care of keeping an eye on this one as it is going to be in my committee.” They divvied up the work and made sure that they had a plan going forward. One of their delegation, Rep. Rosie Berger, is the House chair of the appropriations committee. In response to numerous questions and comments she explained what money was in the governor’s budget for particular projects or initiatives and what position the legislature was likely to take.
The various presenters were generally effective, but certain themes were clear. Those who talked conversationally, mixing in facts with a few stories to give a flavor of the kind of services a group provided, tended to make a strong impression. Those who tried to get “preachy” or talk at length about themselves rather than their clients, didn’t fare as well.
The forum provided an excellent opportunity for connecting citizens and their legislators. Mayor Jim and other chamber volunteers kept the proceedings on time and the legislators got a clear picture of what was on the minds of their constituents.
The county delegation also managed to squeeze in a short field trip to the Wyoming Girls School, seeing the new construction there and talking to staff and the girls who have been court-ordered to the school.
The whole forum experience was a reminder of how much better legislatures work when they get a clear picture of what their constituents want and need and when the legislators in a region work together as a team.