Better Wyoming conducted a series of interviews on important state issues throughout 2016. Below is an interview with Rep. Charles Pelkey (House District 45).
What do you think about the attempt by some Republican legislators who want the federal government to turn over all of its public lands to the state to manage or own?
Fundamentally I’m opposed to the transfer of federal lands to state control. The largest concern I have is that it may open the door to the transfer of state lands to private hands. Even if there were solid assurances in place, I’d probably be opposed because I don’t think the state has the capacity to manage those lands. We have about 3,000 federal employees in the state — these are Wyoming citizens with federal jobs managing Wyoming lands, and I’m afraid we’re going to lose that and not have the fiscal ability to take over that. I don’t think we have the financial resources to adequately manage those lands. I’m also concerned that we have access to those lands.
Some legislators either don’t believe the gender wage gap is real or that if it is, state government shouldn’t do anything about it. What do you think needs to be done?
It’s really easy to say there’s a gap because of X, Y and Z and I think we need to make it easier for people to raise that issue at the state level. EEOC at the federal level tends to move rather slowly, so if we have a wage disparity claim I think the state has to have the capacity to handle some of those. Right now those claims tend to get flipped to the feds and sit there in stasis for years.
I think nationally and on the state level we’re making progress because traditionally male jobs that have paid higher over the years are gradually opening up to more women. My law school is a good example: we were pretty much a 50-50 split when I graduated. When you go back and look 30-40 years ago there were very few women in those programs. Now we have more women in graduate programs and undergraduates than we have men. I think eventually the gender wage gap will work itself out, but I think there are steps we can take regarding cases of individual discrimination. If there’s a clear example of someone being paid less because they’re a woman, or not being afforded the opportunity for advancement because they’re a woman, I think we need to make it easier to raise those issues to the state.
Rep. Gerald Gay of Casper was criticized for charging that women are largely responsible for the gender wage gap because they take too much time off from work and can’t be depended on to show up. Were you surprised at all about the extremely negative reaction to his comments?
I think it’s entirely appropriate to call someone on making a statement like that. I wasn’t surprised; I’m kind of pleased to see that people don’t just accept that kind of explanation as gospel. If Gerald Gay accomplished anything, at least he got the discussion going again in this state. I think what he said was unfortunate and doesn’t represent reality but at least people are aware of the issue. We have a serious problem — we’re either the last or next to last state in terms of gender equity for salaries, and that’s something we need to address. You can’t just blow it off and say it’s because women take sick leave. I found it particularly ironic that a member of the House had personal health issues that he had to deal with while he was serving the people of his district. His comments didn’t really suggest a lot of empathy on his part for what people encounter.
Are there other laws that need to be on the books to protect victims of domestic violence?
The bill I sponsored last session would have increased the penalty for strangulation of a household member from five to 10 years and classify it as a violent felony. A majority of people when I told them that strangulation of a household member is not a violent felony under Wyoming law, they were absolutely aghast.
There was a fairly reasonable argument that if their attack is serious, we still have a chance to see it as aggravated assault. So it’s not like the law is completely without remedy, but at the same time I think it’s important that we stake out a position on a crime like strangulation and acknowledge at least that it’s a violent felony and increase the penalties.
The reason I introduced that bill was because I represented a victim in a case, and a horrible side effect of that attack was that the whites of her eyes were completely red. The more I learned about that, it’s because small blood vessels burst in the eyes; more importantly they also burst in the brain. They don’t heal particularly well. So you can leave someone with lasting damage, and I just don’t think that’s a crime that should be punished by only 3- 5 years in the penitentiary. Our client came very close to dying, and frankly I don’t understand why the defendant wasn’t charged with aggravated assault. At the same time the strangulation law should have been stronger to allow a judge to take all the factors into consideration and sentence him to a longer term. This next year I may break it up and move strangulation to a violent felony just for purposes of definition because there are certain restrictions that are available for a person for a felony as opposed to a violent felony. By definition strangling someone is an act of violence.
I was really pleased to work with Sen. [John] Hastert two years ago and work on the sexual assault victims protection order. I was really pleased that it passed. There may be some small clean-up matters, but I don’t think there’s a particular issue … I’ve tried to work closely with SAFE and the Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and at this point I don’t think there’s a bill I have poised at the ready, but I’m going to be meeting with advocacy groups to talk about any possible legislation.
Many Republicans oppose spending state funds on early childhood education. What needs to be done so programs are fully funded?
In the early part of the budget [discussions] we got inundated with emails from people opposed to early childhood education, and I could never understand why. I think it’s kind of colored the debate for some people. I sensed it was a group, but I’m not exactly sure. These were individual emails that essentially stuck to the same theme; it wasn’t like there were about 600 identical email that I got on the mountain lion trapping bill. I think we have to revisit the issue and approach it a little bit more sensibly.
We’re cutting wherever we can, and I’m saying that to abandon early childhood education has much greater ramifications. We’ll save a dollar here or there, but ultimately we’ll wind up spending $10 or $20 down the road because we didn’t support early childhood education and reading programs.
The Legislature hasn’t passed many bills restricting reproductive rights in recent years, but there are GOP lawmakers who have tried to introduce bills mandating ultrasounds and penalties for not reporting abortions. Are you pro-choice?
I’m pro-choice and frankly I appreciate that those [anti-abortion] bills didn’t hit the floor. It’s not one of those issues that I think the Legislature should be dealing with. I know there are people who are morally opposed to abortion, and I’m an advocate of leaving that choice to the individual woman involved. The ultrasound bill is brought by people trying to erode women’s reproductive rights; we resolved this issue in Roe v. Wade.
Those states that provide easy access to birth control, and those states that have sex education in school that doesn’t simply say abstinence is good, have much lower abortion rates than ones that profess to embrace abstinence. Frankly I think abortion should be rare, but when it happens it should be safe and it should be legal. If it hits the floor I’m going to be vocally opposed to it, and if it hits my committee I’ll vote against it.