“Florida Bills” (mostly) fail at the Wyoming Legislature

Cheyenne doesn’t have much in common with Tallahassee, the balmy Florida capital city less than an hour from the Gulf of Mexico.

This is especially true when the Wyoming Legislature is in session, and our own capital is beleaguered by blizzards, closed roads, and snowmelt leaking into the House of Representatives.

But if you squint hard enough at the stack of education bills coming before the Wyoming Legislature in 2023, you’d swear you were in the Sunshine State.

Wyoming is known for its hardworking culture of roughnecks, miners, and cowboys—as well as our best-in-the-nation public schools—but our lawmakers seem quite happy to relax with a piña colada and put forth bills designed by our tropical neighbors rather than proposing laws that actually respond to real issues in our state.

Florida is known for making a cottage industry out of anti-Critical Race Theory hysteria, and its politicians have spent the past several years making headlines by passing laws that target gay and transgender students.

Why would Wyoming legislators bother coming up with bills of their own if they can just copy Florida and maybe even get themselves a spot on the national news!?

Even though people in Cheyenne might swap for some Tallahassee weather, the Wyoming Legislature has resisted a wholesale adoption of Florida Bills.

As the Wyoming Legislature heads into its final week, most of its Florida Bills (the legislative equivalent of Florida Man) are mercifully dead. The only one that remains is a proposal that would ban transgender students from participating in school sports. Florida passed a similar ban in 2021.

The Florida Bills’ failure is despite frantic efforts from the Wyoming Legislature’s so-called “Freedom Caucus” to reroute them to different committees and even force Speaker of the House Albert Sommers to bring an unconstitutional “Don’t Say Gay” bill (modeled after a 2022 Florida law) to the floor for debate.

Even though many people in Cheyenne would gladly swap a few days of Tallahassee weather for the subzero temperatures we experienced last week, members of the Wyoming Legislature have so far resisted a wholesale adoption of Florida Bills pushed by national groups like the Freedom Caucus.

This helps ensure that most decisions about education in Wyoming are shaped by teachers, parents, principals, and school boards, rather than copycat laws written by some Tallahassee politician. 

Don’t say gay

A year ago, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed that state’s famous “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which bans teachers from discussing anything related to sexual orientation or gender identity in grades K – 3. 

Since going into effect, the law has had an outsized impact on LGBTQ teachers, who cannot display pictures of themselves with their spouses, as well as students with same-sex parents, while prompting some Florida school libraries to simply clear their shelves of books.

Like clockwork, Wyoming’s own Sen. Dan Dockstader (R-Afton) brought a virtual mirror of the Florida Bill to our own Legislature, “Senate File 117 – Parental Rights in Education,” this year. 

After winning approval in the Senate by an 18 – 12 vote, however, SF-117 never made it out of the desk of House Speaker Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale). His “pocket veto” of the bill killed it. 

Last Tuesday, Freedom Caucus member Rep. Jeanette Ward (R-Casper) tried to wrest control of the bill from the speaker and assign it to the House Agriculture Committee, where it would have passed as easily as a cow through a hayfield. 

But this action would have required a majority approval from the House. Ward’s effort failed by a 34 – 27 vote.

Sommers said he does not support the state taking power away from locally elected school boards. He said the Don’t Say Gay bill “flies in the face of local control.”

Most of the Wyoming House agreed.

The CRT boogeyman rises again!

Hot on the heels of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, Gov. Desantis and his allies in the Florida Legislature passed the “Stop WOKE Act,” proving something that Wyoming’s legislators have yet to grasp: Clever bill names apparently make your proposals easier to pass (in Florida, at least).

Senate File 130, with the generic and misleading title “Education Freedom Act” (boring!), was sponsored by Sen. Lynn Hutchings (R-Cheyenne). While the Stop WOKE Act bans trainings on race and diversity in Florida schools, the bill sponsored by Hutchings—who is black—was a more watered-down and weird attack on Critical Race Theory.

SF-130 declares that educational materials in Wyoming schools must assume that all Ameicans are “politically equal” in the eyes of the law regardless of race, color, or sex—despite clear evidence throughout history to the contrary. It goes into strange tangents like: “Meritocracy or traits, including solid work ethic, are not racist but fundamental to the right to pursue happiness and to be rewarded for industriousness.” 

These and other passages—largely copied from Florida statutes—are dog whistles for bogus claims such as minorities experience high rates of poverty because they’re lazy.

SF-130 passed the Senate with a 23 – 7 vote and was assigned to the House Education Committee, which never got around to hearing it before a procedural deadline last week that sealed the bill’s fate.

A new ban for a non-problem

One crummy splotch of orange has yet to be cleansed from the Wyoming Legislature’s 2023 session. “Senate File 133 – Student Eligibility in Interscholastic Sports” would prohibit transgender students from participating in any sport sanctioned by the Wyoming High School Activities Association.

SF-133 passed the Senate by a vote of 28 – 3 and was heard by the House Education Committee on Thursday, where it squeaked by with a 5 – 4 vote.

Santi Murrilo, a 25-year-old transgender woman, competed in sports at the University of Wyoming for four years. She recalled that she was depressed, on academic probation, and on the verge of being kicked out of UW before she began her transition. She turned her life around and graduated early with honors.

The committee added a state appropriation of $1 million to pay for legal defenses if the law is passed and then challenged in court.

“This bill reinforces the idea that the inclusion of trans women is harmful to cisgender women, and nothing could be further from the truth,” Murillo said. 

Murillo said sponsors of such bills take advantage of “mass hysteria from the media, and a deep misunderstanding of trans people.”

Sara Burlingame, executive director of Wyoming Equality, said the bill will result in lawsuits and loss of federal funding. She said it unquestionably violates Title IX protections from discrimination in education based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

As a result, the committee amended SF-130 to include a state appropriation of $1 million to pay for legal defenses if the law is passed and then challenged in court.

Wyoming High School Activities Association Director Ron Laird told the committee that his organization has had a policy since 2014 to address issues related to trans athletes, but they have never had to use it. This is because issues that local schools have taken care of any issues that have arisen, and no one has ever had to appeal to the WSHAA for a final decision.

Nevertheless, the committee agreed that Wyoming needs to adopt this Florida-inspired ban and advanced SF-130 to the full House, where it will be heard on Monday.

Wyoming and Florida are worlds apart by most standards. But a raft of bills inspired by laws in the Sunshine State have come forth during the 2023 session, as so-called “Freedom Caucus” members seek to fight Critical Race Theory, transgender athletes, and other non-issues in Wyoming.