CASPER, Wyo. -- Wyoming Republican Party leadership threw its support Saturday behind a referendum that could restore powers previously stripped from state Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill.
The move opens a split between GOP party leadership and Gov. Matt Mead, a Republican, and the heavily Republican state Legislature, which recently approved the law that stripped Hill’s power.
Forty of the GOP Central Committee's 72 members voted to endorse the referendum, a move some lawmakers consider to be led by the insurgent right wing of the state Republican party and unrepresentative of a majority of Republicans in the state.
Sen. Michael Von Flatern, R-Gillette, sponsored the Hill legislation and said members of the Central Committee are a “vocal minority.”
“The majority of the party has gotten too complacent and so – I consider this a personal opinion – the hard right of the conservative minority has put themselves in positions to make decisions," he said.
But the Central Committee's views are closer to the pulse of the average conservative voter than the Legislature’s, according to committee members who voted in support of a referendum.
While signatures are collected to get the referendum on the ballot, both sides of the issue await a Wyoming Supreme Court decision on whether the law is constitutional. Each side believes a favorable court decision will bolster their position.
"We would love nothing more than the Supreme Court to nullify the need for this petition,” said Rochelle Miner of the Platte County Republican Party, who brought the issue to the Central Committee and also voted in support of the resolution.
Yet a number of GOP lawmakers saw the committee's support for the referendum as the fruit of a fractured party.
“I think there’s a certain faction, a certain group that has, from the word ‘go,’ hung its hat on the constitutional issue and in some cases not really knowing about the constitutional argument with regards to the Legislature’s duties,” said Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper, one of the sponsors of the law that stripped Hill's powers.
Landen believes lawmakers must ensure children of Wyoming are properly educated. State audits said Hill was not executing a system of accountability being developed by the Legislature.
Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody, also sponsored the legislation. Coe noted that the petition for a referendum originated in the right-wing Constitution Party.
The Constitution Party, founded in 1992 as the U.S. Taxpayers Party, is a libertarian and conservative party that champions itself as an advocate for limited government. None of its members hold statewide office in Wyoming.
“I think it’s a mixture of the fringe," Coe said, including the Constitution Party and Tea Party members from the Big Horn Basin.
“I can tell you the Tea Party in the Big Horn Basin is out to gobble up as much as they can of the Republican group up there and take control with their own agenda,” he said.
Tammy Hooper, Wyoming Republican Party chairwoman, said that even though the referendum began in the Constitution Party, it became popular among Republicans who wanted the Central Committee to adopt it.
She said the Central Committee debated the issue for about 40 minutes. Hooper did not vote on the issue, as per party rules.
Legislators were upset that they were not allowed to address the Central Committee before the vote. Hooper said that was impossible because of parliamentary procedure. Guests must request to speak before the meeting.
Coe said it is rare – perhaps the first time ever – that the Central Committee has taken a position on a referendum to repeal a law.
But Rep. Marti Halverson, R-Etna, said that in the 17 years she’s lived in Wyoming, it’s the first time that someone has tried to repeal a law by referendum. Halverson, a Central Committee member, voted in support of the referendum resolution.
“In all fairness, let’s put this into some kind of context,” she said.
Hill said she supports the referendum, not because her political career is affected by it, but on principle. The Legislature created an appointed director position in the Wyoming Department of Education and transferred many of Hill's powers to it without obtaining voter approval, she said, even though the superintendent of public instruction position is ordained by the Wyoming Constitution.
“I didn’t know it was coming, but it doesn’t surprise me,” Hill said about Saturday’s vote. “I think it’s a reflection of what I’ve been hearing all over the state, in all 23 counties.”
Tony Young, Mead's deputy chief of staff, said the issue illustrates the diversity within the Central Committee.
"The process for a referendum is provided in the state Constitution and sets the bar to overturn a duly enacted law" such as the bill that stripped Hill's powers, he wrote in an email.
Coe hopes that a Supreme Court decision in favor of the new law stripping Hill's powers will kill the referendum’s momentum.
“I hope the real conservative Republicans in the state wake up,” he said.