CHEYENNE, Wyo. — A high-stakes power struggle will play out in the Wyoming Legislature this week.
The House is set to hear a bill that's already cleared the Senate that would strip the state Superintendent of Public Instruction post of much of its power.
Legislative leaders in both houses and in both parties are sponsoring the bill, Senate File 104. It would turn most of the important duties of the superintendent's post over to a director appointed by the governor.
The sponsors say the state can't afford to give Superintendent Cindy Hill more time in power.
Critics say Hill has failed to heed legislative commands to provide critical information on how to improve student performance since she took office two years ago. They also say she's sidestepped legislative restrictions on spending on a teacher training program.
But Hill is fighting back. She denies that she's failed to follow the Legislature's directives.
And Hill and some supporters are emphasizing that the bill wouldn't only strip her of power. They say it would strip the public of its voice in Wyoming education.
House Speaker Tom Lubnau, R-Gillette, is among the bill's sponsors. It cleared the Senate on Wednesday and he assigned it on Friday to the House Appropriations Committee.
"I know the superintendent has criticized my selection of a committee," Lubnau said Friday. "I sent it to the Appropriations Committee because most of the issues are financial, and that was the committee that had the most institutional knowledge about the budget and the budget process."
Lubnau said he believes Hill is getting people riled up, arguing that the bill would steal people's constitutional rights.
"The fact of the matter is, there are 91 elected officials who are abiding by the law, and doing what they're constitutionally charged with doing," Lubnau said. "That would be the governor, and 30 senators and 60 representatives. And it's real clear what the constitutional charge is."
Lubnau said Wyoming Constitution empowers the superintendent with general supervision of the public schools. But he said the Legislature itself has complete control of the school system.
"I think that will be a big argument, and frankly, I don't know how it will turn out," Lubnau said of the bill. "We'll see when it comes to the floor next week."
Rep. Steve Harshman, R-Casper, is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. He said Friday his committee is still working to wrap up the supplemental budget bill and hadn't scheduled a hearing on Senate File 104 yet.
Hill said Friday she hopes that House members will have thoughtful discussions and keep an open mind. "There's a lot of things that are innuendos, and misinformation that continue to recycle," she said.
Lubnau said he intends to have a number of contentious bills that deal with social issues read in on the House floor and assigned to committees on Friday.
A bill introduced by Rep. Kendell Kroeker, R-Evansville would specify that any federal restrictions on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines wouldn't apply in Wyoming. The bill also would specify that any federal agents attempting to enforce such restrictions would be guilty of state felonies.
Lubnau said he's heard criticism that he's been sitting on Kroeker's bill, which has received national attention, and others because he's allegedly anti-gun. He denied that, pointing out that he said at the beginning of the legislative session that he would introduce such bills on Friday as a group.
Even so, Lubnau, a lawyer, said has concerns about Kroeker's bill procedurally.
"Historically, those kind of nullification bills were popular in the 1840s and 1850s regarding slavery, and resulted in the Civil War," Lubnau said.
"When you look at those kind of bills in historical perspective, they're fairly serious things to consider. Although I absolutely agree with the sentiment of the bill, the procedure side of it concerns me."
Sen. President Tony Ross, R-Cheyenne, said the Senate this week will be working through a lot of bills. He said he regards these early weeks as "that kind of the meat-and-potatoes portion of the session."
The House on Friday narrowly approved a bill that would raise the state fuel tax by 10 cents. The bill hadn't been assigned to a Senate committee by Friday evening.
Ross said he expects consideration of the fuel tax bill to demand a lot of attention in the Senate this week. "That will be a big thing that we'll read in next week, assign to committee and we'll start working it."