Wyoming lawmaker in last session as budget 'big dog'

2012-02-17T23:15:00Z 2013-03-21T11:56:12Z Wyoming lawmaker in last session as budget 'big dog'By JOAN BARRON Casper Star-Tribune The Billings Gazette
February 17, 2012 11:15 pm  • 

CHEYENNE, Wyo. -- Sen. Phil Nicholas sat in shirt sleeves at his desk in the Legislature's Joint Appropriations Committee room last month.

His eyeglasses rested halfway down his nose as he peered at an agency director sitting across from him in the committee's "hot seat."

With a full understanding of the state budget after a decade on the committee, Nicholas' questions -- delivered with a slightly nasal, near-monotone voice -- were penetrating.

In legislative parlance, the 57-year-old Laramie lawyer is a "big dog."

He has been a JAC co-chairman for eight years -- longer than any other legislator in recent history.

Because of his experience, knowledge, standing and powerful personality, Nicholas has left the most fingerprints on developing the state's 2013-14 operating budget.

This legislative budget session, which kicked off Monday, will be his final as JAC co-chairman.

A Republican, he is also Senate vice president. If he runs and is re-elected in November, he is in line to be Senate majority floor leader, then Senate president.

During a recent interview in his Senate office, Nicholas said he will miss becoming immersed in the state budget every year.

The budget work has been what's kept him in the Legislature this long.

"Early on in my career I wondered if I wanted to continue in the Legislature, and the budget, frankly, presented enough of a challenge that it's been exciting the entire time," Nicholas said.

Members of the JAC do not belong to any other standing committees. Nicholas said it is easier for him to take a block of time from his law practice rather than have to attend legislative interim committee meetings every couple of weeks.

Although members of the committee grumble about the long hours spent on budget hearings because of Nicholas' basket of questions and prolonged observations, they appreciate his grasp of the money issues.

Sen. John Schiffer, R-Kaycee, worked with Nicholas when both were co-chairmen of the JAC.

When Nicholas moved to the Senate in 2004, Schiffer, then Senate president, appointed him chairman the Senate Appropriations Committee.

"I have confidence in him and believe he can handle the current challenge of a (downward) change in revenues," Schiffer said.

Nicholas, he said, has always been talkative.

"You have to remember, he's a lawyer," Schiffer said. "They get paid by the word or something."

Former Democratic members of the JAC say Nicholas was always fair to them.

"He's very, very smart," said former Rep. Pete Jorgensen of Jackson.

Nicholas, he added, can be remote at times.

"He's a strong force. He's always been a strong force," said former Sen. Rae Lynn Job of Cheyenne, formerly of Rock Springs.

For awhile, Job was the only Democrat on the Senate side of the JAC.

"I always felt I had my fair share of time in debates," Job said.

"Sometimes I know I pushed the envelope," she added. "But as along as I was debating and putting information on the floor, he would listen and debate back with me.

"I always felt I could argue for what was important to me."

Job said that while she felt mutual respect between her and Nicholas, some lawmakers are intimidated.

Political family

The Nicholas family has a tradition of seeking and holding elected office.

Phil's grandfather, Thomas A. Nicholas, ran unsuccessfully for Congress, then served as Campbell County attorney. He eventually moved to Casper and, in the early 1950s, became the last elected mayor before the city switched to a city manager form of government.

His father, W.J. "Jack" Nicholas of Lander, served two years in the Legislature, then ran successfully for district judge when judges were still elected.

Phil campaigned door-to-door for his father.

Later, Phil moved to Laramie and joined his uncle Dave's law firm. He also worked on Dave Nicholas' 1986 campaign as one of more than a dozen candidates for the Republican nomination for governor.

He was on the road with Dave while former House Speaker Colin Simpson campaigned for his uncle, Pete Simpson.

Simpson won the GOP nomination for governor, but lost the general election to Democrat Mike Sullivan.

"It was Dave's involvement that got me involved in local community politics," Phil Nicholas said.

Dave Nicholas, also a former Wyoming state senator, was appointed ambassador to NATO by then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, an old friend.

After his uncle's appointment and move to Brussels, Belgium, Phil Nicholas ran successfully for the Wyoming House in 1996.

He and his wife, Karen, have four adult children: Joe, a chemical engineer working in Casper; Nate, an electrical engineer working on a joint law and master of business administration degree from the University of Wyoming; Kim, who's in a medical residency in obstetrics and gynecology at Omaha, Neb., and John, an architectural engineering student at UW.

The family's political tradition persists. Bob Nicholas, a Cheyenne lawyer and brother of Phil Nicholas, is a member of the Wyoming House.

Phil, House Majority Leader Tom Lubnau of Gillette and Rep. Steve Harshman of Casper stay at Bob's house during legislative sessions.

The sheriff

When Phil Nicholas was first elected to the Legislature, the leadership considered him a big spender because he pushed hard for money for the university.

After he was named to the Joint Appropriations Committee, he changed his thinking.

"My philosophy is there's a limited amount of money and what we do is allocate a fair share to everybody," he said. "Money should only be spent where it is needed. What makes your job easiest is understanding that Wyoming has limited resources and such a narrow tax base, you have to marshal your resources and be sure you're planning for the long term.

"There always is more demand for resources than available money," he added. "Then you become kind of the sheriff to be sure everyone is treated fairly."

Nicholas has a long list of accomplishments during his years in the Legislature.

"I don't want to make anybody jealous or mad, but we put close to $1 billion into the University of Wyoming for construction and major maintenance since 2000," he said.

Although he didn't create the Hathaway Scholarship Program, Nicholas found the way to finance it.

He also helped develop the Business Ready Communities Grant program and funding for the Wyoming Technology Business Center at UW.

This session, Nicholas' top priority has been securing state funding to acquire property near Laramie from his friend and client Doug Samuelson to protect the Casper Aquifer Recharge area that provides water for the city and UW.

Some people questioned whether he should be handling the budget issue in light of his relationship with Samuelson.

Nicholas said he has no conflict of interest because he will not make any money from the deal.

The $15 million budget amendment specifies that the staff of the State Loan and Investment Board will negotiate the sale.

On Tuesday, Nicholas apologized to his Senate colleagues for the "distraction" caused by his involvement in the proposed acquisition.

"I still don't think I have a conflict," Nicholas told the other Senate members.

But he said he thought that questions about his involvement were a distraction from the committee's budget work.

He said he will not longer champion the budget amendment.

Instead, Sen. Chris Rothfuss, a Laramie Democrat, will take over that task, he said.

As for the future, Nicholas told the Star-Tribune he has yet to decide whether he will run for re-election for one more four-year term.

Asked if he intended to run for governor someday , Nicholas said no.

"I have a passion for the legislative branch and I think I'll ride out my political involvement with the legislative branch," he said.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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