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Wyo Legislature A history of profound leaders

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Cheyenne – “Wyoming came first and politics came second,” says former Wyoming legislator and U.S. Senator Alan Simpson of Cody.
    “That’s just the way it was,” he says. Simpson was first elected to the Wyoming House of Representatives in 1965, a year Wyoming Republicans were in the minority. He says he learned a great deal about legislative leadership from then Speaker of the House Walter Phelan. Simpson served until 1977 when he resigned to run for the U.S. Senate.
    “It’s been a long time since I’ve been there,” says Don Cundall who served in the Wyoming Senate from 1973 through 1987 and was Senate President in 1981. “I think the most important thing we got done was the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund.” He says they also stopped Wyoming’s collection of any inheritance taxes. “The feds haven’t caught up yet on that,” he says.
    “Ed Herschler, Harold Hellbaum and I decided to take on the Union Pacific Railroad, which was one big task,” says Simpson of one of his most memorable debates in Cheyenne. “On one end of the street in Cheyenne is the Capitol and on the other is the Union Pacific Depot.” Simpson says the UP had asked for over 50 percent of the money earned by a trona company crossing lands UP had acquired as part of the checkerboard. “We took on the UP with a one sentence bill that said you could condemn an underground easement. They went crazy. They flew their lawyers in from L.A. and New York. It was a slugfest.”
    Known for his ability to pass legislation some may have dubbed “impossible,” Simpson, with the help of Herschler and Hellbaum, was successful. As he predicted, Simpson says the legislation has never been used with agreements reached before condemnation. Simpson also notes that Mike Sullivan, who later served as Governor of Wyoming, represented the trona industry. Of UP today Simpson says, “It’s a great company and critically important to Wyoming.”
    “The whole thing was a good experience,” says Rory Cross, who represented Converse County and now lives in Nebraska. He says his service as Speaker of the House was the highlight during his tenure that stretched from 1974 to 1992. “The most memorable piece of legislation was when we set up the property tax on four tiers with ag land taxed on its production capability.”
    Cross also recalls the debates over reapportionment of Wyoming’s House and Senate districts. He says he would have liked to see the districts continue to be tied to county boundaries.
    “Wyoming’s right to work act,” says Jack VanMark of Torrington when asked about the most memorable legislation from his days in the Wyoming House of Representatives in 1961 through 1965. Earl Christensen of Newcastle, who served over 20 years as a State Senator, also recalled the Right to Work legislation when he was interviewed for the upcoming Winter Cattlemen’s Edition featuring Weston County. Fearing for the legislators’ safety VanMark says Governor Hansen called out the Wyoming National Guard for protection.
    “The size of the budget today is staggering as far as us old timers are concerned,” says VanMark. “We had a budget for the biennium of $40 million. That’s peanuts today.”
    During Cross’ last term in 1992 he says the proposed budget would have left Wyoming $60 million in the red. “We balanced the budget,” he recalls of a move that required a 5.5 percent cut across the board among other measures. “We had to rob the highway funds and the water funds to balance it.”
    “I was elected in 1962 and served from 1963 to 1979,” says Nels Smith of Sundance who served as Speaker of the House in 1977 and at 39 was the youngest to serve as Speaker of the House at that time. Smith recalls that at the time he ran for office Sundance area rancher Morris Williams expressed his support saying, “‘We’ve got to get young people started so they aren’t ready to die by the time they know something.”
    Taxation based on productivity for agriculture, establishment of the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund and a sales and use tax rebate for the low income and disabled are among the pieces of legislation he looks back upon and knows they made a positive difference.
    Smith says he also led a constitutional amendment effort to ensure that if Wyoming ever does have an income tax that citizens receive a dollar for dollar credit on any ad valorem or sales and use taxes they’ve paid in that same calendar year. “It was my idea,” says Smith, “but obviously you’ve got to get a two-thirds majority and approval of the voters who approved it overwhelmingly.” It did become part of Wyoming’s Constitution.
    “It’s the companionship of the people you get to know and work with,” says Simpson. “I was there for 13 years. That’s where I learned my craft and whatever skill I had. I dealt with some crafty birds down there and they taught me much, people from both parties.” Simpson says the Wyoming Legislature was his “training ground” for his service as a U.S. Senator.
    “It’s a continuing education,” says Cundall. “You never get caught up if you’re active at all.”
    “Being able to look back on those things that seemed like a good idea at the time and see where history has proven they were, provides a lot of satisfaction,” says Smith. “You were working with good people who shared mostly common objectives, although we sometimes differed pretty vigorously on how to get there.”
    The debates will roll on as the 2009 General Session of the Wyoming Legislature convenes in Cheyenne on Jan. 13.
    Jennifer Womack is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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