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CHEYENNE — During a Legislative session in Cheyenne, not all battles occur over a bill on the House or Senate floor. For the 90 legislators who travel across the state to vote aye or nay on more than 300 bills that will impact life for citizens across Wyoming, the days are packed with myriad other battles that often go unseen.
Like donuts, for example. (So many calories; so much sitting.) And germs. And exhaustion. And inboxes that burst with hundreds of new emails overnight, each email containing words of support or disdain that must be processed, filed away and, whether admitted or not, felt.
Each legislator has his or her own way of dealing with the daily stresses — which begin several hours before sunrise and last until midnight for some. However, it can’t be denied that legislators have weighed the demands and the long days and found them wanting against their passion for what they do.
So, they grab their hand sanitizer and green tea and hole up at a hotel or apartment for a few hours each night for the duration of each year’s session of the Wyoming Legislature.
This year, The Sheridan Press followed Sheridan County Rep. Rosie Berger, R-Big Horn, for a behind-the-scenes look at a day in the life of a Wyoming legislator.
Day 13 of the 20-day budget session for the 2014 Wyoming Legislature started early for Berger, as usual. It was jammed full of votes, meetings, email correspondence and functions. Here’s a peak inside Berger’s journal for the day:
4:30 a.m. — Get up, shower
5:45 a.m. — Oatmeal
While Berger simply wrote “oatmeal” in her journal, the word conveys more than it may seem.
“I try to stay pretty healthy because it really can be a bad environment. I actually try to stay out of the legislative snack room because it is filled with bagels and donuts,” Berger said.
She has oatmeal and green tea almost every morning to start her day off with a healthy dose of grains and antioxidants.
As for coffee to get through the day?
She waits to drink any coffee until she arrives at the office and limits her intake to a couple cups due to how dry it is in the building and the increased stress level. She used to think she needed lots of coffee to maintain her energy, but she found that too much was detrimental.
“I really want to have a calm presence amongst my members because they come to me needing advice and direction. It’s my job as the Speaker Pro Tempore to keep the House in a more peaceful manner if at all possible, if you can do that with 60 people. If I’m nervous, I think that creates negative energy in the House.”
6:20 a.m. — Drive to Little America Hotel
7 a.m. — Emcee Governor’s Prayer Breakfast
9:30 a.m. — Drive to Capitol
9:50 a.m. — Meet with Legislative Services Office staff
10 a.m. — Gavel, prayer pledge
Official business for Wyoming’s senators and representatives typically begins at 10 a.m. each day.
This is when bills progress through a variety of stages.
10:30-11:30 a.m. — Collect bills for Corporations Committee, hear bills on third reading, listen to bills with amendments, vote for third reading bills on the consent list (all bills on the list are approved all at once), Rules Committee ruling, introduction of Committee of the Whole bills to be heard that day.
Noon — Not lunch
Lunch is a pretty rare occurrence, Berger said. In her 11 legislative sessions, she has been in committee meetings at least three times a week over the noon hour. Other lunch hours are filled with luncheons, meetings with lobbyists, visitors, email correspondence, and, maybe, a bite or two.
This lunch hour was spent preparing to introduce her bill, House Bill 47, in the Senate Revenue Committee. The bill, which has passed all the way through the system, will allow municipalities to apply for state funds to build natural gas pipelines for a cheaper heating alternative.
Berger met with representatives from Dayton and Ranchester and lobbyists then presented her bill to the committee at her next meeting.
1:15 p.m. — Senate Revenue Committee. Berger watched her bill squeak through on a 3-2 vote. Sen. Bruce Burns, R-Sheridan, agreed to introduce it on the Senate floor.
2 p.m. — Gavel back in to hear 23 COW bills.
(Not cow bells, although there is music or other entertainment in the lobby of the Capitol most days; Committee of the Whole bills, i.e. first reading).
2:45 p.m. — Ate some veggies while listening to debates on bills.
This was lunch.
4:30 p.m. — Adjourn
5 p.m. — Follow up with lobbyists on insurance bills
5:30 p.m. — Respond to emails
6 p.m. — Attend Wyoming Association of Municipalities dinner reception
7-9:15 p.m. — Dinner and conversation with several Sheridan-area business representatives in town for Leadership Sheridan County
10 p.m. — Review emails, activities of day, get ready for bed
Berger said getting to bed before 11 p.m. is rare. Often it is closer to midnight. She grabs a few hours of sleep and gets up at 4 or 5 a.m. to do it all over again.
Feb. 27, Day 14 of the 20-day budget session, progressed at just as fast of a rate as day 13, but this day included conversation on natural resources, women in leadership and culture and economics in Taiwan.
Berger got up, got ready and took a few minutes for herself.
“Early morning, I typically have an hour in the morning that I try to designate for me to just do a devotional, regroup and think,” Berger said. “I might write notes or greeting cards. I do things that are related to my personal life because, basically, you put your personal life on hold when you leave for Cheyenne.”
Since she misses nearly two months of birthdays, anniversaries and simple conversations with loved ones, Berger tries to prepare cards and gifts and greetings in advance. Then she eats, sleeps and breathes legislative life.
“Truly, most of the time is just thinking about the next bill, the next committee meeting, the next leadership meeting,” Berger said.
The rest of Berger’s Day 14 is filled with bill debate and meetings — including one with Taipei Economic and Cultural Office for discussion on developing stronger international trade with Taiwan, especially to develop sales of Wyoming’s coal and soda ash.
That night Berger took part in the Leap into Leadership dinner reception at Little America Hotel. The event, sponsored by the Wyoming Women’s Legislative Caucus and Wyoming Women’s Foundation, seeks to empower women to pursue leadership roles.
A highlight of the event, Berger said, was being able to join with several women leaders and collectively read a poem to honor Rep. Sue Wallis, R-Recluse, who died at the age of 56 just weeks before the 2014 session began.
Downtime and recuperation
There isn’t much spare time during session for the Wyoming Legislature. However, Berger does try to slow down and re-center on the weekends. She tries to get a solid six hours of sleep each night and will often bake cookies on Sundays to give to friends — just like at home.
She does not typically head back to Sheridan during the session because she’s learned better, she said. The roads in Wyoming aren’t dependable enough to be good both ways, and the time is too short when sandwiched between a five-hour drive.
However, there are walks. Berger tries to walk at least a mile a day and several miles on the weekends to get out of the “stone city” of the Capitol building and feel the fresh Wyoming air on her face like she does in Big Horn.
And then, Berger and the other 89 legislators head home. Berger shuts off all phones and computers, makes no social engagements, and spends time decompressing with her husband, Bob, by her side again.