Semlek brings practical experience to chairmanshipWritten by Jennifer Womack
“Granddad Alex Semlek immigrated from Estonia in 1906. It was 1911 when he finally made it to Wyoming,” says Semlek. Mark’s 90-year-old father William, along with his late wife Louise, were the second generation to make their livings on the family ranch. Following a three-and-a-half-year stint with the Cooperative Extension Service in upstate New York after graduating from the University of Wyoming, Mark and his wife Sheila, also a Moorcroft native, returned to the family ranch to raise their five children.
“He’ll be 90 this fall and he comes over every day but Sunday to help,” says Semlek of his father, who lives five miles to the west at the original family homestead location. A POW and a Purple Heart in WWII, William worked for Standard Oil in California when he first returned from the service. It was there he met Mark’s mother.
“They came to Wyoming in the summer of ’48 and her first winter in Wyoming was the winter of 1949,” says Semlek, noting the significant change for his mother, a Los Angeles native. “She stayed,” he says. “I say that as a tribute to her commitment to Wyoming and to the ranch.” Spending more than 50 years in Wyoming, he says she was an artist by trade, spending about 20 years painting and traveling to art-related events around the country.
“We came back to the ranch in 1979 and set up a mobile home,” says Mark. The small accommodations served as home for him and Sheila, their five children and a nephew who lived with them. “It was a ranching lifestyle with kids and really quite enjoyable.”
In 1986 Mark and Sheila added to the ranch’s real estate holdings and Mark says that, like the two generations before them, “We immediately had to go to work off the place to pay for it.” His grandfather had worked as a sheepherder near present-day Wright and his father in the oilfields. Mark went to work for True Oil and Sheila took a job driving the school bus their children rode and worked at the local diner during the days.
“Now, it’s basically the two of us on the place,” says Semlek of the cow-calf, yearling and haying operation. Historically raising and feeding small grains, he says they’ve abandoned that enterprise as a result of the drought and his joining the Wyoming Legislature in 2002.
Semlek’s ranching background provides the foundation for his conservative approach to his work at the Wyoming Legislature. He continues a recent tradition of “ranching chairmen,” with Doug Samuelson and Jim Hageman being his immediate predecessors.
With political service beginning with a mid-1980s stint on the local school board, Semlek joined the Crook County Commission in 1995. That service, he says, provided him a greater understanding and appreciation for local governments. When long-time legislator Marlene Symonds announced she wouldn’t seek re-election, Semlek ran for her position in 2002. Appointed to the Ag Committee his first session, 2009 marked his first year as the committee’s chairman.
“You don’t realize what a committee chairman goes through when you’re a committee member,” says Semlek. “You grab your bills, you grab your coffee, you go upstairs and you sit back and enjoy.” Scheduling bills, making sure those who’ve traveled to provide testimony and prioritizing legislation are added to the list with the new job. Semlek maneuvered the 2009 Session with a committee largely comprised of new members.
Looking toward the 2010 session, with the first interim committee meeting planned for mid-May in Powell, Semlek says, “I’ll be more mindful of the number of bills that come out of interim committee.” In 2009 he says the committee was overloaded between bills approved during interim work and those that were assigned to the committee during the session.
Semlek finds his service on the Revenue Committee equally rewarding. “We are the gatekeeper of any tax increases and things that might make it before the legislature in terms of property tax relief measures.”
Describing the 2009 Legislative Session as a “transition session,” Semlek anticipates leaner years ahead. “We were looking at revenue surpluses beyond our standard budget close to a billion dollars,” he says. “This year it was closer to $250 million.” He says part of the 2009 surplus was carryover from previous years. “As we get into the Budget Session in 2010 we’ll see a completely different budget scenario.”
“The legislature this year,” says Semlek of the 2009 General Session, “showed some pretty good restraint during supplemental budget work. There were fewer amendments and the mood of the body in the House was to pretty much reject everything.”
Looking to 2010 he says, “We’re not going to be working on new programs, but looking at standard budgets to cut programs and reduce costs.”
Seeing the cost of state government climb upward during his time in the Legislature Semlek says there were some good projects and programs funded. But, he adds, “I wish we would have had the resolve to have the same fiscal restraint during those good times.”
“If you get up in the morning and you love what you do, you’re lucky,” says Semlek. “I look forward to the calves in the spring. I enjoy the crops and I enjoy haying.” He and Sheila are also looking forward to their five children and their grandchildren returning to the ranch for branding Memorial Day weekend. As four generations of the Semlek family join forces for a day of work and play, it’s not hard to see the basis for the conservative values that guide his decisions at the Wyoming Legislature.