LATEST ARTICLES

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One of the biggest challenges for the Governor’s Task Force on Wyoming Game & Fish Funding is how to ease the burden of sportsmen who now raise almost all of the money the state spends on wildlife management.

At the group’s third meeting in Casper on Thursday, the 14 members present debated various recommendations that will be presented to Gov. Matt Mead next week. For many participants, the biggest need was how to get “non-consumptive users” (those who don’t fish or hunt, but still benefit from wildlife) to contribute to the effort.

The task force worked diligently to craft recommendations so they won’t raise the eyebrows of state lawmakers, who must approve any funding plan it develops. Issues included pumping more one-time money into the Wyoming Wildlife Natural Trust Fund for conservation and habitat projects, so proponents won’t need to keep coming back to the Legislature for more funds.

One proposal was to request $200 million, which would match the amount now in the trust fund, so the state would be able to raise more money from investments. The source would likely be the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account — better known as the state’s “rainy day fund” — which has a balance of more than $2 billion.

But Sen. Stan Cooper (R-Kemmerer) warned his task force colleagues that legislators probably wouldn’t be receptive to appropriating such a large amount. Given the state’s unstable revenue sources from the energy industry, he added, “Asking for [even] $100 million would be a hard sell.”

The task force hasn’t settled on how much money it will request.

Cooper and Rep. Ruth Ann Petroff (R-Jackson), co-chairmen of the Joint Travel, Recreation and Wildlife Committee, are both members of the Game & Fish task force. On Aug. 11, after he presents the group’s recommendations to the governor, Task Force Chairman Ryan Lance of Casper will present the proposals to the legislative panel.

Another tricky question is if lawmakers who narrowly chose to take the rare action to give the Game & Fish Department state general fund money earlier this year to pay for some employees’ health insurance premiums will be willing to do so again. Historically, the bulk of the agency’s revenue is derived from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses.

Although no final vote was taken, the consensus seemed to be to not seek the health insurance money from the state if the Legislature would agree to three other task force recommendations to ease the funding burden on hunters and anglers.

During the public comment period, the task force was strongly criticized by a sportsmen’s group that charged it was sending the wrong message to hunters and fishermen as well as the general public.

“We seem to be going to the same sources [for revenue] time and time again,” said Robert Wharff of Evanston, executive director of the Wyoming Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife. “It’s frustrating we don’t see our solutions being implemented.”

Wharff maintained that while non-consumptive users — “everyone who makes a dime” off tourism and wildlife in Wyoming — should participate in finding funding solutions, the idea hunters and anglers haven’t successfully funded the Game & Fish operations is not true.

“We’ve done it forever,” Wharff said. “Don’t throw us out and say, ‘It’s not working.'” To me you’re saying no matter what [sportsmen] do, it’s futile.”

Wharff said wildlife watchers and others who enjoy the state’s great outdoors can still help raise funds the traditional way, by buying licenses.

“I buy a [hunting] license every year, even though I hardly ever kill anything,” he noted.

Chairman Lance said he understands the point Wharff made, but he disagrees with his ultimate conclusion.

“The take-home message I heard from Mr. Wharff is, ‘Don’t give up on sportsmen — we’ve funded the management of wildlife in this state over the long haul, and we can do it going forward,'” he said.

But the reality, Lance said, is that “we need new tools.”

“That includes maneuverability for funding the Game & Fish Commission, and that comes from their ability to set license fees within the parameters established by the Legislature,” conclusion. “The take-home message I heard from Mr. Wharff is, ‘Don’t give up on sportsmen — set the full cost of legislatively mandated programs and endangered species management.

“But once that’s done,” Lance added, “we’re going to be in a good position in the short- and mid-term to really address some of these issues and maintain the solvency of the department.

“The big question is over the long-term, should sportsmen continue to pay all of the freight?” he asked. “And if not, what should the structure look like to ensure non-traditional sources of revenue are infused into that system to reflect the true value of a multi-billion industry in our state?”

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Wyoming’s Game & Fish Department has relied on the sale of hunting and fishing licenses as its main source of revenue for decades.

Matt Dunfee, program manager of the Wildlife Management Institute, sees major problems ahead with that strategy if it doesn’t considerably change.

“It’s a bunch of middle-age white guys,” Dunfee described hunters, anglers and shooters. “It won’t be long until they’re in the minority, and there’s nobody to replace them.”

In addition to helping Wyoming pay for the agency’s wildlife management, conservation and habitat improvement programs, among others, Dunfee said the national industry is huge — it takes in nearly $86 billion a year. Hunters alone each spend an average of $2,600 a year, he noted.

On Wednesday in Casper, the wildlife expert told the Governor’s Task Force on Wyoming Game & Fish Funding that the sportsmen who fund the state agency will soon be in the minority nationwide. Dunfee came from Washington, D.C., armed with statistics to explain the consequences of relying on a dwindling population for revenue.

Less than 6 percent of Americans now hunt, fish or participate in shooting sports, Dunfee noted. A whopping 89 percent are men, and 93 percent of them are Caucasian.

Their average age is in the mid-40s, and they increasingly tend to live in the suburbs, he added.
The number of sportsmen and women did increase by 9 percent between 2005-11, but Dunfee said on average, these newbies purchasing their first licenses were over 55.

The main problem is there has been very little effort to recruit and retain a new generation of hunters and fishermen. “We’re not getting young people involved,” Dunfee said. “We’re not bringing our kids with us to hunt and fish.”

There is also no effort to persuade blacks, Latinos and women to take up the sports. Each state game and fish department is trying to recruit new participants in their own way, with varying degrees of success. So far Utah, Wisconsin and Oregon have had the best results.

A united national recruiting campaign also does not exist, but the Wildlife Management Institute makes presentations in many states to spread the word about best practices.

Even when states are successful recruiting young people to take the place of today’s sportsmen, Dunfee said, “There are precious few retention efforts.” He added that many women quit hunting, fishing and shooting after only trying the sports a few times.

But Dunfee said programs that encourage and teach young people to participate have been very successful. When children have a mentor to safely guide them, he related, 92 percent purchase licenses the next year.

The Wyoming task force will wrap up its third of four scheduled meetings beginning at 8 a.m. Thursday, Aug. 30, at the Oil and Gas Conservation Building in Casper. Today’s agenda is focused on recommendations the group will make to Gov. Matt Mead on new ways to identify revenue sources and help stabilize Game & Fish funding.

The state’s general fund, which is used to operate nearly every state agency, historically has contributed very little money to Wyoming Game & Fish. Some members of the Wyoming Legislature want to keep it that way, but they also shot down a proposal a few years ago that would have allowed the department to increase the cost of hunting and fishing licenses so it could generate more revenue on its own.

Task force member Dale Critchfield, a retired hunting agent, said the department and many other committees over the years have tried to provide a stable source of funding, without much success.
“The time is now,” he said firmly. “We can’t afford to kick the can down the road again. We need to act now.”

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What Does Utah Have but Wyoming Doesn’t? A New Anti-Discrimination Law

Wyoming and Utah share many of what are often called “Western values.”

Both are conservative states run by Republicans, where residents value their Second Amendment rights, and the vast majority believe the federal government should stay out of states’ business (despite the fact that federal funding makes up 29% (UT) and 39% (WY) of state revenues).

But if this pair of states are virtually mirror images of each other politically and philosophically, why did one state overwhelmingly decide to protect gays and lesbians in the workplace and the other deride the concept and mislead the public about the issue?

We could conclude the first state, Utah, is incredibly tolerant of the LGBT community, while the second, Wyoming, is extremely bigoted. But that would make for a really short, simplistic article. Also, it isn’t true — at least we don’t think so.

The facts are Utah’s Senate voted 23-5 in favor of its anti-discrimination bill, and the House approved it overwhelmingly, 65-10. Wyoming’s Senate vote was right in line with its Utah counterpart, 24-6, but the House rejected the controversial Senate File 115 on a 26-33 vote.

Why the two states’ legislative actions were different is fairly complex, but the main reason was support and opposition by specific, highly influential religious denominations.

The secondary factors included a dogged determination by extremely far-right Wyoming House members to intentionally mislead the public and each other about what the bill actually did.

The success of the LGBT’s lobbying effort is becoming known as “the Utah Compromise.” While activists had been trying to educate the public about the issue for several years, the bill was only introduced about a week before it passed.

Utah benefited tremendously by a perfectly timed announcement from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), or Mormons. The church said it supported the legislation because of its “level of fairness for everyone.”

Mormons have a huge say in what happens legislatively in Utah, and a lesser but important influence in other states where there are a large number of LDS members. That includes areas of Wyoming (primarily in the far west) where Mormonism is the dominant religion.

Both states’ bills would protect gay, lesbian and transgendered workers by adding sexual orientation and gender identity to already protected classes on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, religion, sex or disability.

Rep. Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie) — the only openly gay member of the Wyoming Legislature — said many in the state incorrectly believed Wyoming already protects gays, lesbians and transgendered people from on-the-job discrimination. It doesn’t.

“We had a lot of new [legislators] who didn’t know the issue very well,” Connolly explained. “They erroneously believed everyone is protected [from discrimination], and they still tried to believe it even after they were told it isn’t true.”

In Wyoming an employer can fire any workers because they are homosexuals, or if it is suspected they are. An act as normal as have a wedding photo on one’s desk could easily lead to dismissal for an employee in a same-sex marriage — and under current state law there is absolutely no recourse for the worker. He or she cannot sue the employer, because the firing would be legal.

That scenario cannot happen in Utah anymore, but it still can in Wyoming.

Connolly said the positive statement of support by the LDS church for Utah’s anti-discrimination bill had a definite effect in Wyoming, with Mormon legislators who would normally weigh in on religious issues generally staying out of the debate.

But there was a huge opponent of SF 115 waiting in the wings: the Catholic Church.

The Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne, which includes all of Wyoming, tried to scuttle the bill in the Senate to no avail. The House, though, was far more receptive to the pitch given by Donna Adler, the Catholics’ lobbyist. She testified on many issues, but actively led the campaign against SF 115.

In a letter to all state senators during the session, Adler wrote that the bill “is a serious threat to the integrity of the church and an unconscionable interference with the exercise of religion by the state.”

“It’s critical to have the support of the religious community if you’re going to do this. From the beginning [Wyoming] Catholics were very anti-SF115,” related Jeran Artery, chairman of Wyoming Equality, which supports gay rights. “It was tough for us, because it seemed to be in conflict with Catholic doctrine and what the Pope has been saying, which is, ‘We’re all God’s children and we don’t like discrimination.’

“The diocese put together a coalition against the bill and said they were standing behind their lobbyist,” he added. “But we did have strong support from the Episcopalian and independent churches.”

Connolly said Catholic priests were told by the bishop to either include opposition to the bill in their sermons, or put a notice in their church newsletters that Catholics should contact their lawmakers and tell them not to vote for SF 115.

If Adler remains the Catholics’ lobbyist next year — and there is no indication she won’t still have the job — Connolly said getting the denomination to change its position will be difficult. That lobbying effort has to start now, she said.

In Utah, Mormon leaders and LGBT proponents had a series of confidence-building conversations and realized that continued confrontations would lead to mounting casualties on both sides. But that hasn’t happened with the Catholics here.

One argument against the bill left unspoken but still an issue for Catholics, Connolly said, is the idea that adding gender identity to the list of protected classes could somehow result in the church being required to have women priests.

As the House debated the bill in committee and on its third and final reading, there was a lot of crazy talk. We know they’re not professional lawmakers, but even for a “citizen” legislature, the House spent an inordinate amount of time talking about bathrooms.

It wasn’t codes or regulations or anything else you might think could spark such a strange discussion. No, the whole issue came up because some legislators — and apparently the people they represent — are scared to death they might find themselves in a stall next to someone who is gay or lesbian. Or, in their worst scenario, a transgendered person who isn’t in the “right” restroom.

As Pat Crank, a former attorney general, told one room full of legislators and interested parties, if you don’t think the LGBT community uses the same public restrooms you do now, you’re simply “crazy.”

The second greatest fear was that florists, bakers or wedding dress designers would be forced to perform services for gay and lesbian couples, against their personal religious beliefs that the happy couple is doomed to spend eternity in hell.

Rest assured no one in Wyoming will have a gay couple put a gun to their head and say, “Bake us a cake or else.” Gays and lesbians would rather have friendly customer service than someone who hates them simply because of who they are. If a homophobe doesn’t want their business, others will be happy to have it.

The restroom and catering issues were smoke screens, of course, and had nothing at all to do with the bill House members were supposed to consider.

Artery described the debate in the Senate as “professional.”

“I hoped the House could have a positive discussion and take away the fear-mongering about how everybody would be forced to sell flowers and wedding cakes to gays and lesbians,” he said. “It was disheartening.”

On its first reading, the House amended the bill and removed housing protections that stayed in the Utah law. Wyoming landlords can still refuse to rent to someone because they know or think the would-be tenants are homosexuals or transgendered.

Both Connolly and Artery said they don’t truly understand the opponents’ motivation.

“You had some of the most religious people in the House arguing about this bill and saying it created a special class and took away their [own] religious freedom and their right to discriminate against whoever they want to discriminate against,” Artery said. “And they’re protected! They already have this religious exemption. To hear them say, ‘I want to deny people access to my business’ just didn’t make any sense to me.”

Connolly added some foes of SF 115 apparently believe they have “a duty to discriminate” against gays and lesbians.

Utah officials said they would like their new law to be a model for other states to pass LGBT anti-discrimination bills. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have added sexual orientation to their statutes, while 18 states and D.C. include gender identity.

Artery noted proponents of the bill had “a great business coalition” this year that should build support next year. It included the Wyoming Business Alliance, the Wyoming Mining Association, the Petroleum Association of Wyoming and the state’s Lodging and Restaurant Association.

“With the business coalition standing up and saying, ‘This is important to us,’ I was surprised we didn’t get it done this time,” the lobbyist said. “But we need to recognize we had some real positive things happen this year. Getting 24 votes in the Senate was excellent progress.”

Connolly and Artery said they would be happy to get advice from Utah legislators. Still, they realize passing the bill in Wyoming will be an uphill struggle in the 2016 budget session, when non-budget bills need a two-thirds vote just to be introduced.

“Even in the unlikely chance the bill passes during the budget session, the coalition will try again next year,” Artery said. “It’s a good opportunity to keep the discussion alive, educate people and let them know we will keep going until we get it passed.”

Connolly recalled that immediately after the House killed SF 115, a fellow legislator who voted against the bill raced to her desk and showed her a copy of the religious exemptions Utah’s contained.

“Maybe we can do this next year,” he said.

But the religious exemptions in the Wyoming and Utah bills were almost exactly the same, Connolly said.

The same House members who killed SF 115 this year will be back for the budget session, so no one holds out much hope the measure will pass in February 2016. But look at the numbers — the bill only needed five more “yes” votes in the House to reach the magic figure of 31. Another probable yes vote, Rep. John Patton (R-Sheridan), didn’t vote due to illness.

Think about it — If Democrats and moderate Republicans can win that many additional seats in next year’s general election, maybe we won’t have to hear all of that bathroom talk again.

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What once appeared to be an inevitable wild “Shootout in the Senate” Wednesday over a controversial House bill allowing guns in schools had all the suspense of a tenderfoot going up against Wyatt Earp.

The Senate dispatched House Bill 114 on third reading by a 25-3 vote, ending by far the strangest dispute between the two chambers this session.

HB 114, sponsored by Sen. Allen Jaggi (R-Lyman), began as a three-page measure but was expanded to a 14-page behemoth of a bill when it was amended by the Senate Education Committee (SEC).

Originally the bill would have made it legal for concealed carry permit holders to possess guns at public schools, colleges, school and college athletic events and governmental meetings, including the Legislature. Possessing a concealed weapon at all of these places now is illegal.

The House approved the bill 42-17 and sent it to the Senate, where it was quickly dismantled and reassembled into something a little more palatable to the education organizations that all testified against the House version. After hearing testimony from both sides at a public hearing, SEC Chairman Hank Coe (R-Cody) announced there was a standing committee amendment to be considered.

The panel adopted the amendment, which would have allowed concealed weapons in the same places as the House bill, except the governing body of each facility would decide whether to approve the policy, unlike the state mandate in HB 114. If a school board, board of trustees, city council, county commission or the Legislative Management Council chose to allow guns, each permit holder would have to let officials know they were carrying a concealed weapon.

Gun rights advocates, who are never going to be satisfied until they can take their weapons anywhere they damn well please, were outraged by Coe’s substitute bill. The Wyoming Gun Owners group called it a “bad counterfeit” that was turned into a gun control measure. But the full Senate approved it on first reading Monday, and the bill was only amended slightly on second reading to clarify the legality of having weapons in cars in a gun-free school zone. The Senate decided the weapons had to be concealed in vehicles.

Coe unsuccessfully tried to strip that amendment, which was offered by Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper), because he said it does not comply with federal law that requires weapons in vehicles to be unloaded. It didn’t matter, because the Senate then voted on HB 114 and it went down in flames. Only Scott, Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) and Sen. Ray Peterson (R-Cowley) voted for the bill.

Some observers — including your WyPols correspondent — speculated earlier this week the Senate would likely approve the substitute bill, which would set up a joint conference committee so far apart it couldn’t come to any compromise, thus dooming the proposal.

But we were wrong, it didn’t come down to that. The Senate made certain the bill was killed, and given the drubbing it received in the Senate, and the fact the same legislators will be in both houses, there is virtually no chance the issue will come up again in the shorter budget session in 2016.

Did some senators like the idea of concealed handguns in schools and other public places, and voted “no” because they were upset with the Senate bill’s restrictions?

Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) said he doesn’t think that was the case at all. “My understanding is that in the beginning, you might have had a split — some of them for, some of them against the original version of the bill,” Rothfuss said. “When the substitute bill was brought in, the emails and other feedback we were getting was all ‘kill this bill.'”

The senator said there was unconfirmed talk in the Senate that even the National Rifle Association came out against the Senate version of HB 114. “That’s what it came down to,” Rothfuss said. “Both the proponents and opponents were against the bill in its final form.”

In a gloomy session in which Medicaid expansion and an anti-discrimination bill protecting the LGBT population overwhelmingly failed, it was good to see at least one decision that will actually help people. Parents can send their kids to school and people can attend city council meetings without having to fear they will be hit by bullets fired by their self-appointed “protectors.”

 

The Senate passed a House bill Monday to allow people to carry concealed guns at schools, virtually assuring that a bill allowing people to carry guns at schools will not be approved by the Legislature this year.

State senators gave a thumbs up to their own version of House Bill 114, the Wyoming Repeal Gun-Free Zones Act. But a minority of the Senate and a majority of the House view the substitute bill as a gun-control measure, not the gun rights bill they want to see adopted.
Both bills would change existing law to allow people with concealed carry permits to have guns at public schools, colleges, school athletic events and governmental meetings. But unlike the state mandate in HB 114, the Senate version would require the approval of the local governing body, and notification to officials that a person was carrying a concealed gun.

An amendment adopting the Senate changes passed 20-9, and there was wide support for the bill in the subsequent consideration of the bill on first reading. HB 114 will likely pass the Senate on final reading Wednesday, but there’s realistically no chance House members will concur with the Senate’s changes, dooming its passage this session.
The House is much more conservative than the Senate and believes the Second Amendment gives people an absolute right to bear arms. The Senate thinks that right is not absolute and should be reasonably regulated.
Senate President Phil Nicholas (R-Laramie) spelled out the different philosophies:

“As much as you have the right to bear arms, people who send their children to school have every right to determine who they want to be their protectors,” he said. “Just as much as you have the right in your own home to decide if your neighbor can come into your house and defend you, you might say, ‘Look, stay home. I’ll do my own defending or I’ll call the police.'”

Nicholas said all communities are different, and each one should be able to decide the issue.
“The notion that somehow your right to bear arms means you get to go into places where people send their children, and tell those families ‘I’m here for your good, and you have to let me here because I have a concealed weapon,’ that certainly has never been the law of Wyoming in the past,” Nicholas said.
Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) said concealed carry permit holders “are incredibly law-abiding citizens, they’re incredibly careful.”
Case said when there is a mass shooting at a public place, “The reaction people have is to cower, to hide, or try to run away.”

“If you can get away that’s good, but the most important thing to do if you can’t is to fight back with everything you have,” Case said. “It only takes seconds for mayhem to occur. In the time you spent calling 911 you could have rushed the attacker or thrown a trash can at them.

“If you resist them with every effort you have, that’s what you have to do,” he continued. “And if you have a gun, you should use it. You should use that gun, even if you’re not the best shot or weren’t the best marksman, because at that point it’s the only chance you’ll have. That’s what we are trying to do with this bill.”
Case said the idea of using school resource officers in every school can’t possibly work, because it’s cost prohibitive. “They can’t be everywhere in a school,” he noted. “They can’t check every backpack.”
But Sen. Stephan Pappas (R-Cheyenne) said, “Many people in these gun-free zones really have a fear of having concealed weapons in schools. And no one on the other side seems to understand that fear.”

“There’s a place for weapons, and people who should handle weapons in certain situations,” the freshman senator said. “I know that in the military they teach you about crisis situations and how to tell friend from foe. I don ‘t think too many of the gun safety [classes] teach that.”

Pappas said it’s not a one-size-fits-all issue. “Let’s let those local folks decide if they need to allow weapons at a remote school, or not allow weapons at a university football game,” he said.
“I believe it tramples on my rights if someone comes into a school where I have my children, and makes themselves the de facto police force, without training and without [the] knowledge of the administration,” Pappas said.

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Maybe state lawmakers who want to give Wyoming hospitals money to help cover their uncompensated care costs should quit. It seems the harder they try, the less money their colleagues are willing to appropriate.

If this trend doesn’t stop soon, the hospitals will end up owing the state money.
When Senate File 145 was introduced, it contained $10 million to be distributed to Wyoming’s 26 hospitals. The Senate reduced it to $5 million and sent the measure to the House, which briefly added $1 million Tuesday before opponents successfully passed an amendment to drop the total to $1 million.
Rep. Elaine Harvey (R-Lovell), chairwoman of the House Labor, Health and Social Services Committee, sponsored an earlier amendment that would provide $1 million to hospitals through a grant program, in addition to the $5 million the Senate OK’d. It passed the House.

But Rep. Mike Greear (R-Worland) came back immediately with an amendment that stripped Harvey’s changes from the bill, and made the $1 million grant program the only source of funds available.
Unlike the Senate’s bill, which made funds available to all hospitals, Greear’s amendment makes the money only available to the state’s smallest acute care hospitals with the largest amounts of charity care — and only if they apply for and receive a state grant.

If SF 145 leaves the House with Greear’s changes intact, a joint conference committee will need to find a compromise both chambers can accept. If they don’t reach an agreement before the Legislature adjourns, the bill will die and no additional funds will go to hospitals.

Lawmakers could have avoided this problem entirely if they had passed Medicaid expansion, which would have provided the state an estimated $125 million a year to help cover 17,600 low-income adults who are now uninsured. But the Senate rejected the program’s expansion by an 11-19 vote, and an attempt by House members to add it to the state budget bill failed, 15-41.

On Tuesday during the bill’s second reading, Rep. Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne) said he does not believe the vast majority of hospitals need the money. He said he began adding up the amount of new construction at hospitals in the past three years, and stopped tabulating at $330 million.

“In [Laramie County] alone it was $100 million,” Nicholas said. “The idea we have to do this because somebody is going to go out of business or is not going to care for anybody is simply incorrect.”

He maintained hospitals in Wyoming all calculate their costs differently, which leads to large variations in their total uncompensated care. “Do we really know if they’re not getting funded 100 percent of their costs?” he asked. “Of course not, because we don’t know what their cost is versus another hospital’s costs.”

Nicholas said the Wyoming Business Report in 2013 had an article about how all of the state’s hospitals are doing well and many are expanding. “They said it’s one of the great things about Wyoming, that we’re able to fund it all,” he recalled. “And yet here today people are saying we’re trying to stop [hospital] doors from closing.”

Nicholas acknowledged “one or two hospitals” do need money, and said the $1 million grant program will take care of them. Giving money to hospitals that don’t need it “is sending the wrong signal about what we want to do,” he said.

Rep. Marti Halverson (R-Etna) maintained all critical access hospitals in Wyoming and throughout the nation calculate their uncompensated care the same way, using a federal formula. Harvey said the reason there is a wide difference in the hospitals’ total amounts is because some facilities have more low-income patients than others.

Halverson blamed federal regulations as the reason why some smaller hospitals needed to expand their facilities, even though they had to spend reserves and borrow money to do it.
Rep. Mike Madden (R-Buffalo) said the state “doesn’t have enough money to be throwing it around indiscriminately.”

“What we’re doing is passing out money according to the biggest number that we can find here without any regard to whether they need it or not,” he added.
Rep. Allen Jaggi (R-Lyman) took umbrage at Madden’s comment about the state’s lack of funds, given how much the Legislature has just spent for the state’s supplemental budget needs.

“If you’re going to be scrutinizing this amount of money [for hospitals] that are providing services to people all around the state, I would like to look at the agencies we’re funding, the colleges, the university, [with] that same scrutiny,” Jaggi said.

The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper), continued his opposition to the $5 million for hospitals that he led on Monday during the bill’s initial reading.
Harshman said he backed Greear’s amendment because “it kind of zeroes in on the hospitals most at risk.” He also said he would like to see rural hospitals work together to centralize their services on a regional basis, but believes it won’t happen because “everyone’s worried about their own territory.”

“I just worry this bill comes in and we can say that we did something [for hospitals] because we didn’t expand Medicaid,” Harshman said, noting Medicaid costs were split 90 percent federal, 10 percent state. “That’s what these hospitals really all want, and we said no to that, and I think we’re trying to do something now that, frankly, I think makes us feel a little better.”

“This [amendment] is a solution to help keep those hospitals from closing their doors. … We have a gaping wound and we’re putting a band-aid on it [with $5 million]; we will at least cauterize that wound for those hospitals that are about to bleed out,” Greear said.

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Friday was the day Democratic (and a few Republican) House members got a chance to tell the majority “We told you so.”

It was sweet.

Senate File 145, which would provide $5 million to Wyoming hospitals to help them recoup a small portion of their uncompensated care costs, was being debated. Republican leaders spent the afternoon bitching and moaning about how unjust it is to ask state government to throw money away helping hospitals stay in business, and how we can’t afford it.

No one cried louder or harder than Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, who tried to push through an amendment to reduce the amount from $5 million to $3.3 million.

Rep. Allen Jaggi (R-Lyman) reminded the House the bill began in the Senate with a $10 million appropriation that was cut in half. He said he didn’t understand why reducing it any more was a good idea.

Harshman railed that the very idea of state help for hospitals was “unprecedented.” He urged the body to be careful, because who knows how much the hospitals could come back and ask for next year?

He said it’s unfair for the hospitals not to identify which ones are most in need of help to stay open, and why their fortunes went south. “Is it poor management?” the chairman asked. “We don’t know, because it’s all confidential.”

Except it really isn’t, at least for the first part. Legislators had a handout that showed the levels of uncompensated care each hospital has, so it isn’t difficult to figure out which ones are in the most dire straits. And even if part of the reason is indeed poor management decisions, is the state really going to respond by just watching hospital after hospital close in small rural communities and make residents drive hundreds of miles for health care?

Not if these guys expect to return to their comfortable House chairs in two years.

Rep. Elaine Harvey (R-Lovell) maintained the issue of state assistance isn’t unprecedented, because the state helped hospitals purchase helicopters for life flights several years ago.

“We have done this before,” she insisted.

Harshman responded that the helicopter purchases weren’t the same thing as SF 145 asks for, so it is unprecedented. It was the legislative equivalent of yelling, “Is not! Is not!”

Harvey said the hospitals’ needs are critical — one has only 19 days of cash reserves on hand, while others have 27 days, 51 days, and two have 54 days. In fact, she said, only a single critical access hospital in the state has more than 200 days in cash reserves.

That number is important, Harvey explained, because the number of medical billing codes is increasing from 9,000 to 60,000, and inexperienced coders will cause delays. “The last time this happened, it took 200 days from billing to payment, she said.

As for the conservative GOP line that the state can’t afford the expenditure, Harvey shot back, “We can’t balance the budget on the backs of hospitals.” Strike one!

But supporters of SF 145 were only getting warmed up. House Minority Floor Leader Mary Throne (D-Cheyenne) said, “This bill is already a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. Medicaid [expansion] was the solution, and we rejected it.”

If the Republican leadership of both houses hadn’t insisted on sinking the expansion, Medicaid would have started reimbursing hospitals for some of the care they now give the Medicaid-eligible who can’t afford to pay.

Throughout the Medicaid expansion debate, opponents pretended they were seeking a “Wyoming solution” to the problem of providing health care to the working poor. The state Department of Health negotiated such a solution with the feds when it sought a waiver for a state demonstration project, but the House and Senate flatly rejected it even though it didn’t cost the state a dime.

“If we’re going to look for the Wyoming solution, then we’re going to have to spend Wyoming money,” Throne said. Strike two!

The House rejected reducing the appropriation to $3.3 million. Next up was SF 145 itself. Rep. Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) spoke in favor of the measure, and reiterated that lawmakers had a chance to take care of the problem and adopt Medicaid expansion but didn’t.

Rep. Mark Greear (R-Worland) said hospitals were responsible for putting the state “underwater $1.1 million.” He also claimed the corporate-owned hospital in his district would get $365,000 if SF 145 passes, even though it made a profit last year.

Greear said the bill isn’t the fix the state needs, but he urged moving it to second reading to keep working on it.

Rep. Donald Burkhart (R-Rawlins) was hardly in such a generous mood. “This bill is a mess,” he said. “Kill it now.”

Rep. Ken Esquibel (D-Cheyenne) said he was tired of hearing the claim the state’s budget is “under water.”

“If we wanted to we could transfer $2 billion tomorrow and cover all of the uncompensated care,” he said. “We’ve been acting more like a bank than a government.” Strike three! Game, set and match. [Insert your own sports metaphor here.]

Rep. Stan Blake (D-Green River) stuck in the final dagger: “We put ourselves in this mess, but we decided not to [expand Medicaid],” he said. “We had our shot and we didn’t take it.”

Left unsaid was an obvious truth: While Democrats consistently said “we decided,” it was the majority of Republicans who decided and blew it.

SF 145 passed its initial reading in the House with 30 standing votes when the losers asked for a division after the voice vote. But they will need more support: Passage on third and final reading requires a “yes” vote from a majority of those elected to the House. Sixty are elected, so 31 is a majority.

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When someone calls the “WeTip” phone line in Wyoming, it is answered in California. Whoever picks up the phone writes down the information and sends it in the mail back to the Cowboy State.

The school safety tip takes several days to arrive, and it may not have even been sent to the right person. Whenever it’s opened, whatever emergency someone wanted to convey (“Tony plans to take a gun to school,” “Terri wants to kill herself”) is way too late.

This system, which is administered through the Department of Education, costs $50,000 a year. In seven years, there have been about 200 calls, and there isn’t a single documented case that it’s ever helped anyone in Wyoming at all because there is absolutely no accountability for results.

Fortunately, the Wyoming Legislature has approved a new system based on a successful one in Colorado, “Safe2Tell,” that has great potential to do what such lines are supposed to: prevent tragedies and save lives.

But it almost didn’t happen.

House Bill 144 was passed by the Senate 16-13 Thursday, creating the new program, which will be part of the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI). Opponents who no doubt will go home, as they have before, and tell voters they are for school safety measures tried to kill Safe2Tell with everything they had, including bogus information about what it does and doesn’t do.

For one of the few times this legislative session, the good guys won. It wasn’t easy, and the story about how HB 144 was narrowly approved should be told to voters. We’ll get to that in a moment, but first you need some background about how the program originated, how it is structured and how it will operate.

The Joint Education Committee was assigned to develop ways to make our schools safer. The members worked with the Office of Homeland Security and the Department of Education for the past year, and came up with a three-pronged approach that was quickly two-thirds de-pronged by officials who said the entire proposal was too expensive.

The two parts jettisoned would have had more school resource officers trained and assigned to schools, and architectural changes to school buildings to improve overall safety.

Safe2Tell is what survived, and it’s modeled on a Colorado program that has been extremely successful. The concept is based on this fact: Children don’t want to tell on their friends to parents or other adults, but they often know things going on at school that are dangerous and/or life-threatening.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Hank Coe (R-Cody) noted during debate Thursday that in 81 percent of cases of violence at U.S. schools, somebody besides the perpetrator knew something was going to happen, but didn’t tell anyone.

That’s a staggering statistic. Potentially four out of five violent school incidents might be prevented if authorities had advance knowledge.

Colorado launched a massive education program that directed students to call the Safe2Tell phone number, where they can anonymously tell an adult if they fear something bad is about to happen. It could be a student planning to kill classmates, or a classmate considering suicide, a victim of child abuse, or someone being extremely bullied, either physically or via cyber-bullying. Trained dispatchers at the DCI’s call center will obtain information, assess each threat, and notify the proper authorities so it can be immediately acted upon.

The program’s goal to break the “code of silence” is being reached. Here’s just one example of violence that was prevented: A 16-year-old high school student west of Denver was arrested and convicted of illegal gun possession after a tipster reported his MySpace page showed photos of the teen posing with numerous guns and rifles. The student had written that “people deserve to die.”

The student was expelled and he served time in a detention facility.

Safe2Tell Colorado has also been responsible for preventing several suicides at various stages of planning. Wyoming has consistently had one of the highest suicide rates in the nation, especially for teens.

The program is based on the Columbine Commission’s recommendation that students need a safe and anonymous way to keep lines of communication open. It started slow, but in four years the hotline has received more than 3,900 calls, resulting in 159 investigations, 23 arrests, and 127 calls interrupted a plan or triggered an intervention.

Out-of-state operators who have no responsibility to do anything except send a letter will be replaced in Wyoming by professionals who will follow up on each call. The Senate approved five new positions at DCI: three at the call center who will make sure the facility operates 24/7, 365 days of the year; an outreach coordinator who will visit school districts throughout the state to build awareness of Safe2Tell; and a director.

The House cut the positions from five to three. The Senate adopted the Education Committee’s full recommendation, which will cost $410,000 per biennium. Part of the price tag is a one-time software purchase that’s needed to make the program operate effectively. All of the money will come out of the School Foundation Program (SFP), which is separate from the state’s General Fund, which funds the bulk of state government operations.

A joint conference committee will have to agree on the number of positions and total appropriation. But the important thing that happened Thursday is the fact there will even be a program at all, and that right-wing conservatives in the Senate weren’t able to kill it under the guise of saving state funds or keeping government small.

But they certainly tried.

The Senate included a sunset measure that will require DCI officials to return in 2019 and report on whether Safe2Tell has worked or not. Proponents had no problem with that change, because it’s a reasonable check on how the money is being spent.

Supporters beat back two other proposed changes in the Senate: one to cut the new positions from five to four, and the other to split costs between the SFP and the DCI, which is under the Attorney General’s Office and receives its appropriation from the General Fund.

Coe argued the program has been thoroughly vetted and five positions are needed for the endeavor to be most effective. Why handicap a system from the very start, unless you just want to see it fail?

The SFP/DCI funding split makes sense and can be tried in later years, supporters said, but it’s too late in the budget process to do it now.

Conservatives still went on an all-out blitz to kill the program. They were led by Sen. Drew Perkins (R-Casper), the only member of the Senate Education Committee who voted against HB 144 in committee.

Perkins said national suicide hotlines are available for students to call, and for everything else, 911 can handle the problem. He complained about an initial estimate of only 720 calls a year in Wyoming, compared to more than 3,000 in Colorado.

Uh, senator, have you ever noticed that Colorado has quite a few more people than we do?

Perkins criticized Coe’s argument that if the system can save only one life, it’s worth the investment. “All we’re doing is throwing money at a problem,” he said.

Perkins then maintained that local authorities should be able to handle every threat without outside help, a premise which is patently false. “We’re taking local responsibility and moving it to the state level,” he said.

He said Safe2Tell could result in false reporting to get students — he specifically mentioned the captain of the football team — in trouble.

Sen. Bruce Burns (R-Sheridan) maintained if someone is from outside the capital city, “Calling someone in Cheyenne doesn’t do you any good.” But it will, because trained dispatchers will be able to immediately reach any resource in the state that can potentially help.

Supporters, armed with good, factual information, countered the assault.

Sen. Jim Anderson (R-Glenrock) said Safe2Tell will be “like having another set of eyes and ears out there” to protect us from threats we may not have any other way of knowing exist. As a former educator, he understands the type of threats that can happen at schools — he’s had to deal with students carrying guns, knives and homemade weapons.

Sen. Bill Landen (R-Casper), a college administrator, stressed that “kids aren’t going to tell [adults] much, because they don’t want to rat out their friends.” But he added if they can provide a warning anonymously, as the Colorado program has proven, they are much more likely to reveal what they know.

“They’re not going to call 911,” Landen said.

It will take a vigorous outreach campaign to educate everyone at Wyoming schools that Safe 2Tell really is the place where it’s “safe to tell.”

Not surprisingly, given his objection to the entire program, that outreach coordinator is the position Perkins tried to kill.

Update: On Friday morning, the House refused to agree to Senate changes to HB 144. The issue will have to be worked out in a conference committee. If both sides do not agree by the end of the session, the bill will die.

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The House’s large pro-gun contingent watched the Senate Education Committee approve its Wyoming Repeal (of) Gun Free Zones Act on Wednesday morning, and still walked away mad as hell.

That’s because instead of passing the three-page House Bill 114 the panel considered, the chairman of the committee sponsored an amendment about four times longer that in effect was a completely new bill.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Allen Jaggi (R-Lyman), said he felt blindsided by the substitute bill and thinks it’s unconstitutional, because he claims it isn’t germane to his original bill.

Coe said he wanted to amend HB 114 to give more local control to school districts, colleges and government agencies to decide whether they want people with concealed carry permits to be able to have guns on their premises. The committee heard a slew of educational representatives Wednesday who said gun-free zones should not be a state mandate, but an issue decided locally.

Local control is an issue dear to the hearts of Wyoming’s conservatives — unless it means they can’t have their way. When that happens watch out, brothers and sisters, because fire and brimstone will soon be flying.

Coe’s amendment required the institutions, schools or government agencies where guns could be legally carried under the bill to first approve that policy, then anyone with a weapon would need to notify the appropriate authority they are armed. Areas where concealed weapons would be allowed must be posted.

Supporters of the original HB 114 maintained the Second Amendment already gives them an absolute right to be armed. But Coe said reasonable regulation of guns is necessary, and it’s best to leave the issue in the hands of local elected officials.

“I’m very disappointed that you have a substitute bill. Usually we don’t do that,” Jaggi scolded Coe. “We have amendments to the bill, and then we make a substitute bill. You never gave me the courtesy of seeing this and have any input on it.”

“I understand your concern, but we do incorporate in there the five points you have [in HB 114],” Coe responded. “This was never intended to be a substitute bill. It was brought to us as a standing committee amendment.”

That explanation might have been more effective had the words “substitute bill” not appeared in the upper right-hand corner of the amendment. One of HB 114’s original sponsors, Rep. Garry Piiparinen (R-Evanston), immediately asked for his name to be taken off the bill, and Jaggi told reporters he couldn’t support the measure as amended by the committee.

Jaggi said Utah has allowed people with concealed carry permits to take weapons to school, colleges and public buildings for 15 years, allegedly without any problems.

“There has been no blood in the streets and no major incidents in their schools,” he asserted.

At the same time, the legislator said, he respects private property rights, and if someone wants to ban weapons from their property, he’s OK with it.

Republican legislators who support the House version yielded their time to speak to John Lott of Chicago, author of “More Guns, Less Crime.” Lott said his research shows people with concealed carry permits are more law-abiding than police officers, and can be trusted to handle their guns safely.

Gun-free zones, he maintained, “serve as a magnet” to unhinged people who want to shoot up a school, theater or mall. He cited several instances of mass shooters who carefully eliminated potential targets because there might be people with guns, in favor of places with unarmed victims who can’t defend themselves.

Lynn Hutchings, a former Republican state representative from Cheyenne who lost her bid for the Senate last year, said she was a target of “vile and vicious” abuse — including death threats — because she spoke out in favor of gun rights in 2013.

Charles Curley asked the committee to “vote on the facts, not the what-ifs.” Several of the pro-gun speakers said opponents routinely develop scenarios about gun violence that are not based in reality.

Anthony Bouchard, president of the Wyoming Gun Owners Association, said he was treated much better in Utah when he openly carried his gun at a mall. “They said, ‘If it wasn’t for good guys like you, the bad guys will come,'” he recalled.

Well, there you go. If Utah is your idea of gun heaven, Mr. Bouchard, what are you doing here? We’ll help you pack your moving van. For free. Now.

Rachel Stevens, president of the University of Wyoming Staff Senate, said a survey with 1,355 respondents showed the vast majority expressed concern that concealed carry permit holders may not have the level of training that’s necessary in cases where there is an active shooter on campus.

If you listen for very long to gun rights advocates who have concealed carry permits, they make it sound as if they’ve earned the equivalent of a master’s degree in gun training and knowledge.

The vice president of the UW Staff Senate, Aaron Sullivan, said he’s a veteran and hunter, but all he had to do to get a concealed carry permit in Wyoming was pay $79 and show his hunter safety card. “I couldn’t believe it was that easy,” he said.

Sullivan said what he’s really worried about is if HB 114 passes, guns would be allowed at UW athletic contests.

“I don’t know if you’ve been there, but there are a lot of intoxicated people at UW football games,” he noted.

A Cheyenne East High School senior said a poll she did prior to the meeting showed 39 students said they would feel safer with guns at school, 21 were neutral, and 102 said they would feel unsafe. She said if students don’t feel safe in their environment, “they can’t learn.”

Matt Strannigan, assistant superintendent of schools at Laramie County School District No. 1 in Cheyenne, said he knows from his time as a principal that the idea of guns in school “panics students.”

Both people who ran for state superintendent of public instruction last year — Republican winner Jillian Balow and Democratic challenger Mike Ceballos — testified against HB 114.

Ceballos said Wyoming needs a long-term, sustainable safety plan. “We need to think about the students,” he said.

Balow said she is a gun owner and strong believer in Second Amendment rights, but she believes any decisions about whether to allow concealed guns at schools “should be made at the local level.”

Recalling her days as a teacher, she said, “I don’t know if I would want to carry a weapon in the classroom.”

Voting for the amended version of HB 114 were Coe, Sen. Stephan Pappas (R-Cheyenne) and Sen. James Anderson (R-Glenrock).Voting against the bill were Sen. Dan Dockstader (R-Afton) and Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie).

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A Senate bill to create a $100,000 federal public lands study had no trouble breezing through the House Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee by an 8-1 vote Monday morning.

The bill originally said the study would focus on the transfer of federal lands to the state, but it was quickly amended in the Senate to limit its scope to the state’s potential cost of managing federal lands.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) said the bill was controversial in the Senate, where it ran into opposition from every sportsmen’s group in the state except one. On Monday no one from the public spoke against the proposal, though Jill Morrison of the Powder River Basin Resource Council asked whether the study will also examine mineral rights on federal land.

No one on the committee knew, but Chairman Tom Lockhart (R-Casper) said the panel will find out the answer.

Bebout, chaiman of the Select Federal Natural Resource Management Committee, the bill’s sponsor, told the House panel Senate File 56 was intended to be a study that looked at the cost to the state if federal public lands in Wyoming were ever transferred to the management of the State Office of Lands and Investment (SOLI). The bill would require the study to be delivered to the select committee by November 2016.

The House passed HB 209 earlier this session, which would have Wyoming join several other Western states to demand the federal government return public lands to the respective states. The land was originally ceded to states, but the feds took over management when the states had trouble footing the bill.

HB 209 is now languishing in the Senate, where it has not been discussed by a committee. Rep. Marti Halverson (R-Etna) told the House Minerals Committee that the measure doesn’t demand anything from the federal government.

Bebout said there was initially a lot of “misinformation” about SF 56.

“We never intended to do a transfer of federal lands to the state,” he said. “We just want to study the issue so we know how much management would cost if the federal government ever decides it does want the state to take control.

“The question is ‘can we do a better job of management for less money?'” Bebout added. “The outcome of the study hasn’t been predetermined, but I believe we can.”

He said Wyoming has wasted a lot of opportunities for increased minerals revenue in recent years because the federal permitting process for energy development is so slow.

Bebout said the bill contains a pledge that the state of Wyoming will retain public access to public lands for hunting, fishing, camping and other recreational opportunities.

Halverson, who is not a member of the committee, said she believes public access will actually improve if the state takes over management of federal public lands.

She added the state of Wyoming would have no incentive to sell any land it does acquire from the feds, because the state would only receive 5 percent of the net proceeds while the federal government would get 95 percent.

Bob Wharff, executive director of the Wyoming chapter of the Utah-based Sportsmen for Fish & Wildlife organization, which promotes privatization, said his is the only sportsmen’s group that has endorsed SF 56.

Other organizations speaking in favor of the legislation included the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation and the Wyoming Stock Growers Association.

Richard Garrett, policy analyst with the Wyoming Outdoor Council (WOC), said there are “some cautions that we all share about this bill, most importantly that the study not be conducted in a biased way — if it’s not directed toward an outcome it will better inform all of us.”

The WOC spokesman added, “One of the first issues this committee should look at is if the federal agencies are willing to be managed — do they have the statutory authority to allow the state of Wyoming to manage [federal] public lands? After determining that, you could proceed with a study.”

Garrett said he will suggest an amendment to find the answer to that question be presented to the entire House when the bill hits the floor for debate.

Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) said he didn’t vote for HB 209, but he became convinced SF 56 is needed. He pointed out 80 percent of the land in his county is under federal ownership.

“Every citizen in my district is affected by decisions made on those lands, whether it’s recreation or business development,” he said. “The safeguards we put in place are very, very important.”

Sommers offered an amendment to boost the appropriation for the study to $200,000, but he was its only supporter. The rest of the committee decided if more money is needed, the SOLI can come back and request it at next year’s budget session.

“I feel this bill has a lot of steam behind it,” Lockhart said.

Byrd said he believes the entire bill could be put off until next year, but he couldn’t sell the committee on delaying it. He said he still has some issues with the bill he will probably bring up on the House floor.

“The split estate, the costs, the addressing of water issues related to this — too many unanswered questions, especially with the mineral estate. I’d like it, Mr. Chairman, if you could somehow make me feel warm and fuzzy about this, maybe I could be a ‘yes’ vote,” Byrd said. “I like the idea but I’m not there.”

However, he was the only legislator on the nine-member committee who voted “no.”

“I guess I didn’t make you warm and fuzzy,” Lockhart said to laughter

 

Josh Coursey, president/CEO of Muley Fanatics in Green River, said in an interview he’s irritated that SF 56 has gained momentum in the House despite the fact other Western states have spent far more, only to conclude such management transfers are cost prohibitive for state management.

 

He said the notion federal ownership is infringing on state rights was addressed by the State Land and Investment Office last year when it was found to be unconstitutional.

 

“Why is this continuing to come up?” Coursey asked. “It seems to be a moot point and a poor use of time.”

 

Coursey said public lands belong “to the 330 million Americans that make this country the greatest nation on earth.”

 

“I can attest from my prior military service that I have multiple friends of whom I served with that consider our public lands just as much theirs as mine,” he added. “As a Wyoming native and resident, I consider myself a trustee of these lands for all Americans. I am sure those voices would have to be heard if such efforts gained serious momentum.”

 

Coursey said the potential loss of public land access that comes with state lands, the loss of multiple use management and the processes to ensure all interests are given consideration, and cost associated with administering federal lands, “makes this dialogue of potential possibility a notion that is nothing short of troubling.”