Authors Posts by Publius

Publius

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Want to see how your legislator is voting but don’t like the Wyoming Legislature website? Well, check out the amazing work at OpenStates.org. They only update their data every 30 days, so it will not work for up the minute coverage. But it will allow you to easily search, filter, and even extract legislator voting history for the past few years. Check them out, we are big fans of the civic hacking done by the Sunlight Foundation!

 

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Here’s a tip: Don’t walk into a bakery and ask for a dozen of Wyoming’s state cookie. You may wonder why. Do they taste like sawdust?

No, the problem is they don’t exist. The House made sure of that Tuesday morning, when supporters of a bill making chocolate chip the official Wyoming cookie was killed by one vote.

A majority of representatives voted for the bill, 39-20, but during the budget session, it takes a super majority, or two-thirds, to be introduced. Bills that win approval are assigned to committees, which review the proposals and either kill them or send the bills back for the entire House to consider.

This law-making process was what the 60 fourth graders at Goins Elementary School in Cheyenne wanted to study, but the real-life example they chose to introduce – the cookie bill – was defeated despite some intense lobbying by its sponsor, freshman Rep. Lee Filer (D-Cheyenne), and the students themselves.

Filer’s 10-year-old daughter Vanessa, a Goins fourth grader, came up with the idea after doing some research about state symbols. She discovered that Massachusetts is the only state that has an official state cookie: chocolate chip. A similar proposal also honoring chocolate chip cookies is pending in the Pennsylvania Legislature, but Wyoming blew its chance to be second.

Vanessa said chocolate chip is her favorite cookie, too.

There was talk before the vote that the thin mint lobby may have have talked trash to some legislators about inferior ingredients in chocolate chip cookies, but it was just a rumor. Pure conjecture. All right, we just made it up.

Before the vote Tuesday morning, Filer let his colleagues know what was at stake. “I promise you right now that there will be a lot of good cookies here if you vote to advance the bill,” he said.

The lawmaker said the most important aspect of his bill was to educate the Goins students. “This is a great learning opportunity for those children … let’s get them involved in these processes,” he said.

His daughter took it all in stride. “I feel like sometimes you win or lose, it happens,” said a very grown-up sounding Vanessa, who added she will break the news to her teacher and classmates when she goes to school Wednesday morning.

Vanessa served as an honorary page in the House later in the afternoon. She said she had fun and enjoyed meeting everyone, and I didn’t have the heart to tell her that 20 people there had crushed her and her classmates’ dreams. Since she comes from a political family, she may already know but is so young that she can still forgive and forget.

Update: The cookie bill may not be dead after all. When she was done in the House she went over to the other side of the Capitol to lobby a couple of senators.

“They may try to introduce it in the Senate tomorrow,” her father said, smiling as the House adjourned for the afternoon. “It may still be alive. We’ll know by noon Wednesday,” which is the deadline for bills to be introduced.

Vanessa Filer had just learned an important political lesson: When a bill dies, it doesn’t always stay dead. It can be revived in a number of procedural ways, or, as in this case, supporters can turn to sympathetic lawmakers in the other chamber.

Hopefully there won’t be as many grinches in the 30-member Senate, and the bill will get at least 22 votes so it can be introduced.

Just in case, though, maybe Vanessa and her little friends should have Cookie Monster in the Senate lobby to help them. His grace and charm as he snatches and eats every cookie in sight should be enough to sway a few votes. Or maybe he could agree to leave the senators alone if they just pass the bill.

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A bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana in Wyoming was overwhelmingly defeated Tuesday morning, 15-45.

Or, as House Speaker Tom Lubnau (R-Gillette) joked to much laughter after the vote total was announced, “House Bill 49 has gone up in smoke.” He voted against the bill.

Rep. James Byrd (D-Cheyenne), said he didn’t think the bill he sponsored would pass during the budget session. Still, the issue was no laughing matter to him.

Byrd explained that House Bill 49 would have reduced the penalty for possessing an ounce of marijuana to a $100 civil fine, and $50 for a half-ounce.

“The reason for this is the [high] incarceration rate,” he told his colleagues. Byrd handed out a report from the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation that tracked marijuana arrests in the state for the past five years. In 2012, 1,295 adult males and 386 females were arrested. The totals for juveniles were 330 for males and 119 for females. All categories except adult males rose since 2008.

Byrd said his measure would help alleviate a problem that is choking the court system.

“Please keep in mind that this is not legalizing marijuana,” the Democrat stressed. “It only reduces the penalties for small amounts.”

Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, tried to explain why he opposed the bill, starting with Colorado’s legalization of small amounts of pot that went into effect this year.

“What’s going on south of us, where it’s an all-cash business and the [drug] cartels are moving in – this is a real serious issue … Let’s send the right message to our kids.

“There are other ways to do this,” the Casper teacher and football coach added. “You could take the jail time out and do other penalties, but boy, you don’t want to turn this into just a misdemeanor. This is a slope we do not want to go down.”

He said Wyoming’s legitimate businesses shouldn’t have to be affected by Colorado’s legalization of marijuana. “Shell corporations have now located just across the [Wyoming-Colorado] border with millions of dollars in cash,” the Republican said. It was not clear exactly what point he was trying to make, but his time elapsed.

Several dozen protesters rallied outside the front of the Capitol Building in chilly weather Monday, as Gov. Matt Mead gave his annual “State of the State” address to a joint (pun intended) session of the Legislature. The governor, who has spoken against legalization and decriminalization efforts, did not mention HB 49.

Monday’s rally was organized by the Wyoming Chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). The director of the group, Chris Christian of Jackson, said NORML is coordinating an initiative petition to try to put the issue on the ballot in 2016 if the Legislature won’t act sooner.

She told James Chilton of the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, “There’s a lot more support out there than government, this Legislature, thinks there is for this. And these old boys need to wake up and smell the roses.”

Byrd said if the group is not successful obtaining enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot in two years, he would be willing to reintroduce his bill.

Nays Ayes
Baker (R) Blake (D)
Barlow (R) Byrd (D)
Berger (R) Connolly (D)
Blevins (R) Esquibel K. (D)
Blikre (R) Filer (D)
Brown (R) Gingery (R)
Burkhart (R) Goggles (D)
Campbell (R) Halverson (R)
Cannady (R) Kroeker (R)
Coleman (R) Loucks (R)
Davison (R) Miller (R)
Eklund (R) Petroff (R)
Freeman (D) Throne (D)
Gay (R) Wilson (R)
Greear (R) Zwonitzer Dn. (R)
Greene (R)
Harshman (R)
Harvey (R)
Hunt (R)
Hutchings (R)
Jaggi (R)
Kasperik (R)
Kirkbride (R)
Krone (R)
Larsen (R)
Lockhart (R)
Lubnau (R)
Madden (R)
Mader (R)
McKim (R)
Moniz (R)
Nicholas B (R)
Northrup (R)
Patton (R)
Paxton (R)
Piiparinen (R)
Reeder (R)
Semlek (R)
Sommers (R)
Stubson (R)
Teeters (R)
Walters (R)
Watt (R)
Winters (R)
Zwonitzer Dv. (R)

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Brown replied. “And I am not repentant. And I would point out one thing about that bill.”

At a news conference of the Legislature’s Republican and Democratic leaders on Monday, Cheyenne KGWN-TV’s Robert Geha opened up the questioning with a zinger for Rep. Kermit Brown (R-Laramie), House majority floor leader.

“Have you repented for your sins on that secret search bill at UW [last session]? I think it was House Bill 143.”

The legislator stepped up to the microphone, obviously confused. “What was that bill?” he asked the reporter.

“The secret search bill,” answered Geha, his station’s anchorman and political reporter.

“The secret search bill,” Brown repeated. “And what was your question precisely?”

The newsman, grinning, responded, “Have you repented for your sins?”

“I don’t consider it a sin,” Brown replied. “And I am not repentant. And I would point out one thing about that bill.”

The measure in question, which was approved by the Legislature and allowed to become law by Gov. Matt Mead without his signature, was sponsored by Brown in 2013 after a judge ruled against the state in a lawsuit filed by several media organizations. They had asked the court to make the University of Wyoming reveal the names of the finalists for the institution’s new president.

Brown’s bill allows UW and community colleges to keep the finalists’ names secret if it’s found to be in the best interests of the public to do so.

“It’s an option for the board of trustees,” he explained. “It does not mandate it; it does not say [the search] has to be private, it does not say it has to be open.

“… When can that be in the public interest?” Brown asked. “We know in the last search that we had some sitting presidents of institutions who dropped out when it became apparent that their names were going to be publicized.”

The UW Board of Trustees ultimately chose Bob Sternberg, provost at Oklahoma State University. He resigned just four months into the job due to controversy about how he quickly terminated several UW officials, including the provost and two deans.

Brown said the bill allows the trustees to keep the finalists’ names private “if we get the opportunity to get this particular individual, and that’s the only way we can get that individual, then maybe they play the card.”

“This guy [Sternberg] walks away with $400,000,” Geha said. “Was he one of the ones who was going to withdraw his name?”

“He did not withdraw, he stayed in,” Brown said. “And it’s true that he’s getting severance pay, but you’re not going to bring individuals to the University of Wyoming with the high exposure that they have, and say to that person, ‘Well, we’re going to hire you as an at-will employee. The day that we are tired of you, you’re gone. No severance pay, no moving expenses, no nothing; you’re just gone. And we hope your family can get along until you can find the next job.’

“That’s not the way it’s done with these kind of people,” Brown explained. “You can’t hire them on that basis. … There is some severance pay, I think [Sternberg] is still living in the house that UW provided. I think he has that option until the 1st of May. He does have another job, and I’m happy for him.

“But you can’t treat these people that way and get the quality of the person you want for that job.”

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Republican Sen. Phil Nicholas, said state workers are better off than comparable private sector employees because of the state's “pretty rich, generous benefit package for its employees.”

To Democratic Sen. Chris Rothfuss of Laramie, the state employee pay hike proposed by Gov. Matt Mead isn’t even big enough to qualify as an actual “raise.”

“It’s a hedge against inflation,” Rothfuss, a chemical engineer and consultant, told a joint news conference held by leaders of both parties Monday after the governor’s annual “State of the State” address. He said the proposal would only maintain the state workers’ purchasing power relative to last year, and workers won’t really gain anything.

But his fellow Laramie colleague, Republican Sen. Phil Nicholas, said state workers are better off than comparable private sector employees because of the state’s “pretty rich, generous benefit package for its employees.”

Gov. Matt Mead proposed a 2.5 percent pay increase for both state workers and employees of the University of Wyoming, community colleges and public school teachers. The Joint Appropriations Committee, which is responsible for making budget recommendations to the full Legislature, cut both requests to 2 percent, a total of about $10.5 million less than Mead’s proposal.

The governor listed the state employee pay raises as one of his top legislative priorities during the budget session that began Monday. Last winter, Wyoming lawmakers rejected Mead’s proposal for an $11 million pay package for executive branch, university, community college and judiciary non-judge employees.

Instead, the Legislature approved a 1 percent one-time employee retention payment, which was aimed at reducing turnover in the executive branch, which had climbed to 15 percent.

Coupled with no ongoing raises during the past four years, Rothfuss said, state employees have seen their take-home purchasing power eroded by about 10 percent. Add increases in health care costs and hikes in the contributions state employees make to their retirement plans, the Senate minority floor leader said, and “the fact is we’ve hurt our public employees pretty significantly over the past four years due to our financial concerns.”

He was referring to the reluctance of lawmakers in both parties to pass salary increases at the same time state agencies had their budgets cut by an average of 6 percent.

“It was not unjustified,” Rothfuss said of the legislators’ fiscal concerns, “and it was certainly not with any spite or vengeance that we did those things. But the reality is that we eroded their pay, and this is our opportunity to start making that right.”

But Nicholas, an attorney who is the Senate majority floor leader, maintained that most state workers are in a better position than their counterparts in the private sector.

“We pay for more than half of their retirement benefits,” he noted. “We continue to be worried about the solvency of the retirement plan. It’s 70 percent funded, but we would like to see that closer to 100 percent. We’re going to continue the effort to help shore up the pension plan.”

Nicholas said the JAC heard “a lot of testimony that we might be losing employees, but we’re also having an easy time replacing them.”

Some workers are leaving their private employment to go back to or start a career in government, the Republican said, because they would have better benefits and retirement plans.

Nicholas said he can see the points of view of people outside UW, who say university employees’ benefits look pretty good, and the UW community, which says it has to compete on a national level to both recruit and retain top professors.

Nicholas said the leadership in both chambers have not taken a position on the proposed raises.

“You’re going to see a strong debate,” he predicted. “We’ve made sure in the salary debate that we’re not talking about what our revenues are.”

Rothfuss, though, said a discussion of the state’s improved fiscal picture is appropriate and needed before the pay hike vote is taken.

“It’s not a question of whether we can afford it,” Nicholas countered. “It’s a question of what is the right thing to do.”

One important factor neither man mentioned is the fact that in an election year, it’s tough for legislative candidates who have a lot of state employees living in their districts to vote against giving their constituents a raise.

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Gov. Matt Mead used his fourth annual “State of the State” address Monday to talk about things that are positive, including Wyoming’s top business rankings and having the best-looking license plate in the nation. He also introduced a bevy of the state’s heroes during his 45-minute address.

Nothing he said is untrue. However, he did leave out a lot of the problems in the state that also deserve some attention from the governor and the Legislature – especially if they intend to try to fix any of them.

People who heard the speech – which was available live on the office of the governor’s website – learned that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) ranked Wyoming No. 4 for best economic outlook. Mead noted the Tax Foundation ranked Wyoming the state with the best climate for business two years in a row.

Some other numbers he stressed really are critical to the state’s economic health: Wyoming’s Permanent Mineral Trust Fund has grown from $5.3 billion his first year in office to $6.5 billion today. The state’s “Rainy Day” account, meanwhile, grew from about $600 million to $1.6 billion during the same period.

“These savings have served us well,” Mead told the joint session of the Legislature in the House chamber. In fact, they are responsible for turning around state government’s economic outlook. A year ago, state agency budgets overall were cut by $60 million, an average of 6 percent.

The $3.3 billion biennial budget for 2015-16 Mead submitted last December, which has been tweaked by the Joint Appropriations Committee, left more than $200 million on the table for legislators to decide what to do with it.

The tremendous difference was made by the record year Wyoming had in capital gains, from stock investments made for the state from its permanent savings.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the bottom line: Wyoming is a strong state,” Mead intoned. “The state of the state is strong and is getting stronger. Be proud of your work, be proud of Wyoming and its citizens, and let’s keep moving forward.

One way to move forward as a state, of course, is for our leaders to examine what’s not working and develop solutions.

Wyoming is also at the bottom or near it in many other important categories, including:

  • We have the worst gender pay gap in the country. Women nationally make 77 cents for every dollar a man does; in Wyoming they make only 67 cents. In the “Equality State”? Really?
  • Wyoming is ranked the fourth worst state for workplace fatalities, and has been dropped to No. 1 and 2 in previous years. State legislators have refused to substantially increase penalties for businesses that ignore industry safety rules.
  • The State Integrity Investigation ranks Wyoming 48th out of 50 states in its “Corruption Risk Report Card,” and gives us an F.
  • The U.S. Public Interest Research Group ranked Wyoming the fifth worst state in the nation in terms of how it provides online access to government spending data.

Mead bashed the federal government a few times, which is like throwing raw meat to a pack of wild dogs. He lambasted the Environmental Protection Agency, a move that will win support from a majority of GOP and Democratic lawmakers.

But Mead said he recognizes that not everyone agrees with his position that Wyoming should refuse $50 million in federal funds to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. The feds would pick up 100 percent of the expansion costs for three years, then gradually reduce its payment to 90 percent by 2020.

The governor’s rhetoric hasn’t changed: He says the ACA has been badly implemented, particularly the exchange rollout last October. He made no mention of how since the early flaws of the computer system were fixed, millions of Americans have now signed up for Obamacare, and many have health coverage for the first time. The state never refuses money from the feds for any program, except this one, which could instantly help about 17,600 childless adults in Wyoming.

“When the federal government tells states the program will function and the checks to pay for it will be in the mail someday, it is hard to put faith in such pronouncements,” Mead said. “I want to see proof of performance.”

Did he need to see proof of performance for any federal programs that have affected the minerals industry or agriculture? You don’t need to answer, it’s a rhetorical question.

But the governor seems to know that the excuses he and the Republican legislative leadership trot out to refuse expansion aren’t convincing. Why else would he offer this:

“I have mentioned some of my budget proposals for health programs, including medical homes and more money for aging and disability resource centers. Programs like these will be beneficial in our state. We will continue to look for answers,” Mead said.

For thousands of people caught in the Medicaid coverage gap, looking for answers isn’t a difficult problem. They know he should accept the money and help people live better and longer, instead of mentioning every other health-related item in his budget and hoping everyone will pipe down. They may benefit certain small populations, but Mead is staring at a definitive group of more than 17,000 people who are tired of waiting for the “Wyoming solution” he and lawmakers have promised for years. Admittedly, they have nothing positive to show for it.

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“You’re bound to get idears if you go thinkin’ about stuff.” – John Steinbeck, “The Grapes of Wrath”

 Brilliant. Insightful. Biased. Hilarious. Juvenile. Quirky. Baffling.

These are only a few of the many words that have never been used to describe this WyPols blog, but only because this is the first one, and nobody – not even the author – knows exactly what will be in it every day, or what reactions it will spark, much less what it all means. But we’re pretty sure it will mean something to those of you who come back to this site, whether it’s to be enlightened or enraged.

The goal of this endeavor is to give people a look at what goes on behind the scenes at the Wyoming Legislature, which opens its budget session Monday, Feb. 10. A ringside seat, if you will, to the circus that will be performing daily, Monday through Friday, at the Capitol for the next month.
Even for readers who are here watching it with us, we hope to provide some insights behind what happened at this morning’s committee meeting (unless we oversleep, in which case we’ll ask somebody we trust to tell us what happened, and then tell you about it). We’ll share some crazy quotes you may have missed on the House or Senate floor, and speculate about what’s going to happen tomorrow.

What you’ll find here is a tough perspective on the news, and how the actions of the men and women who represent us affect real people. When legislators play political games at the expense of what’s good for the state, they will be called on it. If they say something that’s bat-shit crazy, you’ll be able to read about it here. And if you hear about anything that amuses, entertains, inspires, horrifies or distresses you, please tell us so we can share it with the rest of the class.

In addition to gossip, speculation and some satire that will be sprinkled in as needed, this blog will look at many of the issues covered by the “mainstream media,” but with some background and opinions thrown in. It will inform our readers’ opinions as we cover issues that often get short shrift elsewhere, or are totally ignored in conventional reporters’ rush to get the day’s big headline.

We’ll be using a lot of pop culture references. If you don’t understand them, just ask that guy sitting to your left.
We’re doing this all on the fly, literally making it up as we go along. We view that as a good thing. Above all, we hope that some of our content will give you your own “idears” about how viewpoints can be shared while crafting legislation in a state that usually only hears one point of view.

We’re looking at this as a grand experiment, and inviting you along on the ride. Please use the bathroom before we leave, don’t spill anything on the driver, and buckle up – sometimes things are bound to get a little bumpy.