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1207156679935151925noxin_crosshairs.svgA bill to give the Wyoming Game & Fish Department some funding relief was passed by the Senate Tuesday, 17-13, after a final effort to derail it failed.

Senate File 45, which provides state General Fund monies to Game & Fish for grizzly bear management and to pick up employee insurance premiums, now goes to the House.

Sen. Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) accused SF 45, sponsored by the Joint Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Interim Committee, of trying to make “an end run” around seeking a fee increase. “The process has been a process that’s worked,” Bebout said.

But last week, House Bill 31, which would have allowed Game & Fish to raise fees, failed to be introduced, 26-32. The same body rejected a license fee increase last year, and fees haven’t seen an increase since 2007.

Supporters said by refusing to allow Game & Fish to obtain more operating funds by raising hunting and fishing license fees, the Legislature has handicapped the department and left it no choice but to seek state appropriations. Sen. Bruce Burns (R-Sheridan) and the other members of the Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources committee championed the bill.

Members of the Wyoming Sportsmen’s Alliance, a coalition of ten sportsmen’s groups in Wyoming, lobbied the legislature to raise the license fees and support SF 45.

“Recent cuts have reduced hunting and fishing opportunities,” said Joshua Coursey of the Muley Fanatic Foundation. “At a time when we are seeing significant impacts to our big game herds, we should be increasing funding for wildlife research and management, not reducing it.”

Sen. Phil Nicholas (R-Laramie) said Game & Fish wants to be regulated by sportsmen and fisherman as far as the tasks they work on, and do all of the decision-making about biologists and game wardens. “’But when we break the bank, we want you to fill up the balloon,’” is the department’s philosophy, he said. “They have great impact over our lives, but we have no control over them.”

Nicholas said creating a “hybrid budget” for Game & Fish funded by the state and sportsmen’s fees won’t work.

“The more money we give them, the more we’re involved [with their decisions], the more we’ll have a say in what they do,” Bebout, the Senate Appropriations Committee chairman, said. “This is a big step in that direction.”

But Sen. John Schiffer (R-Kaycee) downplayed any problems that could be created if Game & Fish has to go to the Legislature for a small part of its funding. “We have blended budgets,” he noted of other state agencies. “We manage them appropriately, and we understand the importance of independence.”

Sen. Bruce Burns said if Game & Fish were autonomous and independent, “We would give them the authority to raise their own license fees when they need them. We don’t do that. The Legislature controls the license fees, so when their expenses go up, they have no other way to cover them. That’s what’s been happening over the last six years.”

Burns added that the state has put additional burdens on the department, such as managing wolves and protecting endangered species such as the black-footed ferret.

“Game & Fish has done a great job for the last 70 years,” he declared. “Let them continue to do that job, but give them the resources to do it.”

Sen. Leland Christensen (R-Alta) told the senators that if the Legislature doesn’t address Game & Fish’s funding problems soon, by FY 2019 “we’re going to be in serious trouble.”

“The problem isn’t going to go away,” he added. “We’ve struggled to find a long-term solution … If we don’t deal with it today, we’ll be back here in two years with this as an interim topic. We don’t know what the best solution is, but this one certainly offers some potential.”

Sen. Paul Barnard (R-Evanston) agreed. “The process isn’t working, and this agency is suffering,” he said. “It’s just going to get worse and worse until we do something.”

In Fiscal Year 2013, the department spent $1.9 million on grizzly bear management and $4.7 million for insurance. Under the bill, Game & Fish would have to prepare a General Fund budget for FY 2007-08 that includes the two expenses.

Legislators opposed to this bill are ignoring the challenges facing wildlife in the state and their economic and cultural importance. It’s not good enough to just point your finger at the House’s failure to pass a license fee. Senators need to help find a long-term funding solution in order for Game and Fish to continue to fulfill its mission well.

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Rep. Marti Halverson (R-Etna) is worried about non-Christian students also expressing religious views in schools if House Bill 77, the student religious liberties bill, passes.

Becky Vandeberghe, executive director of WyWatch Family Action, claims kids all over the state are receiving F’s from teachers who are grading their religious views instead of spelling and grammar.

Lisa Glauner of Cheyenne is a former teacher who is upset the school system coerced her into teaching about evolution, which she says is a theory, not fact.

Rep. Kendell Kroeker (R-Evansville), sponsor of HB 77, says the bill just helps protect some rights that students already have.

And Linda Burt, executive director of the Wyoming chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, wonders when the first lawsuit will be filed if Kroeker’s bill becomes state law.

These were just a few of the highlights Tuesday before the House Judiciary Committee’s 8-1 vote to recommend passage of HB 77 to the full House. The only member of the panel to vote against the measure was Rep. Cathy Connolly of Laramie, a known Democrat.

Halverson questioned a portion of the bill that said students could wear clothing, accessories and jewelry that display religious messages and symbols.

“I think that’s fine, but are we prepared for the Muslim swords, Yarmulkes and T-shirts with messages on them?” she asked.

Kroeker, obviously taken aback by the question, replied, “I would say yes, if a Muslim student wanted to wear a T-shirt with a Muslim message, they absolutely have that right.”

Halverson wasn’t done seeking information. “So I’m just going to compare the crucifix versus
the sword that Muslim students wear,” she said. “Now the school is likely to say that’s a weapon, you can’t wear that. Are we prepared for them to say, ‘Don’t wear your cross or crucifix’?”

“If the sword is actually large enough that it could be used as a weapon, that’s a whole different issue,” Kroeker said patiently. “But I think it would be ridiculous for a school to tell a student that he couldn’t wear a small pendant that had that symbol on it, the same way as with a cross.”

Burt told the committee religious education “is most appropriate when given at home by families and parents.

“I don’t want schools to educate my children in religious faith,” the attorney added. “I don’t think that’s an appropriate place for it to happen.”

Where HB 77 is clearly unconstitutional is in its attempt to establish a limited public forum, Burt noted. “It does not allow you to put students where other students are proselytizing to them at a graduation, football game, student council meeting or other situation that is school-supported,” she explained. “The Constitution and case law do not allow you to do that.”

Burt said a similar bill was passed in Mississippi last year and it already faces a constitutional challenge. “The First Amendment not only gives us the right to practice religion, but it gives us freedom from religion,” she said.

To Vandeberghe, those were fighting words. “It s not freedom from religion in the United States of America,” she said, and then recited the First Amendment. “People’s constitutional rights do not stop when they walk into a public school.”

WyWatch’s director said she remembers getting a red Gideon Bible when she was in the fifth grade that she still has. “Where is this country going?” she asked. “Why is the Constitution being degraded?”

Glauner mostly complained about the state of education in her emotional testimony. “One of the reasons I’m not teaching today is that I was coerced into teaching lies,” she said. “I teach lies in science and I teach lies in American history.”

“For about 200 years, our public education system was founded on religion, morality and knowledge,” Glaunder said. “I think the reason we have a crisis in education is because we’ve done away with religion. We’ve done away with morality. We’re not teaching facts in school, we’re teaching opinion: the green energy thing. Socialism. That’s not fact. That’s opinion.”

Burt said she wasn’t surprised that the bill passed the committee overwhelmingly, given that a number of co-sponsors of HB 77 were on the panel.

“But I think it’s unfortunate that we’ve got to have this conversation about settled law,” she said after the vote. “I can only hope it will be clear what’s wrong with the constitutionality [of the bill], because that will change some people’s minds.”

Perhaps more rational heads will prevail in the full House or Senate , but I wouldn’t count on it. When some legislators think having religious liberties at public schools only applies to Christian students, I don’t expect the law or reason to get in the way of this debate.

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Look for the Health Department to receive a lot of scrutiny when the Wyoming House debates the state budget bill on second reading.

Initial questions about the Health Department’s $1.9 billion budget on Monday led several legislators to say they will introduce amendments to several key provisions on second reading, including funding for developmentally disabled programs and capital construction.

Gov. Matt Mead recommended spending $60 million during the 2007-08 biennium for the Health Department’s capital construction needs. Joint Appropriations Committee Chairman Steve Harshman (R-Casper) told the House the panel recommended spending only $30 million, and putting an additional $30 million in the State Facilities Construction Account.

“These are projects that have not been studied,” Harshman said, adding that if the state says a project should cost a certain amount, “suddenly it becomes the cost and it’s what the contractors bid.”

But Rep. Lloyd Larsen (R-Lander) disagreed. He held up a blue notebook he said contained detailed studies of each construction project that have already been prepared, and questioned the wisdom of parking $30 million in an account instead of completing what’s already been planned.

The $30 million the JAC recommended in the Health budget pales in comparison to the $259 million the state wants to spend on renovating the Capitol Building and the Herschler Building.

Rep. Elaine Harvey (R-Lovell) had some sharp criticism of a footnote in House Bill 1 that would not fully fund state programs under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004. She reminded lawmakers that once guidelines for the state have been established, the funding level is set for however many students are determined to be developmentally disabled each year.

If the state fails to meet the assistance and funding requirements, it will be fined. “There are no waivers from the federal government on this,” she stressed.

Larsen said while lawmakers have bitterly complained that the feds reneged on their promise to send millions in Abandoned Mine Land funds to Wyoming, the state is doing the same thing to developmentally disabled students.

“We’re no better than Uncle Sam,” he said.

Legislators also questioned an amendment that would allow the public health laboratory to charge fees for testing services for other state agencies, local law enforcement entities and other individuals or organizations. The health lab currently does DUI testing for the Wyoming Highway Patrol and county sheriff’s offices, whose budgets could take a hit if they are suddenly charged for services that are now free.

Supporters of the change said the public health lab doesn’t have enough money to keep providing testing free of charge.

Other areas of contention in the department’s budget that came up on first reading included double billing for substance abuse treatment and downsizing the staff at the Life Resource Center in Lander.

The vast majority of agency budgets on the first day of discussing HB 1 were accepted without any questions at all, and usually not a peep was heard when the chairman asked if any members were opposed. On the Health Department budget, though, the ayes and nays were close enough that there was a noticeable pause and some nervous laughter before it was announced that portion was closed for the day.

For those who do not know, Rep. Troy Mader (R) recently replaced the late Rep. Sue Wallis (R) in House District 52. Sue Wallis supported a number of moderate and progressive policies including legalization of marijuana, women’s right to choose, and gay marriage. As for Rep. Mader, we will post chapters of his book every day and let you make up your own mind.

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Here’s how deep the paranoia about government control runs in the Wyoming House: A bill that will increase the safety of children getting on and off school buses barely passed final reading Monday because some lawmakers viewed it as Big Brother taking over.

House Bill 5 is aimed at preventing tragedies like the one that happened in Crowheart in December 2011, when 11-year-old Makayla Marie Strahle was killed by a truck after she stepped off her school bus – which had flashing red lights – and started to cross a highway near her home in Crowheart.

In this case, the Wyoming Highway Patrol caught the driver responsible, who was barreling down the road at 57 mph in foggy conditions when he hit the victim. But in most “fly-bys” where drivers ignore signals to stop while school buses are loading and unloading, the reckless motorists can’t be identified. Bus drivers are trained to watch the students when they stop, not other vehicles.

About 300 of the 1,200 school buses in Wyoming have installed video cameras inside and outside the vehicle to help capture images of license plates and drivers as evidence, so the offenders can be prosecuted. HB 5 appropriates up to $5 million to outfit the rest of the state’s school bus fleet with cameras.

House Education Committee Chairman Matt Teeters (R-Lingle) said hundreds of fly-bys occur every day, putting students at risk. In districts that have installed the video equipment, it serves both as a deterrent that has lowered the number of violations and as a tool for prosecutors.

A driver convicted of illegally passing a bus that has its “stop” arm activated and flashing red lights is fined $420 for each offense.

HB5 narrowly passed, 32-27, and now heads to the Senate. It’s clearly a safety measure that’s needed, but House opponents tried to characterize it as an expensive, totalitarian invasion of privacy that is against everything Wyoming and America stand for.

“I’m troubled by the largesse of our government, and its ability to have surveillance over our daily lives. … It’s rolling surveillance in every neighborhood in our state,” said House Speaker Tom Lubnau (R-Gillette), who argued that prosecutors could use the tapes to watch and charge other people with crimes allegedly caught on tape besides just the fly-bys.

“I’m amazed by all the Orwellian comparisons that are being made to this bill,” Teeters said, adding that the bus video cameras have a specific target and will not create a treasure trove of other information for prosecutors.

Rep. Hans Hunt (R-Newcastle) said the school district he represents had a major problem with fly-bys, but they solved it without installing cameras by identifying problem areas and removing some bus stops.

“Local control works,” Hunt maintained.

Other Republican legislators agreed, and suggested that any school district that wants to could install the video equipment without being mandated to do so.

Rep. Matt Greene (R-Laramie), one of the most vehement opponents of the bill, said that “every day the NSA spies on more people,” and that shouldn’t be
extended to surveillance by the state of Wyoming.

“We’re videotaping our own people,” he said. “Mandating [the video cameras] is the state saying we will spy on our own citizens.”

Rep. Patrick Goggles, D-Ethete, who represents the school district where the Crowheart student was killed, supported the bill and said the victim’s family would like to see it passed so others do not lose their children to tragedies that could have been prevented.

Lubnau withdrew an amendment that would have killed the bill. He said he wasn’t necessarily asking anyone else to oppose it, but he wanted to register his objections and announce that he was voting no.

The speaker’s opposition must have had some impact, though, because HB5 got 51 votes for introduction and only 32 votes for passage.

I don’t know how anyone could mistake this safety measure for a spying effort. The Education Committee’s bill is a good solution to a major problem, and the idea that it could be turned into a vehicle for legislators to complain about government spying is unbelievable. I hope the Senate doesn’t get bogged down in the same ridiculous debate.

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The next chapter of the final Medicaid expansion bill surviving in the Legislature will be Wednesday, when Senate File 118 hits the Labor, Health and Social Services Committee.

Whether it gets a helping hand or lands with a thud is still in doubt. A diverse group of interests have banded together to lobby the compromise bill, which is sponsored by Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie). Church associations, AARP, the Wyoming Hospital Association, Equality State Policy Center, tribal organizations and groups that traditionally have worked on behalf of the poor are busy trying to get as many people as possible to attend and testify at the meeting.

There’s much at stake. If Wyoming accepts Medicaid it would mean an estimated 17,600 low-income, childless adults who can’t afford health insurance could finally get coverage. Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of dollars the hospitals eat every year in uncompensated care of the poor would be gone, and hospitals and physicians would be paid for their services. In turn, that money should also create new health sector jobs, improving the economy throughout the state.

And the state also wins in pure economic terms, since expanding Medicaid would save $43 million a year, but rejecting the federal dollars would actually cost it $80 million.

Despite the fact that Rothfuss’ bill removes virtually all of the elements of the measure that led the GOP to kill the other four Medicaid expansion bills during the first week of the budget session, it still faces an uphill battle. If it manages to make it through the Senate, it must duplicate that feat in the House and then go to the desk of Gov. Matt Mead, who joined lawmakers last year in flatly rejecting the feds’ offer to pay 100 percent of the costs for the first three years.

SF 118 only had nine votes against it on introduction, but three of them came from members of the Labor Committee: Chairman Charles Scott (R-Casper), Leslie Nutting (R-Cheyenne) and Ray Peterson (R-Cowley. Bernadette Craft (D-Rock Springs) is the only sure yes vote, but the fact James Anderson (R-Casper) voted for introduction was a positive sign.

If the three no votes on the panel don’t budge, ordinarily that would be game over. But last year long-time Chairman Scott took the rare step of reporting it back to the entire Senate with a 4-1 do not pass recommendation. He didn’t have to do that; Scott could have kept the bill in his desk until the deadline and there would have been no debate or vote in the Senate.

Then, Scott said he felt the bill had received so much attention it deserved a Senate vote, which failed. If the Scott who made that gesture to supporters of the bill is the one who shows up Wednesday, he may take the same action. But if the chairman morphs into the person who has spent the last year occasionally saying he might support some form of Wyoming expansion only to find problems with all of the alternatives suggested, SF 118 is in a lot of trouble.

Let’s say Scott lets the bill go to the floor, even though he plans to speak and vote against it. The fact that the bill received 21 votes upon introduction isn’t a show of solid support, because some of those were from expansion critics who likely gave into public pressure to at least consider the bill. They might believe that obligation is over and simply kill it. The best thing Medicaid supporters have going for them is the fact that now it only takes a simple majority to keep the bill moving forward, not a two-thirds vote.

If the bill does come out of the Senate, it may have a better reception in the House than one might initially think, given the extreme right-wing thinking of many representatives. The last Medicaid expansion bill the House considered, sponsored by Rep. Eric Barlow (R-Gillette), actually got 33 votes, a majority. The Rothfuss bill is stronger, at least how the senator wrote it; how it is transformed by the Labor Committee and the Senate is anyone’s guess.

But Rothfuss was brilliant in his ability to craft a plan that makes it difficult for Republicans to object to it without coming across as mean-spirited haters of the poor. It accepts the expansion in phases, each with a sunset date; throwing elements of all previous expansion bills together; asks for a Medicaid waiver for the Wind River Indian Reservation; and creates a trust account where the state can store all of the projected savings ($80 million) from the first few years of expansion.

The senator said he wanted to put a lot of options in his bill so the Republicans on the committee and then the full Senate could make any changes they want to make it acceptable. It’s possible that this is what Scott was waiting for – a chance to put enough of his own spin on a Medicaid proposal to give him some ownership of the plan, enough so he could even support it on the floor. If things get really weird, Scott the expansion opponent could suddenly become its champion.

So what can you do help give this story the happy ending it deserves? Spend your time between now and Wednesday calling Scott and other committee members to show how much their support means to poor people in Wyoming who desperately need medical care to survive. If you can, attend the Labor Committee’s meeting and speak out. Don’t sit at home in silence and let the far right do whatever it wants without a fight.

If the final Medicaid expansion bill can’t get out of committee, it will be at least a year before it could be considered again. Observers point out that there could still be a last-ditch effort to pass expansion as a budget bill amendment, but that would be especially difficult. If it comes down to that, we’ll let you know how to help that effort, too.

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Good News for Bears Who Love Money

Senate File 45, which provides an appropriation of General Fund money for the Wyoming Game & Fish Department to fund a grizzly bear management program and cover employee health insurance, was approved on first reading in the Senate Friday.

The bill was sponsored by the Joint Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee. The panel approved the bill 5-0 the day before.

While it was approved by a voice vote in the full Senate, two legislators — Sens. Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) and Phil Nicholas (R-Laramie) – spoke against the measure. Both argued it could set a bad precedent, because if General Fund revenue is allocated to the Game & Fish Department, the larger Department of Transportation might make a similar request next year.

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Rep. Gerald Gay (R-Casper) was unsuccessful in his effort sponsoring a bill that would have changed the Wyoming attorney general from an appointed to elected position.

Now, and at least for the immediate future, the attorney general is appointed by the governor. Rep. Marti Halverson (R-Etna), said she supported a similar bill last year, but changed her mind on the issue and spoke against it Friday.

Gay said the vast majority of states elect their attorney general. In Maine and Tennessee, their respective legislatures make the appointments. And for the record, the mayor of the District of Columbia selects its AG.

The legislator quipped that if the representatives didn’t think his bill was constitutional, they just had to check with the Wyoming Supreme Court. Last month, much to legislative leaders’ chagrin, the high court ruled against the Legislature’s decision to transfer many of the superintendent of public instruction’s duties to a Department of Education director selected by the governor.

Gay’s House Bill 109 died, garnering only 12 of the 60 votes in the House.