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Ray Peterson

Ray Peterson: Have We Lost Our Minds When It Comes To Forest Management?

in Ray Peterson/Column

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By Ray Peterson, former State Senator, County Commissioner and Town Councilman

Another day of smoke and ash in our air and not being able to see our mountains just 20 miles away.  I’m thinking, I’m no doctor but this can’t be healthy air to be breathing.  

Luckily, I’m not one fighting respiratory problems but feel terrible for those that do and must live with these conditions.  It seems that our entire summer has been filled with hazy air, burning eyes, limited vision and problems breathing.  Having spent my entire life in this area, I think back to better times when our air was clear, our skies were blue, and the air was crisp and clean in the mornings.  Things have certainly changed.

I remember attending meetings with forest officials, as a county commissioner, questioning the practices of their forest management. 

We warned officials of halting timber harvesting and sales on our mountains and not managing a renewable resource properly would cause old growth forests that would be susceptible to disease and fire. 

Twenty years later, we watch our forests burn up and acre after acre of brown diseased trees.  

Our environmentalist friends who were so proud of shutting down our sawmills and halting all timber sales should step up now because they own this environmental disaster. 

They will never admit it of course, but history and our current situation is pointing a big finger at them for this man-made mess. 

Poor management practices of the last forty years have brought us to where we are today. 

Growing up here over the years, I can say that things have changed and not for the better. We desperately need a revamping of mind set and practices that will help us turn this environmental disaster around. 

Timber sales, sawmills, and re-planting or seeding, will play a crucial role in helping us getting our healthy forests back. Now is time for our land management agencies to re-evaluate current practices and make the changes now to stop any further damage to our resources.

Admission of past mistakes are okay and will be accepted but now is the time to correct the problem.  I understand the policies will need to be changed and federal laws that guide those policies will need to be changed as well but our leaders in these positions can no longer ignore our situation.  

We are literally burning up out here in the public land states because of bad policies and management practices. They have chosen the wrong voice to listen to and now all of us our paying the price. 

The evidence of the mistakes of the past are upon us now as we live in our air polluted communities.  When your eyes are burning and you have problems breathing in a community of 700 people, it makes me wonder if we have lost our minds and have abandoned all common sense. 

These are natural renewable resources that we can manage and take care of as we should.  We can have clean water, clean air, and reasonably priced lumber that we have harvested locally if we just manage it properly.  

To those in positions that could help us, that may read this.  It’s time to change horses, because the one you’ve been riding has led us all down the wrong path.

I’m for clean air, clean water, and healthy forests.  We have a long way to go to get those things back that have been taken from us.

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Ray Peterson: Heaven Help Our Legislators

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Column by Ray Peterson, Cowley, former state legislator

Heaven help our legislators. Tough decisions will need to be made in a very timely manner this week. 

Our Wyoming Legislature will be meeting, electronically, on Friday and Saturday with an additional session being planned for some time in June.  

The idea of the first session will be to establish the process for spending the COVID-19 federal funds.  These will be used to provide relief to workers, employers, renters, landlords, local governments, and healthcare workers. 

HB1001 will address the appropriations while HB1002 will address emergency government actions and a third bill, HB1003 will address emergency budgeting issues. 

There is also a fourth bill, HB1004 that will establish business relief programs.  The Legislature seems to be taking the issue of the special budget adjustments in small bites with this first electronic session. 

Hopefully by the second special session in June, they will be able to meet in-person at the Capitol to discuss additional budget concerns.

The first session, although being held electronically, should be straightforward in appropriating the federal stimulus money.  

The second special session should prove to be a bit more difficult as they discuss and propose ideas that will adjust and stabilize our state budget to reflect more closely the downturn we’ve experienced with our revenue projections.  This will be the session to keep an eye on.  

Spending federal stimulus money will be much easier than adjusting and most likely reducing an already projected budget.  What may be looked at?  Possibly a hold or postponement of some future projects.  Expanding the reserve spending capacity of our schools and if past actions prove out, more of our states cash reserves will be spent down.  

In a recent estimate of states ability to carry on government services without any revenue, Wyoming ranked number one with reserves to pay for over 400 days of continuing government services. 

Other states did not fair as well with the estimates.  Most other states were around the 60- to 100-day number.  This means that our glide path is somewhat smoother and certainly less of an angle than most other states but make no mistake, the trend is still downward. 

If state spending continues its path and revenues continue their path, we are headed for some troubling times in the not-so-distant future.

I spent the last few years of my service in the Legislature as a co-chairman of the Revenue Committee.  Most of the proposals we worked on were to take a phased-in approach in establishing a better revenue stream for our state.  Better in consistency and dependability.  

Many have heard me say over the years that our dependency on minerals for tax revenues is both a blessing and a curse.  A blessing in that our tax burden is one of the lowest in the nation.  A curse in that we have become dependent on those revenues to provide a large portion of our government services. 

Our proposals to diversify our tax streams were much like taking a small bite at a time or using a phased-in approach, realizing that any tax increase has negative impacts to the private sector of our state’s economy.  

We should always remember that the other side to increasing state revenues is to reduce government spending. 

I am sure that during the next special session, reductions to the proposed budget will need to be introduced, debated and passed. 

The state budget has been shrinking over the years from the booms that we’ve enjoyed but further cuts will need to be made to realistic levels that can be sustained by our present tax structure.  

I’ve always viewed that possible solutions to the problems we face with our state budget would be to utilize the three efforts of reducing spending, using our reserves to help fill in the gaps and introducing additional tax revenues to shore up the failing mineral revenues.  I still believe that none of these efforts could stand alone.

The amount of reductions necessary to work our way out of this situation would be a disaster to many. 

Schools would be forced to close, consolidate, and reduce.  Other services and departments would disappear. 

Local governments would be short revenue for any improvements or even to maintain some services.  It has always been easier to suggest cuts rather than to implement them.

Using all of our reserves in one sweeping budget to make up the difference would be foolish and shortsighted.  The budget following would be a disaster.

Passing massive tax increases to meet the shortfall is not the answer either in that it would put many of our Wyoming businesses at risk. 

We’ve heard the term, “killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.” It would be appropriate with raising taxes to the amounts needed to eliminate the shortfall. 

Therefore, the proposal of utilizing all three approaches over a period of time is necessary. 

Our cash reserves have bought us this time to implement these changes, but we have squandered the past few years in not facing the reality of the situation. 

Cash reserves have been spent at a faster pace, increasing our fiscal descent.  Cuts have been slow in coming to some areas of our government.  And tax proposals have fallen on deaf ears.

Well here we are.  What will we do now?  What proposals will come forward?  The next special session in June might the beginning of our much-needed corrective course.  Let’s hope we get it right as our reserves are being depleted each year, we do nothing.  

My thoughts and prayers will be with our legislators and all that serve in this effort.  I would urge each of us to resist the tendency to throw stones at those elected to address these concerns.  These are not easy problems to solve.  I’m sure they will do their best in this effort.

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Ray Peterson: Now The Legislature Will Be Forced to Act

in Ray Peterson/Column

By R. Ray Peterson, Cowley

As we still seem to be in the grips of this pandemic, folks are starting to wonder when they can go back to work or if they still have a job at all. 

I’m sure our Governor is considering options of setting a date when our workers can return to their jobs. 

And I know that our Legislature is considering a special session to adjust the budget they set just a little over a month ago.  It’s a tricky thing, setting 2-year budget six months in advance but that is exactly what we do in Wyoming. Over the years, we’ve gotten pretty good at estimating revenues and expenditures but lately it has become more of a challenge as past revenue estimates and histories have faded with new events that we face. 

Who could have guessed an entire economy would be brought to almost a standstill, effecting our businesses and industries?  Who could have guessed that oil would be valued at negative amounts?

Add to this our value of coal  and natural gas, and the cost increase to our state in building schools, providing services and you begin to see a pretty gloomy picture of what is facing our lawmakers as they revise our state budget.

Over the last 6 years, the state legislature has been trying to make reductions to the budget.  Many will question why then the expensive remodel of our State Capitol Building and Herschler Building?  

As I was serving at the time we pulled the trigger on these projects, we had saved up a majority of the revenue it would take to complete the task from our boom years of saving and planning for the much-needed renovations.  It was a plan put into place ten years previously.  Construction began about the same time our recent downturn began. 

Folks were not too happy about the timing of it all, but it was planned and the money was set aside years before.  It was a necessity and I for one was proud to be a part of finally biting the bullet to ensure we had a functioning capitol for years to come.  I’ve never been one to pass on problems to the next legislature or next generation to deal with.

Which leads me into the topic of this column.  I’ve often said that our legislature will one day be forced to act on major reductions or major tax increases only after our surplus revenue is gone and we are forced into such decisions. 

With this latest crisis and the downturn in our economy, perhaps that day is coming even quicker than I had imagined. 

Everyone was hopeful that history would repeat itself and something would come along to save the day such as ninety five dollar per barrel oil,  larger volumes of coal being extracted, or the demand of natural gas increasing but today it seems to be the perfect storm and it seems to be beating against our best effort of a budget. 

Now what do we do? 

Well, the legislature will have to consider a special session to address the changes necessary to produce a balanced budget.  They will decide on how to distribute any possible stimulus money from Washington as well as consider further reductions to expenditures or increases to revenue. 

In the recent past, our cash reserves have been used to balance our budget and still could be again but with the concern of depleting this reserve over the next few years rather than the estimated 10-20 years. 

So, what is a legislator to do? Cuts to any budget are not an easy thing to experience.  The phone starts ringing, and they want to know why services have been reduced or eliminated altogether. Tough decisions for closing services or buildings. Eliminating jobs or closing schools but we possible could be looking into the barrel of such decisions. 

The first to go will be the non-essential positions and programs.  Tricky thing is defining what non-essential means. 

Then the services and departments that are not required by our state constitution.  Then finally reducing the services and budgets to the required departments and programs.  In short, I’m glad I got out when I did.  If things turn out to be as bad as today has looked, our legislators will not have an easy road ahead of them.

But if you know Wyoming like I know Wyoming, we will be fine.  This round might be a little rougher than most, but we still live in a state where our government finances are in pretty good shape.

We take care of each other and watch out for each other.  We know the folks next door and we help even when our help might not be needed. We have good leaders that love this state as we all do, and will do their best to ensure that Wyoming will still be the best place to live and raise a family, regardless of what the future might throw at us.

These might be challenging times, perhaps unlike any other, but I’m grateful to be living in a state where I feel safe, represented by good folks, and trusting those around me to be caring and trustworthy. 

My prayers will be with our leaders who might have to make tough decisions soon. They will need to know of our support and concern for the issues they face and the decisions they make on our behalf.

Stay strong Wyoming. You haven’t let me down yet.     

Ray Peterson is a former state legislator in Wyoming.

Increased beer tax puts burden for service where it belongs

in Ray Peterson/Column

By R. Ray Peterson

Recently, the Legislature’s Labor and health Committee voted down a proposed increase to the malt beverage tax.  This tax has not been increased since 1935!  

The tax on malt beverage in Wyoming is still at 2 cents per gallon or less than two-tenths of a cent per 12 oz. can.  Wyoming ranks 50th — last of all the states — with the lowest tax on malt beverage products.  All other states around us tax beer at an average of 20 per gallon.  

So why are we so reluctant to raise this tax?   There seems to be a disconnect from the costs incurred by the state from this market and what we charge in tax to help meet those costs.  

Here are some figures that might surprise many.  The direct cost that our state incurs from the abuse of alcohol is projected at around $27.6 million, (WYSAC 2010 study). 

The current tax on beer at 2 cents per gallon generates about $265,000 annually.  This leaves the state having to come up with $27.3 million to pay for the services we provide that are associated with alcohol abuse, for treatment centers, law enforcement, court costs, emergency services and correctional facilities.  Indirect costs, such as lost productivity, associated with alcohol abuse was estimated to be in the area of $800 million dollars.

The arguments against raising the beer tax in the past have been that it would only raise $2.3 million in additional revenue, which would not come close to meeting the $27 million costs to the state.  Another was that we would have many of our citizens driving to surrounding states to buy their beer and that it would put many of our beer retailers out of business.

First, if the tax was comparable to surrounding states, such as the 20 cents per gallon amount, there would be no savings by driving to another state to make your purchase.  The tax would need to be competitive with surrounding states eliminating that concern.  And second, $24 million in subsidies is better than $27.3 million.  

We seem to not have a problem with raising the tobacco tax over the years to help meet the costs associated with tobacco use as well as persuade folks to reconsider the health risks, but alcohol seems to be thought of differently.  Perhaps we don’t really associate these estimated costs to the abuse of alcohol.  Or maybe that alcohol abuse is not considered to be a health risk.  

What ever the disconnect is, or has been, the end result is millions of dollars over the years have been spent from the general fund to cover the costs that are directly related to alcohol abuse.        

This question should be asked if this money could be spent or used for things that could serve our state better?  These funds could be used for local government distributions, K-12 education funding, senior citizen centers, libraries, streets, bridges, recreation centers, ball fields, parks, tourism, economic development and on and on.   

For the last 84 years, Wyoming has chosen to subsidize the beer drinkers with a portion of the excess revenues we’ve enjoyed.  Now those excess revenues are diminishing and yet, we still can’t quite bring ourselves to the reality that services cost money, and now, with money that we don’t have.   But, for some odd reason, we take pride that we have the lowest beer tax in the nation.  Perhaps we have some that are looking at this as economic development by attracting more drinkers to our state by keeping the tax on beer low.  We even had serious attempts to do away with the sales tax on beer completely because it just did not generate any large revenue.  I don’t think I need to look up the definition of stupid.  

But not to worry folks, a healthy dose of reality is knocking at our door in the Cowboy State and our leaders will be forced to come to grips of making every dollar stretch. You can bet on one thing as we keep the tax on beer the lowest in the nation, that the costs that we all incur from the effects of alcohol will continue to increase, making the figures even worse with each passing year.  

For me, while I served, it was a matter of being practical with our state’s revenue as well as the fairness of the issue.  I made two attempts at raising the beer tax in Wyoming and was overwhelmingly defeated both times in the house, where all taxing bills must start.  I compare this issue with how we fund our highways.  Those that use our highways pay a tax for having a vehicle in licensing, registration, sales tax and fuel tax.  With the beer industry and our drinkers, they want nothing to do with helping pay for the expenses that are created by them.  Same old story: Let someone else pay for my expenses both now and in the future.  

My final thought on the subject.  I would be OK with eliminating the malt beverage tax and the alcohol tax in Wyoming as long as we eliminate all services that are provided for those who choose to use or abuse alcohol.  Wait, what?  How cold is that?  Funny how drinkers don’t recognize the costs associated with drinking but how dare we cut or eliminate the services they receive when they’ve had a bit too much to drink.  

When will we recognize that everything has a cost and who better to meet that expense than those that create the cost in the first place.  Now it should be understood that I don’t have a problem with the drinkers of Wyoming.  My problem rests with the state’s failure to properly tax those who create the tax burden.  As I served as the Senate Revenue Committee Chairman, I always tried to be fair and equitable in sharing the tax burden, as we considered each tax proposal.  In this particular case, it certainly is not fair to under-tax the users while expecting others to pick up the tab.  The one comforting thought I have in this matter is that state revenues are shrinking and as the money for budgets disappear, we will be forced into making these so-called tough decisions that we have put off 84 years.

Cheers everyone!

R.Ray Peterson is a Cowley resident who served as a state senator from 2005 to 2018.

Cameras in classroom would increase school accountability

in Ray Peterson/Column/Education

By R. Ray Peterson, Cowley, WY 

Accountability from our schools has been an ongoing concern for years as the Legislature has struggled to understand how much the state spends for the results received. I remember a bill I sponsored years ago in an attempt to address this issue. 

The measure was nicknamed the “camera bill,” but its actual title was “Improving Teacher Evaluations.” It passed introduction, only to fail in the Senate Education Committee by one vote. Simply put, it was a concept for a pilot program to put cameras in the classroom to use for evaluations and provide security for both teachers and students. 

I thought it was an ideal time to implement the concept as we were building schools at a fast pace. The pilot program was to involve four schools, each of a different size, around our state. The program would continue for one year and a report on its effectiveness would be given to the Legislature.

The nexus of this concept came when I asked a few retired teachers how they were evaluated over the many years they had taught. Their answers were varied and inconsistent, which led me to believe that teacher evaluations across our state were somewhat of a “hit and miss” process. Stories of teachers suing school districts for wrongful termination or superintendents being reluctant to fire teachers with guaranteed contract status because of the personal hits they took led me to take a serious look at the evaluation process or how we might improve the process to address these concerns.

Think of it! The student and teacher would never know if the principal or instructional facilitator were watching! This alone would have a positive affect for both the student and the instructor. 

I only wish that every citizen from our state could have seen my presentation of this bill to the Senate Education Committee. Many certainly would have been entertained while listening to the point/counter-point between the Wyoming Education Association representatives and myself. It was classic. Perhaps this is where I made myself an enemy to these folks. 

Anyway, this idea was meant to be an additional tool an administrator could use to evaluate teachers. No disruption of the classroom with personal visits, no tip-off to give the teacher a chance to prepare. And the best part? Now a recording could be reviewed by the teacher, principal, the instructional facilitator and one of the parents of a student. 

Wait, a parent? How dare we suggest such a thing! Hold on, let me explain. The parent was to attend the viewing and submit a simplified evaluation form. Did the teacher seem prepared? Did he or she seem to maintain class discipline? Simple and basic questions. Then the parent representative would be asked to leave. Then the three people remaining in the room would get down to business while making recommendations and assignments for improvements as needed. The instructional facilitator would be assigned to work with the teacher in certain areas and all three would be required to sign off on the evaluation report. A work plan for improvement would be made, assignments given and a follow-up visit would be set to re-evaluate for these areas to be worked on. Think of the effect this would have on wrongful termination lawsuits. Or more importantly, how the schools could address the strengths or shortcomings of a teacher or administrator!

So why the parent involvement? In order for this to work, we must first, insure that the evaluations are happening. The parents group representative attends the monthly school board meeting to report on how many evaluations parents have participated in that month. Now everyone is on the hook! Not just our teachers and students but everyone from parents to administrators. No personnel problems or employee confidences are threatened. Just a quick report on whether the evaluations are happening to the school board and superintendent. 

Make no mistake, evaluations are the hardest part of school administration, but also the most critical. New school buildings and curriculum have less to do with a student’s education than a teacher’s desire and ability to teach. I would encourage parents around our state to ask their school administrators how teacher evaluations are performed in their own school districts. How often they are performed? How is the follow up performed? Who is involved in carrying out the improvement plans for an under-performing teacher? What you may find out could surprise you. It is as varied as you could imagine, from no evaluations to some. 

When I asked for myself, I was surprised to find out that the teacher was asked by the principal if the principal could attend a class sometime in the future. The time was set by the teacher and I’m sure the preparation began. I’m sure everything went to plan and the evaluation was deemed a success. I thought to myself, ‘How many things were wrong with this type of an evaluation?’ From reporting the evaluation to the effectiveness of the actual evaluation. Where was the hook or accountability for any of the players that we deem critical to our child’s education?

Second, we would reduce the wasteful wrongful termination lawsuits. Not only would we have documentation of the evaluations signed by all parties, but also from the instructional facilitator. This person is the best qualified teacher in each district, assigned the task of assisting other teachers become better instructors. The principal and the instructional facilitator would both work at improving the quality of teaching in our schools. This would also reduce concerns of personal attacks, inconsistent evaluations, new administration, personality conflicts and surprise terminations. Proper and consistent evaluations should remove all of these concerns.

Third, this proposal would involve and make more players accountable than just our teachers. Parents need to be more involved. How could a principal use the recording of a parent’s child struggling in one of their classes? How could parents reporting to the school board each month help improve the performance of our principals in conducting regular evaluations? If I were serving on a school board and the parents reported to us that they had been invited to only one evaluation that semester in a school with more than 20 teachers, I would think that we have a problem in evaluating our teachers consistently and properly.

Finally, this program would focus the efforts of not only our teachers and students but also our instructional facilitators, principals, parents, school board members and superintendents on educational excellence. If we really believe that education is the most important thing we do in this state, then I would ask the question, what is wrong with this concept? These are public institutions of learning and we have the technology to improve our efforts, so why not implement a pilot program to see what the effects might be? 

As a closing thought, having cameras in most parts of a school would only add to the security of our students and faculty. Bullying would be handled properly with video evidence being used to show all parties involved. 

Throwing additional money at a problem does not always solve the problem. Sometimes more effort is required. Maybe some courageous legislator can blow the dust off of my old bill and introduce it again. But beware of those that want nothing to do with accountability in our schools because they will come out in droves in opposition to this effort. More money is what they want.

I remain convinced that if implemented, this one improvement could do more for the quality of education in this state than anything else we could possibly do. More so than additional money or higher salaries, new buildings, more activities or even improved curriculum. This one effort to improve evaluations in our schools would hit the bullseye for boosting the quality of education in Wyoming. It would certainly eliminate the wrongful termination lawsuits. It would blow a hole through the guaranteed contract status of teachers and would provide the proper incentive to continually improve education efforts in schools. 

I’ve always believed that if evaluations were done correctly, we would have better teachers, happier teachers, accomplished teachers and better test scores for our students. Is it any wonder why our friends at the WEA were opposed to this concept? It did not fit with their desire for higher wages, guaranteed positions with less accountability. Perhaps it’s time for a new organization that puts our students first. W4E. Wyoming For Education. I would hope that such an organization would not fear innovation, technology, accountability, and responsibility.

Now who is serious about educating our children?

Ray Peterson served as a state senator for 13 years, from 2005-2018. He lives in Cowley.

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