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State To Consider Occidental Land Purchase Monday

in Government spending/News/public land
5113

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

The state’s top five officials on Monday will consider offering a bid for about 1 million acres of private land in southern Wyoming, Gov. Mark Gordon announced Wednesday.

Gordon, speaking during a news conference, said the state’s top five elected officials, meeting as the State Loan and Investment Board, will decide whether to offer a bid to Occidental Petroleum for the purchase of the land and about 4 million acres of accompanying mineral rights.

Occidental had originally set a deadline of July 1 to accept any bids for the land, but Gordon said the company extended the deadline by a week because of complications created by the coronavirus.

He added members of the public will be able to comment on the proposal during Monday’s meeting. If a bid is made and accepted, triggering a start to negotiations, a series of public meetings will also be held where input will be accepted, he said.

“I want to assure the people they will have every opportunity to understand the details of this bid and not only that, they will have a chance to comment,” he said.

He added the decision of whether to offer a bid will depend entirely on whether the purchase makes sense as an entry into the state’s portfolio of investments.

“This is strictly a case of will this investment pay dividends back to the state,” he said.

The Legislature, during its general session, approved a bill authorizing the executive branch to look into the purchase. Gordon vetoed the bill because he said it imposed too many restrictions on the executive branch, but he vowed to continue reviewing the possible deal and to keep both the Legislature and members of the public informed as to its progress.

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Cat Urbigkit: Quickly and in Darkness, Wyo Gov’t Works to Buy 1 Million Acres

in Government spending/Cat Urbigkit/News/Column/politics
Wyoming
3103

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

I listened attentively to Governor Mark Gordon’s live-streamed State of the State address on Monday, Feb. 10. There was no mention of a proposal for our state government to purchase 1 million acres of private land in southern Wyoming in that address.

Two days later, on Feb. 12, two polished bills were filed in the Wyoming Legislature that would allow our state’s top officials to negotiate an undisclosed land deal, for an unknown price. 

Governor Gordon and our legislative leaders held a press conference on Monday, Feb. 17 in Cheyenne to announce the proposal – a full week after that live-streamed State of the State address.

Fortunately Casper Star-Tribune reporter Nick Reynolds was able to attend the press conference, because his breaking news article announcing the proposal is all we have to go on.

According to the article, the deal involves 1 million acres of private land and 4 million acres of mineral rights along the I-80 corridor that is held by Occidental Petroleum in an area of checkerboard land ownership.

This deal “would be part of an effort to improve public land access and generate revenues from its sale.”

Our state leaders called this a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity “to improve the state’s ability to raise revenues” according to the article.

For some, the thought of 1 million acres of private land being gobbled up by government – in a state that is already majority-owned by government – is a hard pill to swallow. Perhaps that’s why the legislation proposes to establish “payment in lieu of taxes” to local governments for loss of private lands from the tax rolls.

The proposed legislation also says “all state laws governing the management of state lands shall be applicable to assets purchased” so at least we know that the land could be subject to multiple uses. 

Another bill, House Bill 37, would expedite the process for the exchange of state lands for the purpose of public access to state lands, and this is also part of the legislative bundle to enable this land deal.

Reynold’s article also tells us that yet another bill, House Bill 222 would exempt members of the State Loan and Investment Board (SLIB) from provisions of the state’s public meetings law “which could be used to investigate details of the purchase prior to pursuing it.”

I’m glad Reynolds noted that because I had no idea that was the purpose when I read the bill itself. All the proposed bill says is that the SLIB board is exempt from the public meetings law “when meeting solely for the purpose of receiving education or training provided that the board shall take no action regarding public business during the meeting.”

Although this proposal has been worked on for months, according to Reynold’s article, the public became aware of it only yesterday.

The proposal, and the legislation enabling it, are being fast-tracked during this 20-day legislative session so that the deal can be negotiated this summer and perhaps completed by the end of the year. The Governor’s office has promised to issue a press release about the proposal later today.

I looked at the records on land parcels in Carbon and Sweetwater counties and when I searched for Occidental, got no results. Then I remembered that Occidental now owns Anadarko and that’s how the county GIS data lists the parcels.

Since we know very little about this whole deal, we can only assume it’s some of the parcels we’ve included in the screen captures accompanying this column. If you want a closer look, go to the GIS systems of Sweetwater County, and Carbon County and type “Anadarko” into the search engine.

It appears that some of the land in the deal is located in Colorado and Utah, and legislation allows for the sale of those parcels.

House Bill 249 would allow investment of unknown but substantial amounts of state funds for the deal, and Senate File 138 does the same. The fiscal notes for both bills are identical:

“The fiscal or personnel impact is not determinable due to insufficient time to complete the fiscal note process.

“This bill authorizes real property purchases from the following sources:

 The Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account (LSRA)

The Permanent Wyoming Mineral Trust Fund

The Common School Permanent Land Fund and 

Other unobligated unencumbered funds to the State Loan and Investment Board or to the Board of Land Commissioners.

There is appropriated funds necessary from the State Building Commission Contingency Account.

There is appropriated funds necessary from the LSRA.”

I know that there needs to be some level of confidentiality in land purchases. But the State of Wyoming’s cavalier attitude that we the public should just trust our state leaders isn’t enough when it comes to this big of a deal. 

Let’s shine some light on our government. If the State wants us to go along on this land deal, then sell it to us.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email rangewritesyndicate@icloud.com.

Bob Geha: Bill To Increase Per Diem for Wyo Legislators Clears First Hurdle

in Government spending/News/politics
3108

By Bob Geha, Cowboy State Daily

A proposal to increase the amount paid to legislators to cover their expenses while working for the state is moving forward in the state House.

House Bill 227 would increase the daily “per diem” of legislators from $109 to $151. The per diem covers expenses such as lodging and food and is paid in addition to the legislative salary of $150 per day.

Supporters of the bill argued that the increase is needed to interest more people in serving in the Legislature.

“If it’s working class Wyomingites who we want to see serving in the Legislature, who we want to see going to these commissions and boards and everything else, then we just pay a wage that they can afford to do it,” said Rep. Sara Burlingame, D-Cheyenne.

But opponents such as Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper, argued the per diem increase is just a salary boost for lawmakers.

“It’s labeled a per diem increase,” he said. “At least let’s call this what it really is. It’s an attempt to raise salary and in this environment of deficits … time is being wasted on this and it’s … inconsistent with our values.”

The measure was introduced in the House on Friday by a vote of 41-16 and is awaiting review in the House Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee.

Bob Geha: Wyoming State Income Tax Proposed

in Government spending/News/politics
Bob Geha
3050

By Bob Geha, Cowboy State Daily

A bill that would impose Wyoming’s first income tax has been proposed for consideration by the Legislature.

Sponsored by House Minority Leader Cathy Connolly, House Bill 147 would impose a four percent tax on gross income of more than $200,000 a year.

The measure is necessary to continue paying for public services in the state, said Connolly, D-Laramie.

“We have to think about what we need in order to get the revenue we need for the state,” she said. “And it’s not extra money. It’s services that all of us use and at this point, they’ve been paid for by the extractive industries. We need to come up with different revenue streams and this is one of them.”

Connolly said the tax would raise about $115 million a year to be used for funding public education.

The tax would affect only two percent to three percent of Wyoming’s taxpayers, she added.

The bill is awaiting introduction in the House. As a non-budget bill, the measure will need the support of at least 40 representatives to be introduced for consideration.

Change Orders Boost Capitol Building Construction Cost, but Added Expense Balanced Out

in Government spending/News
State Capitol
3045

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

The cost of construction work on the Capitol Square Project in Cheyenne is expected to run about $30 million over original estimates, due largely to changes in the project, according to state figures.

However, those extra costs were offset by reductions in other areas, keeping the project within budget, said Suzanne Norton, a Wyoming Construction Department project manager.

“We did not increase the budget,” Norton explained. “We just reallocated from within different sections of the budget.” 

The Capitol Square Project involves the restoration and rehabilitation of the Wyoming Capitol and adjacent Herschler Building, as well as the addition of a central utility plant for the two. The state started setting aside funds as early as 2003 for the project, when the cost was estimated to cost about $305 million. 

As of December, the value of contracts for work on the project was set at about $308 million, though that figure did not include requests for proposals currently under review which could increase the overall cost by millions of dollars.

Change orders

The cost of actual construction work on the project — referred to as construction services — was estimated at $223 million in 2015. In 2016, the Capitol Rehabilitation and Restoration Oversight Group first approved construction services contracts with a guaranteed maximum price (GMP) of about $219 million, Construction Department spokesman Travis Hoff said.

Mel Muldrow, a Construction Department administrator, said as of January, the project’s construction services contract were valued at about $248 million.

Increasing construction services costs didn’t happen overnight, but rather took place in increments throughout the course of the project, Muldrow said.

“Any building project — whether you’re remodeling your bathroom or the Capitol building — is going to have unexpected costs,” he said. “That’s why we have the contingency fund built into the overall budget.”

Muldrow said the GMP was slowly increased by a series of 53 change orders submitted between 2017 and 2020.

Change orders are primarily submitted by the contractor as the scope of work changes due to various unknown factors being revealed, such as increased abatement requirements or extended periods of bad weather.

“The way change orders work is you have a standard contract that says here’s what the contractor is going to do,” Muldrow explained. “But that contract is based off an estimate of work needed. If the contract was for the demolition of a single wall, but the contractor opened it up and realized two more walls need to be removed to complete the job as described, that may require a change order.” 

Once submitted, the change order is reviewed by the architect, the program manager, the construction department and if the change order request was more than $100,000, it required approval from the oversight committee, Muldrow said.

‘Shifting money’

Once approved, change orders can range in cost from a couple of thousand dollars to millions. 

Whatever the cost, Muldrow said after each change order, the construction department rebalanced the budget and reviewed new options for the project. 

“It’s a matter of shifting money as we move along,” he explained. “We’re constantly balancing the money.”

Change orders are commonplace on a large project, so options are built into an estimate to give contractors flexibility.

“This project had a number of alternates, and if we needed the money elsewhere, maybe we wouldn’t do some of those alternates,” Muldrow said. “We’d do what we call value engineer the project. We’re not downgrading, but we’re approaching it from an angle we may be able to save money on.”

The paper trail of 53 change orders is thousands of pages long, but Muldrow talked through the process of some of the project’s most and least expensive changes.

Change order No. 1: $3.5 million

Executed Jan. 27, 2017, the project’s first change order was one of its biggest.

“It included 220 tons of structural steel — additional steel needed for the project — which is pretty costly,” Muldrow said. 

Structural steel accounted for $1.6 million of the order and additional concrete added $1.2 million to the total. 

“When they got into the Herschler building demolition, they realized there was a lot more work to be done than originally anticipated,” Muldrow said, explaining the building was torn down to its structural bones. “Of the nine line items in this change order, six are demolition related.” 

In an email, Hoff explained not all change orders had a specific theme.

Change order No. 6: $2.9 million

Whereas most change orders have several line items, No. 6 was executed July 10, 2017, with a single line: structured and audio-visual cabling.

“In this change order, the architect and design group picked what pieces they wanted to install,” Muldrow said. “And when they did that, they issued a change order for a structured cabling package.”

Contractors give vendors a list of work, which vendors use to create a list of materials potentially needed for the job, he explained. Once given contract approval, Muldrow said the contractor returns to the vendor and modifies the parts order to fit his needs.

“The work was scheduled to be done,” Muldrow said, “but a cabling package had not been selected yet.”

Change order No. 11: $6,630

Some change orders remove projects while adding others.

In No. 11, executed Sept. 9, 2017, the allowance for elevator cab finishes for both the Herschler and Capitol buildings was reconciled by an additional $57,278 and more platforms and stairs were added for about $8,000. 

But the change order also removed an approximately $59,000 arched ceiling for the House Chamber. 

“They decided not to do it, creating a credit,” Muldrow said. “At the end of the day, the change order only turned out to be about $6,000.”

Paying the tab

The total for 53 change orders to date is about $29 million, but the budget only set aside $20 million in contingency funds. 

Because project allowances are constantly being reconciled throughout construction, Norton said it’s difficult to determine what projects were abandoned and what options were changed to make up the $9 million needed beyond the contingency funds.

“Those funds are all within the project,” she said. “It’s just a matter of reallocating from line item to line item.” 

Wyoming Legislature: Medicaid Expansion Bill Fails Introduction

in Government spending/News/politics
3017

A measure that would have laid out a plan for the expansion of Medicaid insurance coverage to more Wyoming residents failed to win introduction Monday on the first day of the Legislature’s budget session.

House Bill 75, which would have authorized the state to work with federal authorities to create a plan to expand Medicaid coverage, failed to collect the votes of two-thirds of the House members needed for it to be considered during the budget session.

The bill, sponsored by the Legislature’s Revenue Committee, died on a vote of 21-36. All bills not related to the budget must win support from 40 representatives to move forward in the legislative process.

Backers said Medicaid expansion would provide coverage for about an additional 19,000 Wyoming residents at a cost of about $18 million every two years.

How The Wyoming Legislature Builds the State Budget: A Primer

in Government spending/News/politics
Wyoming State Capitol
2992

By Laura Hancock, Cowboy State Daily

On Feb. 10, the 2020 Budget Session of the Wyoming Legislature officially begins, one that could be somber and frustrating — considering Gov. Mark Gordon has told lawmakers that after mandated expenses they only have around $23.5 million to work with.

As in prior budget sessions, the 12 members of the Joint Appropriations Committee, which crafts the state’s two-year spending bill, has met for a good chunk of December, poring over rows of numbers, grilling state agency heads and discussing the needs of the state. 

Most sections of the biennial state budget that lawmakers will pass will go into effect July 1 and end June 30, 2022. Read on to learn more about the JAC and the budgeting process. 

The Agencies

The budgeting process starts with the heads of state agencies, which fall under the executive branch, submitting budget requests to the governor budget in the autumn before budget sessions, which the Wyoming Constitution states must occur during even-numbered years.

The Governor

Each governor is required to release budget recommendations by Dec. 1 prior to a budget session, per the Constitution.

“What the governor does is he meets with all agencies and listens to their requests,” said John Hastert of Green River, a former Democratic lawmaker who served on JAC for about eight years.

The budget recommendations that the governor prepares for the Legislature show the agency requests and whether he accepts, modifies or rejects each one, Hastert said. 

Last month, Gov. Mark Gordon submitted budget recommendations with the expectation of around $3 billion in revenues from the General Fund — the state’s main bank account — and the Budget Reserve Account, which is akin to an overdraft account for the General Fund. 

Gordon largely recommended the Legislature keep spending low, considering the ongoing slump fossil fuel revenues, which most state leaders do not believe will be reversed any time soon, as the natural resources industry is undergoing fundamental changes. 

Gordon called for significant reduction in capital construction and limits on tapping the rainy day fund – to be used solely for legislatively-mandated educational needs and local governments. 

“We have only $23.5 million in structural (ongoing) funding available to

consider distributing during this biennium to any entity, including the entire executive branch, higher education, the Judicial Branch, and the Legislative Service Office,” Gordon said in his budget recommendations. “Additional spending cuts are on the horizon and appear imperative to keep Wyoming moving forward.”

Budget Hearings

During the first week of December, the governor and agency chiefs meet with the JAC and explain budget recommendations and requests.

This year, Gordon met with the JAC on Dec. 9. The agency heads met with the JAC through Dec. 20. 

JAC interviews with agencies are expected to continue into the beginning of January, from Jan. 6-10 and again from Jan. 13-17.

Hastert said the information during the interviews with the agencies is valuable: “They get first-hand information,” he said. 

JAC Markup

In the last two weeks in January, JAC markup begins. Lawmakers will start on the first pages of the governor’s budget recommendations and “mark up” the items with their own ideas of what the budget should look like. 

“They start with the governor’s recommendations and it’s either an ‘aye’ vote or ‘no’ vote or modify,” Hastert said. “Most of the time, it’s usually taking more of a cut. It’s just the nature of JAC to try to cut even further.”

The JAC’s version of the budget is the one that will be submitted for review by the Legislature.

Medicaid Expansion in Wyoming: Supporters, Opponents Debate

in Government spending/News/Health care
2904

By Bob Geha, Cowboy State Daily

A plan to expand Medicaid to provide more Wyoming residents with health insurance coverage might help keep people in Wyoming, but the cost might be too much for the state to handle, speakers at a panel discussion on the idea said Thursday.

Opponents and supporters of a bill proposed by the Legislature’s Revenue Committee debated the idea during a panel discussion hosted by the Wyoming Liberty Group.

The Revenue Committee’s bill is headed to the full Legislature for its consideration during its budget session, which begins Feb. 10. Estimates indicate that the bill would allow another 19,000 Wyoming residents to qualify for coverage under Medicaid at a cost of $9 million a year to the state.

Jan Cartright, executive director of the Wyoming Primary Care Association, said the benefits would outweigh the risks of adopting the expansion plan similar to programs in place in 37 other states.

“I think this is about people’s lives and I think I will work very hard with legislators to provide common sense arguments that are based on fact that would show this is a gamble Wyoming should take,” she said.

Several legislators, however, expressed concern over the cost of the program. The total cost is estimated at $154 million every two years, with the federal government paying about $136 million of the cost, leaving the state to pay the remaining $18 million.

“Ten percent of a large number is still a large number,” said Sen. Bo Biteman, R-Sheridan. “And we don’t have that money. We are scrambling, scratching and clawing, looking under the mattress for quarters. We’re not in any position to grow our state government at all. We need to be cutting our government.”

However, Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, said the expansion might help keep residents in the state in the face of declining jobs in the mineral industry.

“In the next five years alone, we’re projected to lose 1,000 more jobs,” he said. “They equate that to about 4,000 people in the state that won’t have employment. They’re probably going to be forced to move somewhere else.

“The nice thing about Medicaid expansion in that respect, they’re part of the community, they want to hold on,” he continued. “If they can have access to part-time jobs to get them through until they can find other full-time employment in the state and we can keep them here, that’s great. Once they leave, we’re not getting them back.”

But the added burden of $18 million every two years for the state Health Department could result in cuts to existing department programs, said Rep. Sue Wilson, R-Cheyenne.

“I am very concerned, if our revenue picture’s the same, that we would expand Medicaid and then tell the department to find that money, $20 million a biennium, roughly, inside your agency,” she said.

However, Josh Hannes, vice president of the Wyoming Hospital Association, said the expansion would give officials in the state and the health industry to work together to develop a plan that would fit the state.

“We have an opportunity, I think, to work with our policy makers, our Department of Health, Department of Insurance, our folks at (the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) to create a plan that works for Wyoming,” he said.

Naomi Lopez of the Goldwater Institute warned attendees that an extra influx of federal money will not necessarily lead to improved health care.

“There are a lot of areas where you can actually improve the delivery of care at a lower cost and really break away from this idea that government spending is going to be some kind of silver bullet to what ails your health care system,” she said. “It is not. What is actually going to fix the health care system is focusing on patient-centric solutions and I think that is not what Medicaid expansion is going to provide.”

CREG: Latest Wyoming Revenue Estimate Shows $48 Million Drop

in Government spending/News/politics
2690

By Bob Geha

Wyoming legislators will have $48 million less to spend over the next two years than originally believed, according to a report issued Friday.

The state’s Consensus Revenue Estimating Group (CREG) submitted a report to the Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee that showed revenues for the state over the next biennium, running from July of 2020 through June of 2022, will drop below levels predicted in October.

The CREG told JAC members the decline was largely due to drops in natural gas prices.

The JAC is meeting to prepare its budget for the biennium for presentation to the Legislature, which opens its budget session on Feb. 10. After all of the state’s agencies are funded, officials believe lawmakers will only have about $20 million to $25 million to finance other projects.

Although the state has reserve funds it can use to pay some operations, those reserves will not last forever and lawmakers will have to take that into account, said JAC member Rep. Tom Walters, R-Casper.

“There’s going to be multiple legislators that have great ideas coming from their neck of the woods and we’ll just have to see how those work out,” he said. “Wyoming is in a good position as we do have some reserves that can be used, but those reserves won’t last forever, so we have to make some hard choices for certain.”

Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, another JAC member, said he believes the Legislature will have to be careful with programs that put an ongoing drain on state coffers.

“Those ongoing expenses of government that we have, we need to be careful where we inflate those and where the needs are, because I really do worry about revenues going into the future,” he said.

As the state adjusts to lower revenues from its energy industry, it might turn more to the tourism and outdoor recreation sectors to make up for declining income, said committee member Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Jackson.

“It really puts the attributes that this state loves and the things that we love about living here and puts it right out front,” he said. “We want to display that to the world. That’s the way we can get people to come, to visit, to spend money, which creates money for the state. It’s a good bet for the state.”

How the Wyoming Legislature builds the state budget: A primer

in Government spending/News/politics
Legislature
2641

By Laura Hancock, Cowboy State Daily

On Feb. 10, the 2020 Budget Session of the Wyoming Legislature officially begins, one that could be somber and frustrating — considering Gov. Mark Gordon has told lawmakers that after mandated expenses they only have around $23.5 million to play with.

As in prior budget sessions, the 12 members of the Joint Appropriations Committee, which crafts the state’s two-year spending bill, has met for a good chunk of December, poring over rows of numbers, grilling state agency heads and discussing the needs of the state. 

Most sections of the biennial state budget that lawmakers will pass will go into effect July 1 and end June 30, 2022. Read on to learn more about the JAC and the budgeting process. 

The agencies

The budgeting process starts with the heads of state agencies, which fall under the executive branch, submitting budget requests to the governor budget in the autumn before budget sessions, which the Wyoming Constitution states must occur during even-numbered years.

The governor

Each governor is required to release budget recommendations by Dec. 1 prior to a budget session, per the Constitution.

“What the governor does is he meets with all agencies and listens to their requests,” said John Hastert of Green River, a former Democratic lawmaker who served on JAC for about eight years.

The budget recommendations that the governor prepares for the Legislature show the agency requests and whether he accepts, modifies or rejects each one, Hastert said. 

Last month, Gov. Mark Gordon submitted budget recommendations with the expectation of around $3 billion in revenues from the General Fund — the state’s main bank account — and the Budget Reserve Account, which is akin to an overdraft account for the General Fund. 

Gordon largely recommended the Legislature keep spending low, considering the ongoing slump fossil fuel revenues, which most state leaders do not believe will be reversed any time soon, as the natural resources industry is undergoing fundamental changes. 

Gordon called for significant reduction in capital construction and limits on tapping the rainy day fund – to be used solely for legislatively-mandated educational needs and local governments. 

“We have only $23.5 million in structural (ongoing) funding available toconsider distributing during this biennium to any entity, including the entire executive branch, higher education, the Judicial Branch, and the Legislative Service Office,” Gordon said in his budget recommendations. “Additional spending cuts are on the horizon and appear imperative to keep Wyoming moving forward.”

Budget hearings

During the first week of December, the governor and agency chiefs meet with the JAC and explain budget recommendations and requests.

This year, Gordon met with the JAC on Dec. 9. The agency heads met with the JAC through Dec. 20. 

JAC interviews with agencies are expected to continue into the beginning of January, from Jan. 6-10 and again from Jan. 13-17.

Hastert said the information during the interviews with the agencies is valuable: “They get first-hand information,” he said. 

JAC markup

In the last two weeks in January, JAC markup begins. Lawmakers will start on the first pages of the governor’s budget recommendations and “mark up” the items with their own ideas of what the budget should look like. 

“They start with the governor’s recommendations and it’s either an ‘aye’ vote or ‘no’ vote or modify,” Hastert said. “Most of the time, it’s usually taking more of a cut. It’s just the nature of JAC to try to cut even further.”

The JAC’s version of the budget is the one that will be submitted for review by the Legislature.

Actual Capitol remodel costs just higher than estimates

in Government spending/News
Wyoming Capitol Square Project nears completion
2640

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

After nearly two decades of setting aside funds and working on design and construction, renovations to the state Capitol and Herschler State Office Building are nearly complete, a Wyoming State Construction Department spokesperson said.

“The Legislature started saving for the Capitol Square Project in 2003,” said Suzanne Norton, the state Construction Department project manager. “The projected substantial completion date for construction is Jan. 31 (2020). Final completion is typically 90 days after the substantial completion date.”

The Construction Department provided Cowboy State Daily with documents summarizing the cost of the Capitol Square Project as of Dec. 1, 2019. 

The square project is an extensive overhaul of the Capitol and Herschler buildings. A new central utility plant was also built to service both. 

While numerous aesthetic renovations were made to the Capitol, work also included several major infrastructure updates. 

“Before the project, only about 75 percent of the Capitol had heating and cooling,” Norton explained. “We also installed a complete fire suppression system throughout the building, which it didn’t have before.” 

On the Herschler side, crews peeled the building back to its bones, said Mel Muldrow, an administrator for the Construction Department’s Construction Management Division.

“The interior was all gutted out — that’s walls, flooring, electrical, everything except for concrete slabs — and replaced,” Muldrow said. 

Originally estimated to cost about $305.6 million, the value of the current contracts in place for the project total $307.8 million, according to Construction Department documents. 

While close to the original estimate, the value of the current contracts values does not include furniture for the Capitol, which is still in the request for proposal process and was originally estimated to cost about $4 million. 

“The project should not go above that cost ($307.8 million), but we are not done,” Norton said. “There are a number categories we are still working on getting contracts for.”

The state has paid about $289 million to date, with a remaining debt of about $19 million, not including contracts still in the request for proposal process.

Where did it all go?

The Construction Department broke down the projects cost into six categories: Owner’s overhead, construction services, equipment and furnishings, temporary facilities, relocation and contingency fund.

Construction services

Estimated at $223 million, the current value of contracts for construction services is $256 million.

“Construction services includes all the work done by our construction contractors and abatement companies, among others,” Norton said. “It’s all the nuts and bolts, plus some.” 

Accurately guessing construction costs and materials prices years ahead of time can be challenging, which is why the Legislature built a $20 million contingency fund into the project cost, Muldrow said.

Basic construction costs were estimated at $219 million, but contracts for the work are valued at $250 million, an increase of about $31 million or 15 percent.

A new parking lot that was slated to cost about $600,000 was never built, Norton said. 

However, the abatement estimate was about $550,000, but wound up costing triple at $1.5 million.

“Abatement is the removal of usually hazardous materials, such as lead and asbestos,” Muldrow said. “You can only guess at where you’ll find those materials. One example is when we took the exterior walls off the Herschler building, we discovered they were put up with hockey-puck sized chunks of glue material, which tested positive for asbestos.” 

Contingency fund

Construction Department documents state $20 million was set aside for the contingency fund, all of which was spent.

“One of the things you always want to have in a project is some extra money for all the little things that come up that you didn’t expect,” Muldrow said. 

Norton said contingency monies were dispersed to nearly every area of the project throughout the process.

Temporary facilities

During the approximately three years of renovations, about 750 state employees were moved out of their offices in the Capitol and Herschler buildings and into offsite state buildings or space leased from private companies around Cheyenne.  

The state estimated the cost of temporary facilities for those workers would be about $14.7 million, but the actual cost will be $15.2 million, Construction Department documents state.

The leases were originally estimated to cost about $7.6 million, but are currently valued at $9.1 million. In December, a Construction Department spokesperson said all relocated state employees were moved back into state-owned properties. 

State improvements to the temporary facilities were estimated to cost about $4.8 million, and the contracts’ value is currently $4.1 million.  

“When you move a government office out of the Capitol, and you want to hold a legislative session in an old retail store, it’s not an apples-to-apples fit,” Norton explained. “Some changes will need to be made to the new property.”

Not everyone was pleased with the tenants’ improvements, however. Wyoming Financial Building owner Wayne Voss sued the state in 2017 for failure to pay almost $1.5 million in rent. State officials argued they were withholding rent because the state had to make improvements to the building, but Voss said the state never sought his permission to make those improvements as required in the contract.

Owner’s overhead

Before hammers can pound nails, pens need to scratch paper and the owner’s overhead category of the Construction Department’s cost summary is an accounting of all the time and ink spent to facilitate the project’s construction efforts, Norton explained.

“There’s research you have to do, permit fees, legal advertising, design costs and a host of other non-construction costs,” she said. 

Estimated to cost about $7.3 million, the owner’s overhead category received funds under the “miscellaneous” line item recommended by the Capitol Square Project Oversight Group, which eliminated the contract value cost and created a credit of about $94,000. 

The funds were ultimately reallocated within the project budget to be spent on actual construction items such as abatement, concrete repair, roof repair and replacement and fire suppression piping that were not originally included in the project scope, Norton said.

Design services is included in the overhead category, but separate from the overhead items in the red.

Estimated at about $30 million, design services included the architect costs and materials testing, which are currently valued at $31.5 million.

Equipment and furnishings

“Furniture, fixtures and equipment are generally defined by design and construction industries as anything that would fall out if you picked up a building and shook it,” Norton said.

Estimated to cost about $8.3 million, the current contracts’ value is $4.1 million. Norton said $3.7 million was spent on furniture for the Herschler building, but no contract has been signed for Capitol office furniture, so the cost of that furniture is not included in the contracts’ value.

Artwork for the two buildings was estimated to cost $100,000, and to date, about $336,000 has been spent on artwork, the department’s documents state.

Relocation 

The estimated cost to move people, furniture and technology to and from the Capitol and Herschler buildings was about $1.9 million, and the current contracts’ value is about $1.2 million.

Budgets, black eyes, bare knuckles: MMA board keeps Wyoming on combative sports map

in Government spending/News
2523

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Seven years after creating the nation’s first Board of Mixed Martial Arts, Wyoming is still grappling to stay ahead in the evolving world of combative sports. 

“We were the first state to regulate and sanction bare-knuckle fighting,” MMA Board Chairman Bryan Pedersen said, explaining the fighting style was sanctioned in 2018. “It was legal before, but there was no regulatory body. Now, everyone’s doing it. But somebody had to be first, and I’m proud it was Wyoming.”

But, like the fighters it was created to protect, the MMA board has to roll with punches, especially when they hit below the budget belt.

Carbon extraction not only drives the state’s economy, but it attracts combative sports most active demographic — people between the ages of 18 and 25. 

“In 2015, they started capping (oil and gas) wells,” Pedersen said. “For 16 months, we didn’t have one event, because you had an exodus of fans and combatants.”

The board’s budget is funded entirely by license fees, event permits and gate-fee percentages, he explained. 

“We believe we can do our job with no additional funds from the general fund,” Pedersen said. “If this thing ever runs out of money, it auto-collapses.”

Knocking out the books

An MMA fighter, financial adviser and former state representative, Pedersen sponsored the bill to create the board in 2012. As a member of the state’s Revenue Committee at the time, however, he said he wanted to make sure the board could be self-sufficient, so he added language to the proposal that forced it to collapse if its bank account ran dry.

“I’d seen enough of people coming to the Legislature asking for money,” he recalled. “I wanted to make sure that was never this.”

Without a physical location or salaried staff, keeping the board in the black seems like it would be easy even during the slow years, but Pedersen said the devil is in the details.

“We pay the Department of Administration and Information to keep tabs on our account,” he explained. “So, during that down period when nothing was going on, we were paying them to tell us nothing was going on.”

According to information provided by the State Auditor’s Office, the board spent about $2,300 in 2016 and approximately $2,500 in 2017. 

“We nearly ran out of money,” Pedersen said. “At one point, I bought six t-shirts from the board for $2,000 just so we could pay (the Department of Administration and Information). Then, oil came back, and now, we’re having more events.”

After regulating bare-knuckle boxing in 2018, the board’s expenditures more than tripled to nearly $9,000, before dropping back to about $6,000 so far in 2019. Pedersen said after Wyoming sanctioned bare-knuckle fighting, other states followed suit, decreasing the board’s income because of a lack of events.

“We only receive income from fighters’ licenses, promoters’ licenses, event permits and 5 percent of the gate fee,” Pedersen said. “We spend our money on training for officials and our at-will employees as needed.”

The board lists two at-will employees on its website: Board Representative Nick Meeker and Jeremy Arneson, an executive assistant.

To ensure adherence to the board’s regulations, one representative is paid to attend each event. An at-will employee is also paid to attend board meetings and perform administrative duties. Since 2014, the board has permitted 28 events, most of which were MMA bouts, Pedersen said. He did not provide data for events prior to 2014.At-will employees are paid fixed rates for specific services, but not the commissioners.

“No commissioner takes compensation of any kind,” Pedersen said.

The board has also banked $10,000 to settle any disputes over contested match outcomes, he added. 

‘Above and beyond’

BYB Extreme promoter Mike Vazquez said his company presented data about bare-knuckle fighting compared to traditional boxing across the nation before finding an open ear in Wyoming.

“We went around the country showing data we collected, and the crazy thing is — everywhere we went, they agreed with us,” Vazquez said. “But, (Pedersen) and his group were really the first to act on the data.”

In a traditional boxing match, about 700 punches are thrown, more than half land and landed shots are typically to the head, he explained.

“With bare-knuckle boxing, our rounds are shorter and there’s less of them,” Vazquez said. “Our fighters don’t have gloves, so they don’t throw a lot of shots to the head.” 

During a typical bare-knuckle fight, he said less than a hundred punches are thrown, fewer connect and less than half land on the head, he said.

“Having Wyoming take that step has now let other states take the step,” Vazquez said. “We’ve seen at least five other states regulate the sport, and I’ve heard several others are in the works.”

BYB Extreme hosted a bare-knuckle event at the Cheyenne Ice and Event Center in April.

“Wyoming was great, the people were so welcoming,” Vazquez said. “We stayed at the haunted hotel there – the Plains Hotel — and the MMA Board was fantastic to work with. They went above and beyond.”

Despite the number of notches in its belt already, the board has big plans ahead, Pedersen said. 

“We have a huge drive from promoters and fighters to regulate boxing,” he said. “They want to legitimize their bouts, because if a person fights in an unsanctioned bout, it doesn’t count.”

While the MMA board regulates MMA, kick boxing and bare-knuckle boxing, traditional boxing is not currently in its purview.

“Right now, a commission is coming from Kansas and regulating a few bouts,” Pedersen said. “The Association of Boxing Commissions (ABC), the governing body of boxing and MMA nationwide, permits sanctioning bodies to regulate interstate.”

In order for boxers’ fights to count toward their official record, ABC requires them to be licensed by their home state, he explained.

“We don’t have licensure body,” Pedersen said. “All these guys that are out there putting in the blood, sweat and tears cannot get a license.” 

The board plans to pursue authority to issue licenses to Wyoming fighters utilizing its current funding method, which would require no additional funds from the state, he said. 

“We do this out of a passion for the sport,” Pedersen said about his service on the board. “I love Wyoming, and I’m not going anywhere. I hope to be doing this for a long time to come.”

Capitol’s new furniture might not be delivered until after 2020 Budget Session

in Government spending/News
2519

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Months after Wyoming hosted a grand reopening of the state Capitol building, legislative and executive staffers are still working with folding tables and temporary furniture.

During a Capitol Building Restoration Oversight Group meeting Nov. 15, group members voted to rework a Request For Proposal (RFP), which could provide furnishings for the newly renovated building. 

Oversight Group member Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, said the group originally hoped to see the Capitol furnished prior to the 2020 Budget Session. But reworking the proposal could prevent that goal. 

“We’ve had several issues that have arisen out of our original RFPs,” Bebout explained. “We specced this RFP to a certain greater quality, but the manufacturer that could meet those specs went out of business.”

Additionally, he said the group wanted to ensure Wyoming furniture suppliers had an opportunity to bid on the reworked proposal. 

“The original RFP went out about 3-4 months ago,” Bebout said. “It’s a long RFP, because it gets into the specifics.”

Bebout did not have the specifics on hand at the time of his interview, but instead, directed Cowboy State Daily to the Wyoming State Construction Department for details regarding the furniture RFP.

Construction Department spokesperson Travis Hoff said the agency declined to comment on the RFP details, process, amendments or creation, because the document was being reviewed by the Wyoming Attorney General’s office. 

In an email, Hoff provided the state statute used to create the RFP, which specifies that the agency issuing an RFP can ask for certain specifications or products. However, the law also states if the specified product is not available to “responsible Wyoming resident suppliers,” that fact cannot be used as a reason to prevent Wyoming vendors from submitting bids.

Hoff also confirmed some staffers were currently working in the Capitol on temporary furniture, and while no agencies were still renting space outside state-owned buildings, some had yet to move into the Capitol.

Wyoming Legislative Service Office Director Matt Obrecht said his staff moved into the building earlier this summer.

“We’re working on folding tables and have been since June,” Obrecht said.

Bebout said he wasn’t fond of the situation, but he didn’t place the blame at anyone’s feet. 

“I thought we would probably have it done before the budget session, but there’s really nobody to blame,” he said. “If we don’t get (new furniture) by the time the budget session starts, then we’ll use the old furniture and make it work.”

Gordon releases tight budget for next biennium

in Government spending/News
2396

Gov. Mark Gordon’s release of his budget proposal for the 2021-22 biennium on Monday came with a recognition of the declining fortunes of Wyoming’s mineral sector.

Gordon said his budget proposal — his first as governor — kept spending low without cutting programs.

“The point to me has been to understand what those budget cuts will mean operationally across the whole of government,” he said during a news conference Monday. “I think that’s a process that takes more time. We haven’t identified any programmatic cuts at this point.”

Between spending requirements set by law or the Constitution and limits on revenues — estimated to total $2.26 billion during the next two years — Gordon said he is recommending a budget that he said will keep spending low and reduce capital construction.

The budget for the General Fund — the state’s main bank account — recommends providing public schools with $161 million from Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account on top of the $1.7 billion schools are to receive from the Schools Foundation Program. In addition, he recommended $105 million be given to local communities.

Gordon’s budget proposes spending $94.7 million on capital construction rather than the $150 million proposed to his office. He also recommended spending $238 million on school construction and $21 million for one-time bonuses for state government employees.

“My goal in this budget was to take care of people first because they are key to a productive government,” he said. “I have mentioned several times how incredibly hard working people in Wyoming government are. And I recognize that they have not had the recognition that they have really deserved over time.”

Gordon, in his comments during the news conference and in the letter to the Legislature accompanying his budget proposal, said his budget was prepared with an eye toward changing economic conditions.

“These changes, including declining coal production and low natural gas prices, will impact how we fund government services over the next years and probably on into the future,” he said.

The Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee will begin its review of Gordon’s budget in a series of meetings to be held through December and January. The committee will forward its recommendation for a biennium budget to the full Legislature, which begins its 2020 budget session in February.

2021-22 BUDGET POINTS

  • Total proposed budget: $3.2 billion
  • Appropriation for capital construction: $94.7 million
  • Appropriation for local communities: $105 million
  • Appropriation for School Foundation: $1.75 billion
  • Appropriation for school construction: $238 million
  • Appropriation for Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust Fund: $12 million
  • Appropriation for Energy Commercialization Program: $25 million
  • Appropriation for the University of Wyoming: $438 million
  • Number of new employees: 35

State long-term debt is real issue of concern, legislators say

in Government spending/News
2319

By Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming’s short-term revenue and budget problems are not as concerning as the state’s long-term deficit, according to two members of the Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee.

Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, the committee’s chairman, and Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Jackson, said the Legislature needs to address the fact that for several years, state spending has exceeded income, with the difference being made up through a combination of spending cuts and the use of money from various savings accounts.

Gierau said the state has already made significant reductions in spending to address what is called the “structural deficits.”

“A lot of folks need to realize that … we have less employees in state government than we had eight years ago,” he said. “Government is smaller. Programs are smaller.”

While the state could use about $1.6 billion from its reserve accounts to resolve the issue on a short-term basis, the action would deplete those accounts and the outlook to replace that money is not good.

“Over the next five years, with declining revenues, those ‘rainy day’ funds are anticipated to start to shrink if we keep spending at the same levels,” Gierau said. “And we won’t have money, given our current revenue picture … to replace them.”

The decline in mineral revenue has had a significant impact on the state’s revenues and the Legislature will have to look seriously at some action to deal with issue on a long-term basis, Bebout said.

“The challenge is to not just kick the can down the road,” he said. “I think we need to start making progress on our future to deal with our structural deficit.”

Specifically, the state needs to make plans for the day when mineral revenues no longer contribute a large amount to the state’s income, Bebout said.

“The revenue stream and the way we generate revenue is changing,” he said. “Minerals will not be able to carry the load like they have in the past. We need to be prepared for that and start moving in that direction.”

Several legislative committees are looking at ways to boost the state’s income, including the creation of a statewide lodging tax, an increase in gas taxes, a possible increase in property taxes and a corporate income tax.

Over half of the anticipated deficit spending — $250 million — can be traced to education funding and a legislative committee recently approved a $19 million increase in education spending to account for inflation. Legislators argued the increase must be approved to comply with Wyoming Supreme Court orders regarding school financing.

Bebout said he disagreed with such mandates being handed down by the court and said education spending should be determined by elected officials.

“Quite frankly, I’m tired of the courts dictating how we spend money on education,” he said. “I think it should be up to elected officials, i.e., the Legislature to make those decisions. If you don’t like what we do, you vote us out, rather than have the court tell us what to do.”

What if coal production drops to zero? Legislature looking for new revenues

in Government spending/Energy/News/Taxes
Electricity
2270

By Laura Hancock, Cowboy State Daily

Coal production in Wyoming has dropped by over 100 million tons in the past decade, and state Sen. Cale Case doesn’t think the downward slide is close to finished.

“There isn’t a scenario where it turns around, where the decline stops,” said Case, R-Lander, a co-chair of the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Revenue Committee. “No one can articulate that.”

That will likely spell trouble for state coffers, which are dependent on coal revenue to pay the bills.

What if coal production trickled down to zero? It’s not entirely a hypothetical question these days, considering PacifiCorp’s recently announced draft plan to retire coal plants early.

Fueling state accounts

Wyoming coal producers pay severance taxes, federal mineral royalties, coal lease bonus revenues and ad valorem taxes at various points of the mining process, which flow to different state, education and local government funds. But each revenue source has decreased in the past 10 years:·      

  • Severance taxes: In 2009, mining companies paid the state $273.3 million. In 2018, they paid $198.8 million. In 2024, state projections show they could pay $185.9 million.·      
  • Federal mineral royalties, which are divided between the federal and state governments by 51% and 49% respectively: Wyoming received $262.5 million in 2009 and $198.1 million in 2018. Federal data didn’t contain royalty projections for the future.·      
  • Coal lease bonuses, which have funded Wyoming’s ambitious school construction program, were $213.6 million in 2009 and $5.3 million in 2018. From 2019 to 2024, the state estimates $0 from the bonuses, collected when mining companies pay for expanding operations on federal land. There are no expectations that mines will expand operations in the near future. ·      
  • Ad valorem taxes, assessed on the value of coal and paid a year after the assessment: Coal companies paid taxes on $3.8 billion in 2009 assessed valuations. They are expected to pay taxes on $2.8 billion in 2018 assessed valuations. By 2024, state projections show valuations falling by another $100 million to $2.7 billion.

The total income from severance taxes, federal mineral royalties and coal lease bonuses dropped from $749.4 million in 2009 to $402.2 million in 2018.

Case notes these figures don’t include sales and use taxes companies pay for items small and large — ranging from paper for copiers to tires for haul trucks.

“We don’t get the sales tax on stuff they buy,” he said. “Because they’re not buying much anymore.”

Replacement revenues

As Revenue Committee co-chair, it’s Case’s job to consider ways to make up for lost coal revenue.

“That’s a big lift,” he said. “It’s a lot of money.”

True, oil and gas continue to bring Wyoming revenue – but not enough to replace coal. And it’s entirely possible, with market concerns about global climate change, that new restrictions could kill demand for those fossil fuels.

Among proposals before the Joint Revenue Committee:      

  • The committee advanced a proposal in September that would create a corporate income tax of 7 percent on companies with at least 100 shareholders – in other words, businesses not generally headquartered in the state. The revenue created would be around $20 million to $25 million a year, Case said. It’s not a replacement for coal, but a start. A similar measure failed earlier this year in the Legislature.
  • Changes to property taxes, including: An increase in the statewide mill levy for schools, increases in some property taxes, and creating a new property tax class for multi-million dollar homes.
  • Wyoming taxes wind $1 per megawatt hour. Case would like to see it increased. Case would, in general, like to impose an electricity export tax. “Wyoming’s biggest export is electricity,” he said. At this point, there is no bill draft before lawmakers.

Many conservatives have said they want to see cuts to state government before looking to raise taxes.

“Here’s what I tell people: you’ll get your cuts,” Case said. “We’re going to have to cut like crazy. And we’re still going to need revenues. This is very serious. We’ve never faced anything like this.”

Ongoing discussions

The Wyoming Taxpayers Association, which represents many of the companies that would be affected by a corporate income tax, didn’t support the idea in the Legislature earlier this year. Its leadership hasn’t yet decided on its position on the bill currently under consideration, said Ashley Harpstreith, the organization’s executive director.

The Wyoming Taxpayers Association will be discussing the state’s revenue picture at its annual meeting next month. 

“The point is we’re going to have to have those hard conversations,” Harpstreith said. “It’s coming to a head. Industry has been paying the bills for a long time.”

Peterson: A cautionary tale from 27 years of public service

in Government spending/Column/Education
Peterson public service
2000

Ray Peterson served as a state senator for 13 years, from 2005-2018.  In this column, he shares his thoughts on his 27 years of public service.

Public Service

I hesitated to write this article but decided to share my story of public service for only one reason, to better inform our citizens.  This certainly is not done with any self-promoting agenda, as I do not have any future plans to run for any public office.  My 27 years of public service has come to an end.  But I think my story could be used to improve our understanding of the challenges of public service.  Perhaps this article may even convince someone to run for office or volunteer their time or just get involved.

I was first elected to the Cowley town council in 1986.  I served six years and enjoyed the opportunity to learn about town government while offering my input into community projects and working with others.  It was exciting and fulfilling to see a project through, from concept to planning to completion.  

While working on community projects, I was introduced to county concerns.  I had ideas for the county and saw needs that I thought I could help with.  I was elected to the Big Horn County Commission in 1992, where I served eight years dealing with budgets, a new jail, a new dispatch system, improved roads and public land issues.  

State Involvement

I was appointed to the Senate in 2005, where I was appointed to the Appropriations Committee and served for six years.  

After my years on the Appropriations Committee, I was given the assignment to chair the Senate Revenue Committee.  As the Senate president put it, “You’ve seen how we spend the money, now you need to know where it comes from.”   This taught me another valuable lesson in that I realized our Legislature was an institution that trains its own leaders to promote continuity and knowledge to ensure that the best decisions are made on the state’s behalf by our elected representatives.  

I will also mention that the pressure is unreal.  There are no simple votes on the floor of the Senate.  My wife would always notice when I returned home after a session that I had lost both weight and a little more hair.  

My Last Year       

As I gained experience and seniority in the state Senate, more responsibilities were assigned to me.  I was serving on the Management Council, a number of select committees, the Labor and Health Committee and chaired the Senate Revenue Committee.  

Added to this mix was the fact that our revenue projections were down and we were contending with a $1 billion shortfall, which meant that we had lost 25 percent of our projected biennial revenue.  Assignments were made to look for ways we could increase our revenue in Wyoming, which fell squarely on the Revenue Committee.  We were told to bring every revenue generating idea to the Legislature for consideration during the upcoming session.  

We also knew that our expenditures would need to be reduced.  We could not tax our way out of this downturn without looking at reductions to our budget as well.  The assignments were made to form a recalibration committee to look into possible ways we could reduce the education funding model.  I was assigned to that committee.  My summer was spent on  taxation issues and budget cuts to education. 

I remember admonishing our committee to have the courage to bring these tax bills to the floor for consideration, even if it meant that some of us would pay the price politically. I would imagine that most on the committee voted against the proposed revenue bills during the session, but we had done our job in bringing options to the floor.  

Because we had cash reserves, we elected to use them to cover the shortages, which meant no taxing proposal passed that session, but the studies were completed and the information was current for the Legislature to consider, so the Revenue Committee had completed its assignments.

The Recalibration Committee had even a tougher time in meeting deadlines, hiring consultants, gathering information and then making recommendations to the full Legislature during the upcoming session.  

You can imagine the popularity of this committee.  As an example, the business I worked for was boycotted by some schools around the state because of my perceived stance against education. I really didn’t know I had an anti-education stance, but there were a lot of people who thought I and a few others were public enemies to education.  

Articles in the papers that portrayed the Senate wanting to gut education seemed to be the flavor of the day.  But we had a budget to balance and the year before, we had cut the Health Department by almost $100 million, 10 percent of its biennial budget.  Now our attentions were turned to the largest state budget, K-12 education.  

Like the Revenue Committee, the Recalibration Committee completed its job and made recommendations for reductions based on the findings of our contracted consultants.  The committee members were not in total agreement and disagreed on where cuts should be made.  But one thing everyone understood was that cuts to the K-12 funding model were going to be made, it was just a matter of how much.

My Last Session

I was asked to sponsor the bill proposing reductions to the K-12 funding formula. I agreed to sponsor the bill knowing the subject and having spent the summer listening to the consultants and the recommendations.  I also thought that I could use this bill to ensure that my concerns with funding for our smaller schools would be protected.  

I had shared with other senators, over the years, that I felt that the funding model was flawed in favor of the larger schools.  Although this bill would not be a popular bill to sponsor, it would put me in the chair to control the outcome.  My first amendment was to slash $100 million from the proposed funding reduction of $140 million.

The news media continued to refer to the bill as cutting $140 million from our schools up to the day it died in the house.  Although the reporting was not accurate, the bill was now in a form and an amount that I felt our schools could deal with.  The reductions were in areas that would not affect the classroom or salaries or even the quality of our schools in the least.  These reductions were recommended by consultants and would be phased in over three years, just as our school administrators had requested.  

Three small schools stood out as taking larger hits to their budgets than all the other school districts.  Where all other schools were presented with reductions of 2 percent to 2.5 percent over three years, these three smaller schools faced 10 percent to 12 percent reductions. I now had evidence that some of our smaller schools were taking a bigger hit than our larger schools.  

To correct this, my last amendment to the bill was to provide a ceiling that would protect these smaller schools from unfair reductions in comparison to the other schools. I remember sitting down at my computer to check my emails after the  amendment passed on the floor of the Senate. They were pouring in from all over the state telling me how bad a person I was to cut education, but one caught my eye as it was from a superintendent back home telling me that he had sent out a letter to all of his teachers informing them I had broken my promise to the smaller schools and was gutting their district’s money. I, of course, was not happy about the accusations and made every attempt to respond and explain what I was trying to do with this bill, but I’m sure my explanation fell on deaf ears.  

The bill passed the Senate with a proposed $40 million reduction plan over three years and with my amendment.  

The House, meanwhile, had its own reduction bill, which was set cuts at $15 million.  The Senate file was quickly killed in the House Education Committee.  The Senate took the House version and deleted most of the House wording and inserted the Senate file wording and the reduction amount of $40 million. This is what led to the Conference Committee where the House and Senate agreed on a $37 million reduction plan to the K-12 funding formula — $3 million short of my original Senate file but with my amendments intact.  The House was hailed by the media as the saviors of education that session.

I was unseated in the August primary.

My Take on Things  

After the session was over, the Senate president asked If I was going to be all right back home as I was up for re-election.  I told him that I should be okay as I would get back and explain my intentions and work on the bill to the educators back home.  What I was not counting on was that the educators did not want to listen to an explanation and did not attend any of my meetings where I offered a report of the session and the bill that I had worked on.  

Our favorite lobbying group, the Wyoming Education Association, had invested time and money to see that I was unseated.  I don’t really know what it was telling the voters in Senate District 19, but I know it wasn’t the fact that I voted for teacher salary increases each time they were introduced over the previous six years, or that I fought to reinvest general fund money into the teachers’ pension fund after we lost a good portion of it in 2008, or that I voted to increase spending on additional new school construction. 

What the WEA saw in me was a threat.  I had knowledge and education of the budget and the education funding formula as well as the seniority to present and push through legislation that would have threatened their plans for continued increases.  I was asked to be the next Majority Floor Leader in the next session which would have made me president of the Senate in 2021.  I would have also served as the chairman of the Appropriations Committee in 2019-20.  The WEA was going to have none of that.  

Conclusion

Now back to my reason for sharing my story.  I’ve asked myself many times what I might have done differently to ensure my own re-election.  I could have kept my distance from those issues by not accepting those difficult assignments.  But considering all the training and cost of my public service education over the years, I would think that running away from those issues would have been self-serving rather than doing what I was elected and trained to do.  

I remain concerned about what happened and could happen to another public servant.  To allow the media and a union to dictate what we think of a candidate is foolish and dangerous.  The overwhelming problem did not go away with my replacement.

The end result of the 2 percent or $37 million reduction over three years to our K-12 education funding?  Each of the four school districts in Senate District 19 gave raises shortly after the budget session was over.  New school construction and building maintenance continues.  The K-12 education budget continues to grow each year and the WEA continues to be one of, if not the, strongest employee unions in our state.  

We need to be better than this, Wyoming.  Media with an agenda other than fair reporting is dangerous.  Unions that control elections are dangerous.  We should protect openness, transparency, honesty and integrity to our political process.  And certainly, the more knowledge we have, the better we are all served.

Peterson: How to fix Wyoming’s revenue struggles

in Government spending/Column/Taxes
Wyoming Government spending
1902

By R. Ray Peterson, guest column for Cowboy State Daily

While serving in the Wyoming Senate, I had the privilege of serving on both the Appropriations Committee for six years and as chairman of the Senate Revenue Committee for six years.  These two committees deal with the state budget through expenditures and revenues.

As I served, I was able to attend many state and regional meetings as well as review reports, and studies, all while having direct involvement in directing expenditures and revenue streams of our state.  These experiences allowed me insights and knowledge concerning our states budget along with growing concerns of revenue streams and how we will meet the expectations of funding state and local governments into the future.

The most recent developments of our coal industry in Wyoming should be setting off alarms with every elected official and citizen in our state.  Over the years, our state’s natural resources have subsidized a major portion of our taxes or revenue streams that we use to fund our schools and governments.  Over half of all revenues used to meet these expenses come from our mineral extraction industry. 

Learning from our history of our boom and bust cycles, our legislature has wisely put aside additional revenues from the high years to assist us during the low years.  This philosophy has served us well for the past 50 years in providing a more consistent budget, but the times, “they are a changing.”  The question now is, how long before our reserves are depleted?  Will our natural resources come back as they have in the past to save us yet another time? 

Wyoming, by our state’s constitution, must have a balanced budget.  Some would argue that we do not deficit spend in Wyoming while others would argue that we use the reserves to balance the budget which is, in a sense, deficit spending.  From my own simple understanding, when we spend more in a period than we take in, it is deficit spending. 

Although our budget is balanced in the end, we are still spending more than we take in during our low years.  Thanks to our cash reserves or “rainy day” funds and our investments, we seem to be holding our own while hoping that the revenue streams will return to higher levels. 

Today’s challenges are different

But today’s challenges to the budget are different than our past experiences of our boom and bust cycles.  Today, we face the strong possibility that coal will never come back to contribute to our revenues as it once did for our state.  The market has changed.  The demand has changed.  Unlike natural gas and oil, coal was a more consistent contributor to our states revenues with even slight increases from year to year, as amounts extracted increased with what the market demanded. 

But the demand for coal is decreasing for different reasons.  Although Wyoming has stepped up to produce cleaner burning coal technology to protect our coal’s value, other factors have weighed in that have had a dramatic effect on the value of coal. 

The war on coal was real and certainly had its effect.  More power plants have converted from coal fired to natural gas fired power generation.  But more importantly, consumer states of energy, such as California and others, have required energy supply companies to provide evidence that a majority of their power generation portfolio is derived from renewable sources such as hydro, wind and solar, or they will go elsewhere for their energy purchases.  The market is changing and because of this, Wyoming should be prepared and adapt with those changes.

Action is required

There are two principles used when budgeting in a shortfall.  Increase revenues or reduce expenditures.  Wyoming has done both without raising taxes. And there are other good things the state has done and continues to do.  As I mentioned, it participates with private energy corporations in developing clean coal technology as well as other cleaner burning fossil fuel efforts.  It also participates in the effort to develop new markets for our coal.  It has worked to create more transmission lines to deliver our natural gas and oil to market areas. 

These are things our state has done to try and increase or stabilize our revenues by strengthening the current resources we have.  The state has also used excess revenue of the good years to save and invest.  These investments, at times, provide additional revenues that are used to fill the budget holes left from the decreasing value of our market driven resources.  This effort combined with savings, have provided a long-needed stabilizing influence on our past boom and bust budget cycles.

Our challenge today

Our subsidy by mineral taxation has lightened the tax burden on Wyoming citizens over the years, but it has taken a hit, creating a shortfall.  The savings and investment of those savings are currently filling the shortages, allowing our state and local leaders time to make adjustments to their budgets. 

But reserves shrink and investments don’t always perform consistently.  The investment portfolio that perhaps saved our budget the year before could generate nothing the following year.  Trusting our trust funds is not the long-term solution to our shortfall problems. 

Most will argue that we need to reduce our expenditures.  I certainly agree with this position.  As with our own home budgets, we make less, we should spend less.  It should be no different with our state budget and over the last few years the state budget has been reduced in most areas.  But these are all short-term solutions to our current situation. 

What needs to be brought to the table are long-term solutions.  The solutions need to address the real problem of an inconsistent revenue stream, where nearly 60 percent of current revenues collected are market driven or out of our own control.  Wyoming needs to meet the challenge of reducing that market driven 60 percent, to 50 percent or even 40 percent of total revenue collected by the state. 

Now the question should be; How do we do this?

It’s time

By applying the two principles of budgeting in a shortfall of raising revenue and reducing expenses, I’ll offer one revenue increasing idea and two reducing expenditures ideas. 

A good start to the effort of stabilizing our revenue stream would be to pass a bill increasing the statewide lodging tax.   This increase would have the lowest effect on our tax payers and would be consistent to what surrounding states charge.   

For my ideas of reducing expenditures, I would suggest eliminating the $15 million annual automatic escalator for funding K-12 education.  I would also zero base the Department of Education budget and the Department of Health budget every ten years in the appropriations committee.  Stagger them to spread out the work load, but the two largest budgets in our state need more legislative scrutiny. 

These actions would be a good start in stabilizing our budget in Wyoming.

Revenues ahead of estimates, though structural problems remain

in Government spending/News/Taxes
Wyoming taxes
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By Laura Hancock, Cowboy State Daily

Sales taxes, investment income, oil severance taxes and federal mineral royalties are proving to be the saving grace for state coffers, according to a recent report, but the overall revenue picture for Wyoming remains bleak.

In the first six months of the year, production of natural gas and coal – as well as prices for coal – came in below the state’s official forecast, according to the Census Revenue Estimating Group, made up of revenue experts from the legislative and executive branches of Wyoming government. 

CREG recently released a six-month revenue update for Wyoming, and compared those revenues against its previous official state forecast, released in January. 

At one time, coal and natural gas were counter-cyclical – when one was down, the other was up – which helped Wyoming absorb the booms and busts of a natural resource economy, and money continued to flow to keep state government running. 

But the July 31 CREG update underscored a new reality: Production of both commodities was down, and the income for two accounts that fund most day-to-day operations in state government would have also missed estimates had it not been for other forms of revenue. 

Revenue receipts to the General Fund, which is something of a state checking account, were $201 million or 16.9 percent ahead of earlier forecasts for the year due to higher-than-anticipated sales tax, investment and oil severance tax income.  

Receipts to the Budget Reserve Fund, which is akin to a state overdraft account, were 6.7 percent ahead of projections, thanks to severance taxes and federal mineral royalties. State Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, said that Wyoming can’t always count on high returns on investments. 

“Future projections for investment returns are nowhere near where they’ve been the last four years,” he said. “They’re looking at 5.5 percent, 5.25 percent (rate of return) for the retirement system. We have some serious problems ahead of us.”

Zwonitzer is a co-chair of the Legislature’s Joint Revenue Committee, which is studying whether to implement new taxes, such as a corporate income tax or a gross receipts tax. 

The difference between the two? A corporate income tax is assessed on business profits, or income. Gross receipts taxes are levied on sales. 

Companies don’t pay corporate income taxes if their profits are zero or negative. But that’s not true with gross receipts taxes, according to the conservative Tax Foundation.

Forty-four states have a corporate income tax and four have a gross receipts tax, Zwonitzer said. 

Other taxes under consideration: 

  • A higher assessment against wind power generation
  • An increase of the statewide mill levy for schools
  • Increases for some property taxes
  • Adding a fourth category of property taxes – currently there are residential, commercial and industrial – which would consider multi-million dollar residential homes. “That would require a constitutional amendment,” Zwonitzer said. 

However, tax talk is tough in the Cowboy State, where people are conservative and used to one of the nation’s lowest tax rates. Previous tax proposals – such as requiring taxes be assessed on services including haircuts, real estate transactions and legal services – went nowhere. 

“Some in the Republican caucus say we need to be cutting services more before raising taxes,” Zwonitzer said. “They can’t identify where those cuts are” outside of education. 

Revenue bills must first be introduced in the House, where Zwonitzer said many proposals will likely gain the two-thirds vote necessary to clear introduction and be referred to a committee on budget years, such as the 2020 session. 

“I think we’re going to have some good discussions,” he said. 

Transposition error makes it appear substitute teacher makes $216K

in Government spending/News/Education/Transparency
Transposition error makes it appear substitute teacher makes $216K
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By James Chilton, Cowboy State Daily

RIVERTON – In case you might’ve heard otherwise, please rest assured that a substitute teacher does not, in fact, hold the top-paying job in Fremont County School District 25 in Riverton. They’re not paying a custodian $120,000 a year, either.

But that certainly appeared to be the case if you were to visit the government spending accountability website OpenTheBooks.com Saturday morning. And it appears a transposing error is to blame.

Founded in 2011 and based out of a Chicago suburb, OpenTheBooks.com is a nonprofit dedicated to uncovering and disclosing the spending figures at every level of government, with an overall aim of providing the public accountability about where its money is spent. The nonprofit’s oversight reports on government spending have been featured by news outlets as diverse as C-SPAN, Good Morning AmericaFox News and The Wall Street Journal.

And according to FCSD 25 Personnel Manager Karen Wardner, the site does indeed show the correct figures for the employee wages paid in 2017, with Superintendent Terry L. Snyder topping the list at $212,685. But in the 2018 data, the top-earner listed is substitute teacher Terri L. Cole, with an annual wage of $216,894, with Snyder shown earning only $20,817 that same year.

“It’s definitely not accurate. I can assure you, we restrict the number of hours they (substitute teachers) work,” Wardner said in an interview Friday.

After viewing OpenTheBooks.com herself and observing the figures listed, Wardner said it appears the 2018 salary listing for Snyder was transposed with Cole’s name, possibly due to their similar first names and middle initial. 

“If you scroll down, it’s got her actual rate for 2017 at $6,665,” Wardner said.

The transposition appears to have thrown off much of the rest of OpenTheBooks’ 2018 salary list for the district. For example, Business Manager Lu Beecham – the district’s third-highest earner in 2017 at $120,000 – was switched out for a custodian in the 2018 list, so the custodian is shown making $120,450 while Beecham supposedly pulled down just $21,007.

Fortunately, Wardner said the error should be simple enough to fix once she’s able to determine whose names were transposed with whose. She said she planned to reach out to OpenTheBooks.com in the coming days to make sure the 2018 figures are updated to reflect reality. 

Thousands tour reopened Capitol

in Government spending/News
1608

Thousands of people got their first glimpse of the new interior of the state Capitol on Wednesday as the building was opened to the public for the first time since the extensive refurbishment of the Capitol Complex began more than four years ago.

Timed to coincide with the celebration of Wyoming’s Statehood Day, the unveiling revealed a Capitol building considered to be much more accessible to the public, with larger rooms, broader passageways and more open space.

“They’ve done a lot of stuff here that opened up the Capitol,” said Joe McCord, the former facilities manager for the Capitol. “The stairs going into the House and Senate are wide open right now. Downstairs, you’ve got the galley that’s wide open. The rooms are bigger. I just love it, what they’ve done. They’ve done a great job.”

The refurbishment of the 129-year-old Capitol was the centerpiece for a $300 million project that also involved updating the Herschler Building to the north and the space between them.

Cheyenne historian Bill Dubois, whose grandfather was the architect for the two wings on the Capitol, said he was very pleased with the outcome of the project.

“The restoration is wonderful, every room is just a masterpiece and it’s very beautiful,” he said.

Former House Speaker Kermit Brown said he expects the new quarters for the Legislature to help with the level of debate in the body.

“I think that surroundings can make a difference there,” he said. “I think the majesty of these surroundings, the high ceilings, all the things that are in this Capitol building, have an influence on people and the way they act.”

Former Rep. Pete Illoway, a longtime supporter of the project while a member of the Legislature, said he was pleased with the outcome.

“This building is incredible,” he said. “It is really great and it’s wonderful to see how carefully architects can go back through it and say ‘Let’s take it back to whatever’s built and then modernize that.’ It is beautiful.”

2020 Census prep begins in Wyoming – What it means to you

in Government spending/News
Wyoming Prepares for 2020 Census
1575

By Laura Hancock, Cowboy State Daily

Gov. Mark Gordon signed a proclamation June 25 that sets in motion the state’s preparations for the 2020 U.S. Census – including a soon-to-be-live website and committees strategizing participation in hard-to-reach communities. 

The 2020 Census may be especially important to Wyoming because of recent population declines. 

Driven by the downturn in coal, oil and natural gas, Wyoming’s population is estimated to have decreased in each of the past three years: from 585,668 in 2015 to 577,737 in 2018.

 “In neighboring states, their economies are strong, so many of our younger workers left,” said Wenlin Liu, interim administrator and chief economist at the Wyoming Division of Economic Analysis. 

Nevertheless, Wyoming’s 2020 population is expected to be higher than 2010’s 563,626.

The results of the census will affect Wyoming in several ways, including:

The census results represent money for the state. 

Billions of dollars flow into Wyoming based on data about population, income and other demographics. An accurate count may be especially important as state lawmakers discuss potential new taxes for additional revenue. An increase in federal money could offset the need for new taxes. 

College Pell Grants, U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperative extension service money, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Highway Planning and Construction program and the Child Health Insurance Program are among dozens of programs in which federal dollars follow Census results

In the years between each census, the Census Bureau makes annual demographic estimates, which agencies also use to distribute funds, said Liu, who is involved in 2020 Census planning with the governor’s office. 

“All of these programs are based on the benchmark of the decennial census,” he said.

The state will rely on the 2020 Census to apportion legislative districts. 

The Wyoming House has 60 seats. Higher population areas tend to have more districts. A county with four House districts, for instance, could gain or lose seats compared to growth in other counties, Liu said. 

School districts and local governments need census data to plan. 

The census, which in 2020 can be completed online, asks for the ages of everyone in the household. That can help a school district determine where it may need a new high school in five years, for instance. 

Census results determine the formula the Legislature uses to send money to local governments for the following decade, Liu said.

“For Wyoming, sales tax distribution between county governments and cities within the counties is based on the census,” he said. 

The census informs business decisions.

Chambers of commerce and business groups use census data to market an area to companies. 

“If the area’s population is increasing, businesses are always expanding,” Liu said.

Conversely, when an area’s population is in decline, businesses think hard about expansion, he said. 

The census will have big impact on a small state.  

Wyoming is the country’s lowest population state. Citizenship question aside, that likely will not change after the 2020 Census results come in. Under-counting the number of people who live in Wyoming proportionally hurts the state more than say, Texas, which can afford to undercount a few residents and not be slammed by a dramatic decrease in federal funds, for instance. 

“Wyoming has the smallest population in the country,’ Liu said. “We do want to count everyone.”

Wyoming’s minimal exposure in movies could soon dissipate

in Government spending/News/Tourism
1566

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

As the last of the funding is drained from the Wyoming Office of Tourism’s Film Incentives Program, the state could see even less time on the silver screen.

Filming in Wyoming can be a hard sell for out-of-state companies such as Netflix and Thunder Road Films, which produced Wind River in 2017.

Diane Shober, executive director of the Wyoming Office of Tourism, explained a lack of film production infrastructure played a significant role among the many difficulties in luring production companies to Wyoming.

In the past, the state’s Film Incentive Program helped offset the difficulties of drawing film studios, travel shows and multimedia production firms to the state by offering a 12 to 15 percent rebate to companies that spent more than $200,000 shooting in Wyoming.

“We used the program as a recruitment tool for out-of-state production companies to use in-state production companies,” Shober said. “Having a film incentive doesn’t guarantee a company will shoot in your state, but without one, big film companies won’t even look at you.”

In 2009, the program provided Brown 26 Productions, which worked on Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” with a $115,000 rebate for shooting parts of the movie in Wyoming. The movie’s total budget was estimated at about $100 million, according to Internet Movie Database (IMDb). In 2015, however, when Tarantino directed “Hateful Eight,” a movie about bounty hunters waiting out a Wyoming winter during the late 19th century, the film was primarily shot in Colorado, which Shober said has a robust incentive program.

Breaking down the numbers

Since its creation in 2007, the incentives program has returned about $2.1 million to production companies, Shober said.Wyoming’s checkbook, released in January by State Auditor Kristi Racines, includes checks issued by the Office of Tourism for the program from the last six years.

According to the checkbook, the office paid grants for about $322,000 in 2013, $167,000 in 2014, $366,000 in 2015, $402,000 in 2016, $248,000 in 2017 and $35,000 in 2018.

Shober said other than minimal funding for signage, the Film Incentives Program was the only grant program operated by the office.

The production companies listed on the checks range from big names like Red Bull Media House and Wells Fargo Bank to smaller multimedia companies like WZRD Media and Teton Gravity Research.

Every applicant was required to meet certain criteria to be eligible for the rebate. Requirements include $200,000 or more spent in the state, a storyline set in Wyoming, Wyoming footage in the production and listing Wyoming as a filming location in the credits.

Shober said the program funds were appropriated by Legislature, which also set the criteria for rebate eligibility.

“In this last legislative session, we had a bill requesting funding that made it out of the House,” she said. “But it died in the Senate on third reading.”

House Bill 164 would have transferred up to $16,000 from the Tourism Office’s main budget to the Film Production Incentive Program. Without the appropriations requested in House Bill 164, the incentives program is finished, Shober said.The program has not received an appropriation since 2009, she added. 

A tale of two hunting shows

Gunwerks and Best of the West both film hunting shows in Wyoming focused on long-range shooting for the Sportsman Channel and others.

Both Cody companies were recipients of film incentive rebates between 2013 and 2018.

“The two companies were once one,” said Mike LaBazzo, Gunwerks’ director of business development. “Aaron Davidson, the founder of Gunwerks, is also the inventor of the Huskemaw scope. When he was a young engineer, he met Jack Peterson, who at that point had a video production company called Best of the West.”

After a falling out between the founders, the companies split and both started ramping up film production as a marketing tool for the then-controversial topic of hunting game at ranges of more than 300 yards.

When the companies were one and in their infancy, shooting game at more than 300 yards was frowned upon because of “hold over,” the vertical distance a hunter holds his scope’s center mark above the target to compensate for the amount a bullet drops over long distances, LaBazzo explained.

With a Huskemaw scope mounted on a Gunwerks custom long-range rifle, however, he said hunters no longer needed to guess how high to hold their center marks over the target.  To get the word out, the company produced a hunting series for television. When the companies split, both shot their own series.

“‘Long Range Pursuit’ consists of two types of video,” LaBazzo explained. “One is hunting, and we do that anywhere in the world, but a lot of episodes are filmed here in Wyoming. In addition, we offer tech tips and shooting tips.”

With 21 episodes shot each year, he said it wasn’t feasible to film every one in the state, but they highlighted Wyoming as often as possible.

“We’ve always used our Wyoming roots as a marketing tool,” LaBazzo said. “We talk about Wyoming a lot in our show.”

From 2012 to 2018, Gunwerks received $202,000 in grants. It was the only company in 2018 to receive a rebate from the office of tourism. The money helped cover costs, but wasn’t essential to production.

“We had the show before (the incentives program), and we’re going to have the show after,” LaBazzo said. “What we were getting back certainly helps, but it wasn’t essential to us being able to make the show.”

Across town at Best of the West, however, the company’s vice president, Jim Sessions, said its show might suffer without the rebate.

“We learned it was disappearing around January 2018,” Sessions said. “It has significantly affected our ability to produce episodes.”

“The Best of the West” TV show first aired in 2003 and has produced hundreds of episodes since. In 2010, Nielsen reported the show reached 4.7 million households.

“We’ve aired on a number of channels including the Mens Channel Outdoors, Pursuit and the Sportsman Channel,” Sessions said. “I always thought we portrayed Wyoming very positively.”

Without the incentive program’s rebates, which have amounted to $244,000 over the years, he said Best of the West has cut its episode load by half and the future of the show could be at risk.

Shober said the incentives program was not likely to be revived in the near future.

“Not every state has an incentive program, and some state’s are consolidating their’s,” she said. “There has to be a legislative appetite for a program like this, and right now, in Wyoming, I don’t know that there is.”

Gordon says true biennium budget will lead to better planning

in Government spending/News
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Gov. Mark Gordon’s efforts to create a true two-year budget for state government should encourage state agencies to plan better for the future, he said Thursday.

Gordon, speaking during a news conference, said his plan to limit supplemental budget requests to true emergencies will lead agencies to plan better for the state’s biennium budget cycle rather than depend on supplemental budgets, such as the one passed recently by the Legislature.

“We’re working very hard to make sure that what is conveyed in (the two-year budget to be reviewed in 2020) is truly a biennium budget,” he said. “Hopefully, by looking at a two-year cycle, you start to look at what you really need. I’m working with the Legislature to see if there are ways we can incentivize better savings and build a cost-conscious culture throughout our agencies.”

State agencies submit two-year budgets for approval by the Legislature during even-numbered years. Supplemental budgets are submitted during odd-numbered years and were originally seen as a way to provide funding for urgent needs until a new two-year budget could be approved the following year.

In recent years, the supplemental requests have become more substantial.

Gordon admitted he is not the first Wyoming governor to try to limit the use of supplemental budgets.

“I’m certainly one of a number of governors that have tried this, but I’m really going to try to stick to this,” he said.

Gordon said he has already advised state agencies to budget with declining revenues in mind.

“The budget instructions I sent to agencies reminded them that revenue streams will be tight,” he said. “My goal, and I’ve been pretty consistent, has been to avoid across-the-board cuts.”

The governor also said he wants to study the number of uninsured children in the state, which a recent study said was nearly double the national average.

“I’ll bring together a task force with our insurance agencies to see what tools and what efforts we can apply to really address that issue,” he said.

On other issues, Gordon announced he has named policy director Buck McVeigh to serve as his acting chief of staff, filling the vacancy created with the retirement of Pat Arp.

As Capitol nears completion, lawmakers say the project is on time, on budget

in Government spending/News
Wyoming Capitol Square Project nears completion
1537

CHEYENNE – The nearly $300 million Wyoming Capitol Square Project is wrapping up and government agencies are making their way into their new digs after years in temporary office space around Cheyenne.

Consultants and project managers met with the Legislature’s Capitol Building Restoration Oversight Group on Wednesday to give their final reports on the four-year construction project.

The Oversight Group itself was meeting for the last time before the opening of the Capitol on Wyoming Statehood Day, July 10. Gov. Mark Gordon, who chaired the meeting, said he was pleased the project was nearly done and there had been no major cost overruns.

Work on the project involved the restoration of the Capitol, the adjacent Herschler Building and the space between the two buildings.

Mike O’Donnell, project coordinator, said the Capitol will be much more open and accessible by the public than it has been in the past.

“We have returned large spaces inside the Capitol back to the public,” he said. “There are fewer offices in the Capitol and there’s also a lot more what’s called ‘core,’ which is restrooms, electrical, mechanical, elevators … that was office space or meeting space previously.”

House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper, said there is much to the project that visitor’s won’t notice on first glance.

“They’ll be walking on top of it when they’re on the garden level,” he said. “It’s really all the new foundation and utilities.”

The new working environment may improve the work of the Legislature, said Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie.

“Doing the public’s work and doing it as well as possible is motivated in part by the physical space that we’re in,” she said.

The Capitol Building Restoration Oversight Group met for a final time Wednesday to tie a bow on the project ahead of the grand reopening of the State Capitol on Wyoming’s Statehood Day, July 10th.

Analysis: Who Uses the Wyoming State Plane the Most?

in Government spending/News/Transportation
Wyoming state plane
1475

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

The state’s two twin-engine passenger jets — nicknamed “Wyoming’s Air Force” — spend most of their time ferrying state officials around Wyoming, but about 10 percent of the flights leave the state, according to state records.

“I don’t know the background of all the flights that are flown out of state,” said Brian Olsen, the Wyoming Department of Transportation aeronautics division administrator. “It could be cheaper (than driving), but I think a lot of it could have to do with scheduling.”

Although the planes are maintained by WYDOT, Olsen explained each state agency can use them.

“We submit two reports to our Transportation Commission, detailing how many flights the planes took and (which agency) used them,” he said.

However, WYDOT does not keep track of the reasons for the trips taken by other agencies.

Olsen said he was not aware of a specific organization or committee charged with overseeing who uses the planes for what.

Previously, Cowboy State Daily reported the jets cost about $1 million to operate and maintain each year and made 663 trips carrying 2,213 passengers during fiscal year 2018. WYDOT reported about 12 percent of those flights were out-of-state.

In fiscal year 2017, the two planes logged a total of 725 one-way legs and 2,294 passengers with about 10 percent of those flights leaving the state. During fiscal year 2016, they completed 852 legs carrying 2,604 passengers and about 10 percent of flights left the state.

The numbers for fiscal years 2016 and 2017 do not accurately reflect the planes’ usage, however, WYDOT spokesperson J. O’Brien said.

If members from two agencies board the same flight, WYDOT records the trip as two legs instead of one. Also, the passenger numbers for fiscal years 2016 and 2017 include flight and maintenance crew, which are not typically considered passengers. WYDOT listed nearly 30 categories of users for each of the three years, during all of which the department was the planes’ primary user. In fiscal year 2016, WYDOT used the planes for 246 legs, carrying 827 passengers. In fiscal year 2017, the department flew 834 passengers on 222 legs, and during fiscal year 2018, WYDOT reported using the planes for 224 legs, carrying 693.

The governor’s office is consistently the second-highest user when combined with the governor’s residence category, which is used to log the flights of Wyoming’s first lady.

In fiscal year 2016, the governor’s office logged 123 legs carrying 452 passengers, while the governor’s residence reported 21 legs carrying 39 passengers. During fiscal year 2017, the governor’s office was responsible for 127 legs carrying 439 passengers, and the governor’s residence logged 14 legs carrying 29 passengers. And in fiscal year 2018, the governor’s office reported 97 legs carrying 330 passengers, while the governor’s residence recorded 27 legs carrying 44 passengers.

The Office of the Governor, Mark Gordon, who took office in 2019, said in a prepared statement: “Governor Gordon supports fiscal responsibility and the judicious use of taxpayer dollars. Several WYDOT studies have determined that owning state aircraft is more cost-efficient than private charters or driving vast distances.

“With his demanding schedule and numerous commitments across the state, the governor utilizes air travel on a limited basis in order to conduct official duties and be as accessible as possible to all Wyoming citizens, not just those in Cheyenne,” the statement concluded.

In fiscal year 2016, the Wyoming Department of Corrections Parole Board tied with the University of Wyoming for third-most user of the planes with both logging 120 legs. WDOC’s legs carried 352 passengers, while UW carried 278.

Neither agency logged more than 100 legs in fiscal yer 2017, but in fiscal year 2018, UW ranked the third-highest user with 112 legs carrying 295 passengers.

UW also owns two Beechcraft King Air turboprop aircraft, UW spokesperson Chad Baldwin said. One is designated for research, and the other is used for transportation.

Olsen said legislators can also use the state’s passenger jets, but those occurrences are rare.

“If one of them were to use the planes, they would have to log it under an agency they are working with or the Wyoming Legislative Service Office (LSO),”  he explained.

The LSO logged 8 legs carrying 16 passengers in fiscal year 2016, and 8 legs carrying 14 passengers in fiscal year 2017. No trips were recorded by the LSO in fiscal year 2018.

In addition to carrying passengers, WYDOT Director and retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. K. Luke Reiner said the planes could be used during emergency situations.

“They can be used for emergency viewing of a wildfire,” Reiner said. “And, let’s say WYDOT needs to look at a flood area or mud slide, they could be used for that, too.”

Wyoming’s jets cost state $1 million in 2018

in Government spending/News/Transportation
Wyoming’s jets cost state $1 million in 2018
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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

With 99 municipalities spread far and wide across Wyoming’s approximately 98,000 square miles, transportation can be time consuming for state employees and elected officials.

However, some disagree on whether the best way to meet those travel needs is to keep the two state jets sometimes jokingly referred to as the “Wyoming Air Force.”

In 2002, the state purchased two Cessna Citation Encores, twin-engine transport jets, to reduce the time its employees and officials spent on the road, said Brian Olsen, administrator of the Wyoming Department of Transportation Aeronautics Division.

Not everyone, however, agrees the jets are the most efficient form of transportation.

Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper, said he has added an amendment to the state’s budget bill to sell one of the jets every year since he was elected in 2017. But, so far, the amendment has failed.

“I think they’re an example of government extravagance,” Gray said. “There’s no reason we should have this many jets.”

Olsen disagreed. By owning two jets, he said the state could ensure one plane is available whenever needed.

“When it comes to maintenance, one plane is no plane,” Olsen explained.

According to Wyoming’s checkbook, WYDOT spent about $494,700 on aircraft maintenance with Cessna Aircraft Company in 2018. Olsen said $464,000 of that total was spent on maintaining the jets. The state also owns a Cessna 208, a single-engine turbo prop used to photographically survey road conditions, he said.

WYDOT Director and retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. K. Luke Reiner said two jets is optimal.

“We have one jet going into maintenance in June,” Reiner said. “Having two planes does provide a certain sense of redundancy. Also, there’s use for two aircraft … in terms of the ability for elected leaders and agencies to fulfill their responsibilities to the state and the residents.”

Regardless of whether flying is more efficient, government air service stymies private enterprise, said Kevin Lewis, a researcher for Equality State Taxpayers Association.

“People who fly in Wyoming make up a market for air travel,” Lewis said. “Right now, the government sector is removed from that market. We’re talking about a business that lives and dies on slim margins.”

By selling the jets, he suggested the state could create an environment for private intra-state air travel to expand.

“Wyoming is never going to grow itself if your main competitor is the government,” Lewis added.

Cost efficiency

Olsen said WYDOT researched the possibility of booking flights with private charters, but determined owning and maintaining its own fleet was about 44 percent more cost effective.

WYDOT also looked into fractional aircraft, the practice of sharing aircraft ownership, maintenance and operation costs with multiple owners, and determined fractional ownership would be 32 percent more expensive than owning the jets solely.

In regards to employee travel, Olsen said WYDOT studies reported flying employees across the state was 14 percent more cost efficient than paying them to drive.

“We looked at a couple salary levels, but mostly around the $100,000-a-year mark,” he explained. “But those studies don’t take into consideration the cost of motels or opportunity costs.”

Employees are rendered somewhat ineffective while driving, because the time they spend on the road — even when carpooling — is not conducive to a productive work environment, he added.

As stewards of taxpayers’ dollars, Reiner said he believed the jets were the most fiscally responsible travel option for state employees and elected officials.

“I think these aircraft are a really good use of resources for our state,” he said.

Between bulk jet fuel purchases of about $185,000, $464,000 in maintenance costs and approximately $327,000 in pilot’s salaries, Wyoming spent about $1 million on traveling via the two jets in 2018.

Despite WYDOT’s efficiency report, Gray said he would still like Legislature to review the possibility of reducing the state’s air fleet by one jet.

“When I’ve done town halls, I’ve consistently heard the jets are a problem,” he said. “We’re going to continue trying the amendment.”

Reiner said he doesn’t believe the state needs more than two jets, but the state should maintain its current fleet.

“The planes are a tremendous asset for our government,” he said. “The bottom line is they help us accomplish our mission.”

Wyoming’s Air Fleet By the Numbers

  • Aircraft: 2-Cessna twin-engine passenger jets, 1-Cessna single-engine turbo prop survey plane
  • Viable landing strips across Wyoming: 34
  • Maintenance cost for 2018: About $464,000
  • Fuel cost for 2018: About $185,000
  • Annual pilot salaries combined: About $327,000
  • Transport jet flights in 2018: 663, carrying a total 2,213 passengers

Spending data provides window into state expenses, but lacks big picture

in Government spending/News
Wyoming’s checkbook contains a mountain of information about state agency spending, but it’s far from a full accounting of Wyoming’s budget
1291

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming’s checkbook contains a mountain of information about state agency spending, but it’s far from a full accounting of Wyoming’s budget.

“There’s a lot in the checkbook, but there’s also a lot missing,” said Kevin Lewis, an Equality State Taxpayers Association (ESTA) researcher. “The auditor’s office only tracks the checks they write, and some agencies use their own internal accounting system.”

After a years-long legal battle between ESTA, American Transparency and the state, newly elected Wyoming State Auditor, Kristi Racines, released the checkbook shortly after taking office in January. The checkbook contains approximately 4.9 million line items of expenditures made by state agencies during the last six years, but it does not include several spending categories such as state employee salaries or victims’ benefit payments.

Additionally, Lewis said portions of the released information are missing identifying codes.

The coding system is used so the data can be broken down by agency and spending category, but some codes fall short of identifying anything more than the department that ordered the expenditure.

“You’ll frequently see (in the checkbook) Wyoming Department of Transportation only, or Attorney General only,” Lewis said. “In general, you’d like to not have that, because it makes it difficult to figure out where the money is being spent.”

Confidential payments

Releasing information to the public is a complex process, but it boils down to fulfilling information requests, Racines said.

“Payroll is different than writing a check to someone,” she said. “The auditor’s office doesn’t deal with salaries, it deals with paychecks.”

Paychecks can include confidential information about employees, so Racines said her office has to approach releasing paycheck data carefully as some of it might be covered under various confidentiality laws, both state and federal.

Regardless of the hurdles, she said the answer to why payroll information wasn’t in the checkbook is simple.

“It wasn’t in the request,” Racines explained.

If the information were to be requested, she said the office would release the information, but only after they reviewed state and federal statutes and consulted with the Wyoming Attorney General’s office about what portions of the paycheck could be released.

Other confidential categories include victim benefit payments, some law enforcement activities, subsidized adoption payments and benefit payment assistance.

“There’s a lot of categories that might seem obvious,” Racines said. “And some of the categories are not as black and white as they may seem. An expert witness payment may be confidential while a case is ongoing, but not later.”

Because the checkbook is a line-by-line expense report, the auditor said it did not include many payments protected by confidentiality laws. While the payments themselves are confidential, the amount an agency spends on a confidential category is not. 

“The public can request to see how much an agency spent on something like victim’s benefit payments,” Racines explained. “But because that wasn’t in the (checkbook) request, we didn’t include it.”

The auditor’s office handles most of the state’s accounting, but some agencies use their own accounting system.

“We use Wyoming Online Financial System, which is like a gigantic version of QuickBooks,” Racines said. “Some agencies, like the University of Wyoming, have an internal system, though.”

When an agency uses a different system, Racines said she can’t access its records, and therefore, her office couldn’t include its expenditures in the checkbook. In addition to the university, Wyoming Game and Fish and WYDOT expenses were largely absent from the released data as well as Wyoming Pipeline Authority and Wyoming Infrastructure Authority line items.

“The infrastructure authority and the pipeline authority are a little different,” Racines explained. “They’re authorities, not agencies, so my understanding is the state cuts them a check for their budget, because it is appropriated by legislature. Then (the authorities) cut out individual checks.”

Coding system

Wyoming’s agencies use about 6,000 codes to categorize how state money is spent, but the system is old and has not been regularly updated, Racines said.

“Our data is only as good as our codes are,” she explained. “We have a lot of codes that are unused, and some that could maybe be better described.”

Lewis said without better code descriptions, the data reviewers are left to guess at what the state spends money on.

“On one line item, maintenance might be spelled out, but on another it could be just MT, then in another it’s ‘Op & Maint,’” Lewis said. “Spelling and consistency problems aside, the chart of accounts often doesn’t include enough information about the item. We can see the governor’s office spent ‘X’ amount on farm equipment in 2017, but we don’t know why.”

Even with missing codes and jumbled descriptions, Lewis said releasing the checkbook was strong step toward increasing transparency in Wyoming government, but it’s just the start.

“Even though we finally got the checkbook, we only have a little bit of the picture,” Lewis said. “We have a long way to go before we figure out the rest of it.”

Sponsoring rodeo teams requires big bucks, but reaches bigger audiences

in Government spending/News/Tourism
Sponsoring rodeo teams requires big bucks, but reaches bigger audiences
1255

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

When it comes to rounding up tourists, one of the best ways to nab their attention is through engaging narratives, according to Wyoming Office of Tourism Executive Director Diane Shober.

“Anytime you’re looking for a pitch into a larger audience, you want to have a compelling story with it,” Shober said. “Team Wyoming is a program built around pro rodeo cowboys and cowgirls. It is a way to take the image of the American cowboy and put a face and story with it.”

Created by the Office of Tourism in 2005, Team Wyoming brings together some of Wyoming’s top rodeo competitors in a marketing campaign focusing on the state’s strong ties to Western culture.“It’s a way to highlight Wyoming in the national conversation,” Shober explained. “We’re really leveraging the world’s love affair with the American cowboy.”

Comprised of seven members, the team competes in Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association events around the state throughout the year before heading to the National Finals Rodeo to compete and host autograph signings, press events, a trade show and a special breakfast with Wyoming legislators, fans and livestock contractors. 

“(The breakfast) is a salute to Team Wyoming in Las Vegas where the National Finals Rodeo (NFR) is held,” Shober explained. “We celebrate the team, the Wyoming contractors that provide livestock for rodeo events and any folks in Wyoming that are hired to work (at NFR).”

The price of publicity is not cheap, however, and in 2013, 2014 and 2015, the Office of Tourism wrote checks to the Gold Coast Casino in Las Vegas for more than $20,000 each, according to information released in Wyoming’s checkbook by Wyoming State Auditor Kristi Racines.

“Twenty thousand dollars would be a lot for a breakfast, but those line items also include hotel rooms and rodeo tickets,” Shober said. “Back then, it was cheaper to buy bulk packages and provide them to people who wanted to attend the breakfast and rodeo, so there is a revenue component that is not reflected by those expenditures.”

From 2013 to 2015, the Office of Tourism provided interested parties with package deals purchased from the casino, she said. Sold at cost, the money was used to refund the Office of Tourism’s overall costs, which were paid for through its general fund.

During the 2013 NFR, the Office of Tourism reported it received about $8,700 in revenue to offset costs of about $23,500. In 2014, the office received approximately $13,200 in revenue during the NFR to offset its cost of about $22,600. And in 2015, the office received about $21,400 in revenue during the NFR, offsetting its cost of about $28,900.

“We have several sponsors for the event,” Shober said. “Over the years, they’ve covered a large portion of the costs. I have a sponsor that is going to cover the entire 2019 NFR event. So even though we pick up the bill, it doesn’t always mean that’s the cost to the Office of Tourism.”

On average, the office sent four to six employees between 2013 and 2015 for about four days of the NFR to promote Wyoming at various events and organize “meet and greets” with Team Wyoming, Shober said. While the employees’ accommodations were expensed to the state, she said additional hotel rooms were purchased from the Office of Tourism by Team Wyoming sponsors and other rodeo affiliates.

“We still do the breakfast annually,” Shober explained. “But we don’t do it at the Gold Coast Casino anymore. And we don’t do packages these days, because now the hotels are getting even stingier with their hotel rooms, and we’re not in the business of doing travel packages that way.”

For the last three years, she said the Team Wyoming breakfast was hosted at The D Hotel in Las Vegas, but the office is looking for a new venue in 2019.

As a whole, Team Wyoming has been a successful investment for the Office of Tourism, Shober said.

“When we started this, social media wasn’t really a thing yet,” she said. “But now, it’s part of the team members’ contracts, and we’ve seen that grow our brand.”

The office reported Team Wyoming’s social media accounts combined have about 100,000 followers. The Team Wyoming Facebook page has about 19,000 followers and posts videos promoting the team, some of which have been viewed more than 100,000 times.

But the big numbers come from the national coverage of the NFR. The Office of Tourism reported the NFR was attended by more than 177,000 people in 2017 and CBS Sports Network estimated each broadcast reached about 633,000 viewers.

“It’s not the rodeo crowd we’re marketing to necessarily — we’re marketing to potential visitors who want to come to the West,” Shober said. “This is about promoting Western culture and really elevating the Wyoming assets. It’s about that whole Western experience.”

Wyoming Corrections: Accommodating faith in prison challenging, essential

in Government spending/News/Criminal justice
The WDOC accommodates at least 25 religions throughout the prison system, and Christianity is the most popular,.
1209

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Adequately and safely meeting the constitutionally guaranteed religious rights of the state’s inmates can be challenging, according to a spokesman for the Wyoming Department of Corrections.

“Inmates arguably have more religious protections than (the average citizen) to be frank,” WDOC Compliance Manager C.J. Young said. “This is probably one of the tougher areas for the justice system around the country.”

In addition to First Amendment protections for freedom of religion, inmates are also covered by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

“If an inmate has a sincerely held belief, (RLUIPA)  shifts the burden on to (WDOC) to justify why we can’t accommodate that,” Young explained. “We have to accommodate that belief unless it’s completely outrageous like requesting to carry around an axe.”

The WDOC is not only charged with accommodating the inmate’s beliefs, but accommodating them in the least restrictive manner possible, he said.

“An inmate requested to wear a certain type of religious item he wouldn’t normally be allowed to wear,” Young said. “We did some research with nearby facilities, and we found there hadn’t really been any problems. So we allowed it, but with the minor exception he could only wear the item in the chapel.”

Items of belief

Religious items in the correctional system fall into two categories: personal property, which is owned by the inmates, and group property, which is owned by WDOC.

“When it comes to personal property, we have a matrix of religious property that inmates can possess,” Young said. “That list can vary depending on the facility. At the Wyoming Honor Farm, inmates work with tools daily, so having a metal crucifix might not be a big deal, but in maximum security at the State Penitentiary … we’re probably not going to give (the inmate) metal, so we might find a plastic or paper crucifix they can wear.”

Inmates can acquire personal religious items through the WDOC commissary or through WDOC-approved donations from religious groups.

According to Wyoming’s checkbook provided to the public in January by Wyoming State Auditor Kristi Racines, the WDOC spent about $2,600 in 2018 with Al Hannah, an Islamic clothing provider. In 2017, the WDOC spent about $2,200 with same company, and in 2016, the agency spent about $2,400 with Al Hannah.

WDOC Public Information Officer Mark Horan said the purchases were to stock the commissary with “halal shampoo, lotion and soap products,” products prepared according to Muslim practices.Because the commissary is operated as an enterprise fund, a self-supporting fund that provides goods or services to the public for a fee, Young said the personal items purchased through it are not paid for with tax dollars.

“What the (commissary) makes, they then use to purchase items to sell to inmates,” he said. 

The only commissary expense that is funded through the WDOC general fund is staff salaries, Young added.

The store can mark up the price of some items to turn a profit, but Horan said religious items cannot be marked up.

Group items, on the other hand, are not owned by the prisoners, nor can they be purchased by the prisoners.

Group items are available to inmates at predetermined times, such as religious services, and typically, under the supervision of a chaplain.

“Take Asatru (a Norse-pantheon religion) for instance, they can have a drinking horn in group property,” Young explained. “But, they can’t have that property in their cells.”

Religious Privileges

The WDOC accommodates at least 25 religions throughout the prison system, and Christianity is the most popular, Young said.

“The department doesn’t tell anybody that you can’t believe in a god or religious practice,” he said. “What we do is recognize certain faith groups that are prevalent enough and don’t pose any risks that we allow them to have privileges inside our facilities.”

Islam, Wicca, Satanism, Judaism and Asatru are among the recognized religions, and recently, Young said the WDOC added humanitarianism to the list, which is regularly reviewed and updated.

“We try to be flexible,” he said. “When inmates come in, if there’s a new practice or a new faith group, we try to give everything a fair shot.”

If an inmate wants the WDOC to recognize a new belief system or religious practice, Young said they can follow a paperwork process lining out their request. The WDOC reviews the form and either grants or denies the request.

A denial can be appealed, Young said.

‘An opportunity to reset’

Accommodating faiths and belief systems can be difficult in a rural state with limited religious support networks, Young said.

“The only rabbis in Wyoming are in Jackson and Cheyenne, and we don’t have a facility in either of those,” he explained. “When it comes to some of the earth-based religions like Asatru or Wicca, we’re looking at trying to find someone in Denver or on the East Coast that’s any type of professional in their field.”

Because of this, WDOC relies heavily on religious volunteers, who can offer services and guidance to inmates.

Beyond constitutional requirements, access to religion is an important part of the prison system, he said.

“The public and even us in corrections, we can have a tendency to be jaded,” Young said. “There is an old joke that God lives in maximum security prisons, or at least, that’s where everyone finds him. Or, ‘You should thought about being religious before you committed the crime.’”

On the path to reconciliation and rehabilitation, however, faith is one of the few tools available to inmates.

“When you’re in prison, there’s only three things you get: food, a very small amount of property, and religion,” Young said. “For many, faith is opportunity to reset their lives or mindsets.”

To learn more about volunteering for WDOC religious programming or donating religious items to inmate’s religious groups, call the WDOC at 307-777-7208.

State checkbook reveals $1.2 billion in out-of-state expenditures

in Government spending/News/Transparency
State checkbook reveals $1.2 billion in out-of-state expenditures
1183

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming state government spends millions of dollars in other other states and Connecticut companies get more money than any other state, according to data released by the Wyoming State Auditor’s Office.

In calendar year 2018, Wyoming spent at least $1.2 billion out-of-state, nearly $247 million of which was spent in Connecticut on health care, alcohol and data for grant proposals.

The information is contained in what has been dubbed “Wyoming’s checkbook,” a list of 4.9 million state expenditures made over the last six years.

The data was released in January by state Auditor Kristi Racines, ending a years-long battle between the state auditor’s office, American Transparency, which operates “openthebooks.com,” and the Equality State Taxpayers Association.

“It’s critical this information is available to the public,” Racines said.

The list does not contain every tax dollar spent, Racines said, because some expenditures are confidential. 

“There are a lot of dollars that are confidential such as benefit payments to direct recipients,” she said. “Those are all confidential, and we’re talking big dollars.”

The information released shows about 21 percent of total state spending occurred outside of Wyoming.

“When you look at the expenditures as a whole,” Racines explained, “that 21 percent comes down.”

Without all of the data — confidential and otherwise — on hand, she said it was impossible to compare Wyoming’s out-of-state spending to other states.

Health Care

Health care for state employees was Wyoming’s largest out-of-state expenditure — $229.8 million — in calendar year 2018.While the State Employees Health Insurance Group is based in Wyoming, Ralph Hayes, the insurance group director, said a large portion of the healthcare checks are funneled through CIGNA, a global health service company with offices in Connecticut.

“A lot of the reason we need CIGNA is expertise,” Hayes explained. “We run this system with nine people. We’re providing health insurance for 37,000 members. We do not have the staffing, systems or expertise to review the medical claims, make sure they are appropriate them, adjudicate them and make payments to the providers.” 

The insurance group is self-funded, but CIGNA writes checks on its behalf, he said. The state then covers those checks by writing its own to CIGNA, Hayes added.

“Most of those are being sent to the medical providers back here in Wyoming,” he explained. 

Health care costs have inflated exponentially in the last two decades, and Hayes said the trend will likely continue.

In 1999, the state spent about $37.7 million on health care for state employees. By 2018, the state’s employee health care costs were approximately $284.4 million, Hayes said.The state’s sparse population spread thinly across a large geographical area also plays a role in increased medical bills.

“We don’t have multiple hospitals in any given area to compete against each other,” Hayes said. “Basically, we’re seeing cost increases from our medical providers. You can charge what the market will bear.”

Despite its name, he said the insurance group also provides insurance to University of Wyoming employees, community college employees and Natrona County School District employees, which inflates the number of checks being written to CIGNA.

Booze

After healthcare, alcohol is Wyoming’s second largest expenditure in Connecticut.

When the U.S. ended the prohibition in 1935, the federal government put the responsibility of regulating alcohol purchases in the states’ hands, Wyoming Department of Revenue Director Dan Noble said.

“Wyoming is a control state, which means we control the sale of alcohol in Wyoming,” Noble said. “(The Department of Revenue’s) Liquor Division is the sole wholesaler of alcoholic spirits and wine in the state of Wyoming.”

The state sent about $15 million to two companies — Diageo North America and Diageo Americas — in Connecticut for spirits in 2018.

“They are the largest supplier of alcohol in the world,” Noble said. “Diageo sells things like Crown Royal, Johnny Walker, Captain Morgan and just about any other major alcohol brand.”

The global corporation might be one of the state’s biggest suppliers of alcohol, but they are far from the only one.

“We will special order from virtually anybody that sells a product that can be brought into the country legally,” Noble said. “We buy product from within our state as well, like Wyoming Whiskey and Backwards Vodka.”

Once the state purchases the alcohol, he said the liquor division then sells it to about 1,200 licensed distributors throughout Wyoming at a markup of 17.6 percent.“

That money goes covering our costs and the state also utilizes that for general fund money as well,” Noble explained.

What’s left?

Once alcohol and health care are subtracted from the checks Wyoming sent to Connecticut in 2018, the remaining expenditures are scattered all over the board: The Wyoming Department of Transportation spent about $25,000 with Whelen Engineering Co., a manufacturer of audio and visual warning equipment for automotive, aviation, and mass notification industries; the Wyoming Department of Corrections spent about $2,700 with Al Hannah Clothing, an Islamic clothing supplier, and The Wyoming Department of Health spent about $44,000 with On Target Health Data LLC, a company whose website lists a single employee and conducts survey research, behavioral risk factor surveillance system research, program evaluation and health risk appraisal.

Based on the data provided in the checkbook, Wyoming spent the second largest portion — $121 million — of its 2018 out-of-state expenditures in Missouri. Alaska received the least amount of Wyoming’s money in 2018 — a total of about $5,000 for companies in The Last Frontier state.

The checkbook is dense, but Racines said she is working on a website to help Wyoming citizens understand how the state spends their tax dollars.

“We want this data out there in some kind of a digestable format,” she said. “What we envision for the website is any citizen can go on there and see what agency is spending what and where.”

The auditor she said she hopes to have the website up and running before the end of the year.

“We’re spending public funds,” Racines said. “We are stewards of the taxpayer dollar — all of them — and it’s important to understand where that goes.”

Research assistance for this story was provided by Kevin Lewis of the Equality State Taxpayers Association.

Auditor encourages transparency, says it is not as simple as some believe

in Government spending/News/Transparency
Wyoming State Auditor Kristi Racines
1061

By Cowboy State Daily

Transparency in state government is very important, but achieving it can sometimes be difficult, according to state Auditor Kristi Racines.

Racines, in an interview with Cowboy State Daily, said she strongly believes that information on state government spending must be available to the state’s taxpayers.

“We want to know, as taxpayers, where our dollars are going,” she said. “What is our government doing, do we agree with it, do we not. We can’t divine if we agree or not if we don’t have the information.”

However, it can sometimes take a great deal of work to determine whether information held by the state should be public or private, she said.

“It’s never quite as simple as some folks make it,” she said. “The auditor’s office, we put out checks and there’s well over 1 million a year … A lot of those are confidential. The overwhelming majority isn’t. But sorting out everything that’s confidential and isn’t, it’s not clear. Not everything is black and white.”

For instance, while the auditor’s office pays the state’s bills using public money, some expenses are confidential, such as Medicaid payments or Victims’ Assistance payments, she said.

Racines was elected last year to succeed Cynthia Cloud, who did not seek re-election. Cloud’s final months in office were marked by ongoing litigation with a government transparency advocacy group that worked for several years to gain access to the state’s “checkbook,” the list of payments made by the auditor’s office.

Racines released the information about one month after taking office.

“I can’t really speak to what was done before,” she said. “I know a lot of times, public records requests can be intimidating to public employees. There’s often times fear … and sometimes there’s just some misunderstanding there.”

Senator says change needed in state budget process

in Government spending/News
Wyoming Legislature Budget process reform
1051

A fundamental change is needed in the way the Legislature handles the state’s budget, according to a member of the Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee.

Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, a nine-year member of the Legislature, said the budget submitted to the Legislature by the House and Senate Appropriations Committees — working together as the Joint Appropriations Committee — is flawed because of the makeup of the JAC.

“I’m more disillusioned about the political process and the way we do the budgeting here in Wyoming now than I’ve ever been,” he said. “I think the process as is today is just structurally flawed.”

Hicks said the imbalance between Senate and House members (five senators to seven representatives) makes it impossible for the JAC to present a budget agreeable to both the House and Senate.

“(Representatives) have more members on there and they can vote (for) anything they want and routinely we’ve seen them do that,” he said. “So you don’t have what you would consider a reasonable compromise position.”

The members of the Senate Appropriations Committee this year decided to argue against the items of the JAC budget they did not support, Hicks said, resulting in the repeated conflicts between the two chambers over the measure.

Hicks suggested that the Legislature’s rules be changed so that five House members and five Senate members would make up the JAC.

“We could bypass a lot of that stuff if we would just go to a system where … it’s a 5-5 vote, where we are forced to compromise and then it is truly a Joint Appropriations Committee budget,” he said.

Most of the disputes over the supplemental budget approved by the Legislature stemmed from a difference in philosophy between the House and Senate, Hicks said, which became evident during discussions on potential new taxes.

“The position of the Senate is you can’t have this discussion of increasing taxes and not be able to show fiscal constraint,” he said. “The philosophy that seems to prevail, not with all the House … is ‘We’re OK, we’ve got a saving account, we do this spending and taxes both.’ That’s the philosophical difference we have right now. It’s not personality-driven.”

Hicks said if the Legislature does not do something to reduce spending at the same time it looks at adjusting the state’s tax structure, Wyoming is looking at significant shortfalls in the future as it draws down its holdings in reserve accounts.

“It pushes us toward that fiscal cliff, where then you … have to come back with a series of draconian cuts and substantial tax increases,” he said.

Legislature overrides two Gordon vetoes

in Government spending/News
Governor Gordon veto, ALT=Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon vetos first bill
1031

Two of Gov. Mark Gordon’s 14 vetoes to the Legislature’s supplemental budget were overridden by the Legislature on Wednesday.

As time ran out on what was scheduled to be the session’s final day, lawmakers were only able to agree to overturn two of the vetoes of budget footnotes, one having to do with eliminating two positions from the state engineer’s office and one calling for an analysis of the cost benefit of continuing to use a state airplane.

Gordon on Tuesday issued his veto notice, saying most of the budget footnotes he vetoed either should have been addressed in a separate bill or improperly encroached on the responsibilities of the executive branch.

Legislators often attach footnotes to budget bills to offer specific spending instructions or make adjustments to existing programs.

Gordon said the two positions eliminated from the state engineer’s office included one filled position, which would require one person to be removed from the department. He vetoed the footnote on the state airplane because he said the issue should have been addressed in a separate bill.

Both the Senate and House voted to override those two vetoes. The House also voted to override two more vetoes, one requiring the Wyoming Business Council to spend additional money to promote Wyoming agriculture products in Asia and another requiring the WBC to work with manufacturers to lure federal defense and aerospace contracts to the state. However, the Senate could not agree to an override on those issues.

House begins final day by killing three bills

in Government spending/News/Health care/Taxes
Graduates toss their caps in the air, ALT=Wyoming to offer bachelors degrees at community colleges
1029

By Cowboy State Daily

The first three bills to be reviewed by Wyoming’s House on what was scheduled to be the last day of its 2019 general session did not fare well on Wednesday.

Bills addressing Medicaid eligibility, the payment of sales tax on large construction projects and the role of the state Select Committee on School Facilities in construction projects all died in their third and final reading on the House floor.

However, a bill designed to encourage students to pursue technical courses at the state’s community colleges was approved, as was a bill that would allow community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees in applied science.

The Legislature scheduled itself to end its session on Wednesday. Legislators spent much of the day addressing Gov. Mark Gordon’s veto of 14 footnotes to the supplemental budget.

The House was the only chamber with regular business left to address — eight bills on third and final reading.

But SF 103, 114 and 144 all died on their final votes.

SF 144 would impose requirements for those receiving Medicaid assistance to either work, attend school or complete volunteer duty. The bill, which died on a vote of 39-20, would have exempted those with serious medical problems from the requirement.

SF 103 would have expanded the role of the Select Committee on School Facilities to oversee community college and state capital construction projects. It died on a vote of 51-8.

SF 114 would have allowed companies building industrial facilities to work out contracts for the payment of sales and use taxes on those facilities over 20 years. It was killed in a vote of 33-25.

However, in a session that ran well past 7 p.m., representatives approved SF 111, a bill that would let community colleges offer bachelor’s degrees in applied science, approving the measure on a vote of 51-8.

Also approved was SF 122, a bill that would provide grants for students wishing to pursue technical programs at community colleges. Dubbed the “Wyoming Works Program,” it would also provide funding for community colleges to offer such programs. Students would not be required to have a high school diploma to take part in the program.

SF 134, a bill that would provide exemptions for some oil and natural gas production from wells that had been shut down and then restarted, was also approved.

Gordon’s vetoes detailed

in Government spending/News
1023

Gov. Mark Gordon vetoed 14 footnotes to the Legislature’s supplemental budget bill on Tuesday, saying many of them went beyond what is allowed under Wyoming’s Constitution.

Gordon, in his veto letter to legislative leadership, said most of the vetoed footnotes in essence created law and should have been addressed in separate legislation or were not directly related to the state’s budget. Others, he said, directed the executive branch to take certain actions in violation of rules regarding the separation of power between the executive and legislative branches.

Below is a list of the footnotes vetoed by the governor and his explanation for the action.

Governor’s office: The footnote would have directed the governor to review and report recommendations on how to make state permanent funds “inflation proof.”

“This provision is not related to the ‘ordinary expenses’ of state government … and should be a single-topic piece of legislation and should not be included in an appropriations bill.

Department of Administration and Information: The footnote directs the Department of A&I to prepare standard procedures to complete a cost benefit analysis of all future state leases.

“Because these types of provisions are substantive lawmaking, they should be placed in single-subject bills and not included in the budget act.”

State Engineer’s office: The footnote eliminated two positions in the office, even though the office was not requesting any additional money.

“The State Engineer’s office … is prepared to have one position eliminated, however, this budget cuts two positions instead of one and there is a person currently in the other position. I must … preserve the one filled position otherwise there could be an unintended riff of an employee.”

Department of Transportation: Two footnotes were vetoed. One would require the department to consult with a senator and representative before entering into long-term contracts for air service.

“This footnote raises a separation of powers issue because the Legislature … is controlling and managing the day-to-day operations of the executive branch — a practice that encroaches upon the inherent prerogatives of the executive branch.”

The second footnote directs the department to hire a consultant to conduct a cost benefit analysis of continued use of a state airplane.

“The subject and directives in this provision are beyond appropriations for ‘ordinary expenses’ of state government and should be ‘made by a separate bill’… Considering there was a separate bill contemplating the same intent that could not pass the Legislature I use my line item veto authority.”

Wyoming Business Council: Three footnotes were vetoed. One would require the WBC to use $100,000 of its budget to develop new markets for Wyoming agriculture products in Asian markets.

“There is nearly $2 million available for this mission in the ENDOW account and I believe that is the right funding source. My veto is based on legislative overreach into the affairs of the executive branch.”

The second footnote would bar the spending of some money from the WBC’s Business Ready Community Program without legislative action.

“Thus, as drafted, this restriction limits an appropriation already given.”

The third footnote would require the WBC to set aside $250,000, to be matched with private funds from Wyoming manufacturers, to hire and defense manufacturing procurement officer to help lure aerospace and federal defense contracts to the state.

“The spending direction in this section of the budget bill is narrow in scope and overrides the well-established process for economic development by directly instructing the outcome.”

Department of Education: The footnote directs the department to spend $100,000 to pay for a “pilot principal education program” to be run by Sheridan County schools, where a similar program is already in place.

“I believe school districts already have access to aspects of this program … (The footnote) bypasses the multi-professional team which works on state and federally funded support programs.”

School capital construction: The footnote sets aside $4.9 million for security projects in the state’s schools that are approved by the School Facilities Comission in consultation with local school districts.

“I believe my line item veto clarifies that this consultation can happen and that the commission will utilize its authority … but does not limit spending to only the specified priorities.”

Wyoming’s Tomorrow Task Force: The footnote creates a “Wyoming’s Tomorrow Task Force” program similar to a program in place in Tennessee that uses scholarships and mentoring to encourage students to attend in-state colleges. The footnote proposes a program similar to that outlined in failed legislation.

“This provision is not related to the ‘ordinary expenses’ of state government … and the creation of a task force should be done with a single-topic piece of legislation and should not be included in an appropriations bill.”

Flood mitigation: The footnote recommends that the State Loan and Investment Board use $5 million from federal abandoned mine lands funds to pay for flood mitigation projects on Bitter Creek in southwestern Wyoming.

“While I agree that Bitter Creek is a deserving project, I am opposed to the precedent of including AML funding in the budget bill acts.”

Military housing: The footnote provides $500,000 to serve as matching funds for design and construction needed to encourage the development of military housing in southeastern Wyoming.

“This project (has received) $3 million in a Business Ready Community Grant and a $1.3 million loan … The project proponent should return to the Business Council with an updated proposal…”

Higher education study: The footnote requires the University of Wyoming and the state’s seven community colleges to conduct a study to determine how bachelor’s degrees in applied science can be made more accessible throughout the state.

“This provision is not related to the ‘ordinary expenses’ of state government … and should be a single-topic piece of legislation and not be included in an appropriations bill. In fact, this was a single-subject piece of legislation that did not pass.”

Hicks predicts difficult budget sessions in 2020

in Government spending/News
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By Cowboy State Daily

If it was difficult for the House and Senate to reach an agreement on the state’s supplemental budget this year, things could get very tough next year when the Legislature reviews a 2-year budget, said a legislative leader.

Sen. Larry Hicks R-Baggs, noted that the biennium budget to be reviewed by the Legislature in 2020 will total about $3 billion, compared to the supplemental budget of about $200 million they debated this year.

Supplemental budgets are adopted in odd-numbered years to fund projects projects that come up between the approval of two-year budgets during even-numbered years.

Debate between the House and Senate over their different versions of the budget grew heated this year and at one point prompted the Senate to kill a bill financing state construction projects.

Hicks, a longtime member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said such debates do nothing to help members of the Legislature get along.

“(The budget debate) always tends to drag out to the last minute,” he said. “What it does to the Legislature, it creates factions. We have a faction here and a faction here and a faction here. It strains those relationships.”

Gov. Mark Gordon on Tuesday signed the supplemental budget approved by the Legislature, although he also vetoed 14 “footnotes.” Such footnotes are often included in budget bills to provide direction for specific appropriation, but Gordon said many of those he vetoed went beyond what is allowed by Wyoming’s Constitution and actually affected existing laws. Such issues should be tackled in separate bills, he said.

Legislators on Tuesday began their review of the vetoes so they could determine whether they would attempt an override.

In Brief: Capital construction bill heads back to Senate after House approval

in Government spending/News
Construction workers using a saw, ALT=Capitol construction bill heads back to Senate
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A measure that would provide about $50 million in state money for various government construction projects won final approval from the House on Tuesday.

SF 162, which died once in the Senate before being resurrected and sent to the House, provides financing for projects including a refurbishment of part of the University of Wyoming’s War Memorial Stadium and new facilities at several community colleges.

The bill had originally provided $15 million for work at the university, but that amount was reduced to $10 million and under the bill, the money will only be released as matching funds to money raised by the university.

The bill was once killed by the Senate, but senators rescinded their vote and sent the measure to the House for review.

The measure will now return to the Senate so senators can decide whether they will support the changes made by the House.

In Brief: UW dorm bill scaled back

in Government spending/News
Female student taking notes, ALT=University of Wyoming dorm bill scaled back
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By Cowboy State Daily

A measure that would let the University of Wyoming borrow $88 million to build new dormitories was cut significantly Wednesday.

The Senate Appropriations Committee decided instead to provide the university with $10 million to begin the project.

HB 293 had originally proposed letting the university borrow enough money from the state’s “rainy day fund” to build dormitories to house 2,000 bedrooms and then destroy or refurbish the old dormitories.

But before sending the bill to the Senate for debate by the full body, the Appropriations committee changed the loan to a direct appropriation for $10 million.

The bill heads to the floor shortly before the deadline for bills to get through the “Committee of the Whole,” their first review by the full body.

All “Committee of the Whole” work is to be completed by Thursday.

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