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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 Cat Urbigkit/Column/Government spending/News/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/Health care/News
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.

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