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House Kills Sales Tax Boost To Help Local Governments

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A measure that would have added 1 cent to the statewide sales tax to benefit local governments was killed in the House on Tuesday as representatives agreed it would hurt the ability of towns and counties to tax themselves.

The House voted 10-50 against House Bill 174, agreeing with arguments it would hamper the ability of residents of towns and counties to vote to impose an optional sales tax on themselves to pay for special projects in their communities.

“We pride ourselves on telling our citizens ‘You get to choose what this tax pays for,’” said Rep. Christopher Knapp, R-Gillette. “This takes that away and makes it mandatory.”

Wyoming tax laws impose a statewide 4% sales tax and allow local governments to impose up to another 3%.

House Revenue Committee Chair Rep. Steve Harshman, R-Casper, said HB174 would have increased the statewide tax to 5% and reduced the local taxes to 2%. The extra statewide 1%, estimated to raise up to $181 million a year, would have been distributed to towns and counties, easing financial strains created with the declines in the state’s mineral industries.

Harshman said the bill would not have imposed a new tax on residents, just changed how the tax is charged.

“This bill does not increase one tax,” he said. “It does not raise one penny in tax.”

But Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper, argued that voters would be hesitant to approve local sales tax increases given the higher statewide sales tax.

“This decreases options for the people,” he said during the bill’s third reading in the House. “It makes that first percent mandatory. This decreases people’s voices.”

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Bill Designating “Hank Coe Highway” Advances

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

Hank Coe was known throughout Wyoming for his dedication to his city, his friends, his position as a state senator — and now his memory is being honored in the Wyoming Legislature.

A bill that would name a portion of Highway 120 – both north and south of Coe’s hometown of Cody — the “Hank Coe Leadership Highway” is this week nearing the end of its journey through the Legislature.

Henry Huttleston Rogers “Hank” Coe passed away just two months ago at the age of 74 after battling pancreatic cancer — less than a year after his retirement from public office. 

He served in the Wyoming Legislature for 32 years in a multitude of roles, including majority floor leader, Senate vice president and Semate President, and chaired a number of committees.

Among his many achievements, Coe played an instrumental role in creating the Hathaway Scholarship, a merit-based scholarship which benefits Wyoming students who attend state colleges and the University of Wyoming. 

So to designate a portion of a major highway that runs through his hometown as a “leadership highway” seems appropriate, according to Sandy Newsome, a fellow Cody resident who currently serves in the Wyoming House of Representatives.

“You know, he was a county commissioner for years and years and served in the state house for 32 years — and just always giving to his community,” Newsome recalled. “Whether it was as a firefighter or commissioner, or with the Coe Medical Foundation, or the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, he was always giving of his time and expertise.”

Newsome said her connection with Coe began back in the 1980s when Coe served as a volunteer firefighter and Sandy’s husband was on the Park County Search and Rescue squad. 

Coe’s concern for people was genuine, she said.

“I used to take my mother-in-law on Tuesdays to do her little errands around town, and it often included a stop at Hank’s office, because he was her stockbroker” she said. “She had lost her hearing a little bit and he was so patient, and so kind. “Given his stature in the community, he was just as gracious as can be.“

House Bill 135 designating the highway has been approved by the House and was approved Tuesday in its first reading by the Senate. If the Senate approves the bill in two more readings, it will go to the desk of Gov. Mark Gordon for his signature.

If it passes, the “Hank Coe Leadership Highway” will join other memorial roadways such as the “Vietnam Veterans Welcome Home Highway” on Interstate 25; the “Wyoming Women’s Suffrage Pathway” on Highway 28 in Fremont County; the “Medal of Honor Highway” on Highway 20 between Wyoming’s borders with Montana and Nebraska, and the “Wild Horse Highway” east of Cody on Highway 14/16/20.

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Cody Legislator: Disability-Related Abortions Step Toward Eugenics

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Wyoming measles-free, but officials urge preventive action
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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A bill that would ban abortions conducted for “discriminatory” reasons is headed for its final review in the Wyoming House of Representatives.

House Bill 161, sponsored by Rep. John Romero-Martinez, R-Cheyenne, would ban abortions performed because the unborn child diagnosed with a disability or for the reasons of race, sex, color, national origin or ancestry.

In the bill, disabilities is defined as any disease, defect or disorder that is genetically inherited, including physical, mental and intellectual disabilities, physical disfigurement, scoliosis, dwarfism, down syndrome, albinism, amelia, meromelia or a physical or mental disease.

The bill passed through its second reading in the House on Tuesday, meaning it is likely to be up for a third reading later this week.

Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, on Tuesday offered an amendment that would require the state to reimburse pregnant women who were forced into carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term.

The program Connolly suggested in her amendment would cover all medical costs associated with the pregnancy, birth and additional educations and therapies related to a child being born with disabilities.

Her amendment, which would also require genetic testing for pregnant women, was defeated as the bill itself was approved in its second reading.

“I am confused about this bill and how it could honestly be implemented,” Connolly said during the House floor debate. “What this amendment does, it clarifies that we as a state…do not want the results of genetic testing to be used for abortion, but if a woman is obligated to carry a pregnancy to term, that we will take care of that child. That is our obligation.”

Rep. Rachel Rodriguez-Williams, R-Cody, a co-sponsor of the bill, spoke in opposition to the amendment, saying it didn’t align with the bill’s intention.

“The reality is that sex-selection abortions are occurring in the United States,” she said. “Recent studies have showed that more than 90% of unborn children diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted. Clearly, this is the chilling side to eugenics and it must be confronted there.”

Rep. Sue Wilson, R-Cheyenne, also spoke in opposition of the amendment.

“We’re not mandating that the woman has to take care of the child for the rest of its life, if she feels unable to care for the child after it is born,” she said. “We do have an existing program [like this that] Medicaid pays for.”

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School Board Bill Gets Amended to Require Political Affiliation Be Listed on Ballots

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By Jimmy Orr, Cowboy State Daily

An amended bill that would, in effect, make school board races partisan passed is first full review in the Wyoming State Senate on Monday.

Senate File 138, in its original form, would have given school board candidates the option of listing their political party.

But an amendment sponsored by Sen. Mike Gierau (D-Jackson) making party affiliation required was passed by a 14-13 vote.

Gierau said he wasn’t sure if he supported the original legislation but offered the amendment to “improve it.”

“If it’s a good idea to list party affiliation for school board, then why not just do it?” Geirau said. “I don’t understand this part about making it optional.” 

Sen. Affie Ellis, (R-Cheyenne), sponsor of the legislation, said she considered making the listing of party affiliation mandatory but opted not to for policy and practical reasons. 

Ellis said she wanted to respect the rights of individuals who don’t consider themselves to be partisan. She also expressed concern that making the listing of party affiliation could ultimately doom the bill.

Regardless, Ellis said her bill was necessary for transparency as many candidates don’t tell voters who they are and what they stand for.

“We are doing a disservice to the public by not providing more information about candidates,” Ellis said. “This bill, at its most basic level, allows the voter more information but it’s left to the school board candidate’s discretion.”

Ellis said in her district, there were a number of candidates who didn’t report spending anything on campaigning or doing any fundraising.

“While that may seem charming, to me it seems a little alarming,” she said explaining that this meant candidates were not being transparent.

“Mailers were not being sent out explaining priorities or positions or philosophies on governance,” she said. 

Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) spoke against the bill and the amendment, stating that the country has become too partisan as it is and making school board races partisan wouldn’t be productive.

“When I look around the country and the state of national affairs, the last thing I hear is ‘Boy, there’s just not enough partisanship,’” Rothfuss said.

The senator said he doesn’t know the party affiliation of the school board candidates he voted for in Albany County and he was “happy” about that.

“I don’t want the basis of my kids’ education to be partisan. I don’t want that to be the driving force,” he said.

“Let’s try to de-polarize and de-politicize the process instead of going the other direction,” he said.

The bill, in its amended form, passed by a voice vote and next goes to second reading.

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Bill Giving Elected Officials Control Over Wyoming Health Orders Wins First House Nod

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A measure that would put elected officials in charge of public health orders that restrict the activities of healthy people won initial approval from Wyoming’s House on Monday.

House Bill 127 was drafted to give someone accountable to the state’s residents authority over how healthy people are treated when statewide orders are issued to prevent the spread of disease, said House Speaker Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, the bill’s primary sponsor.

“We’re trying to keep people healthy and alive,” Barlow told the House. “If we start limiting healthy people’s activities, that’s where it becomes a little different, in my mind.”

During the year-long coronavirus pandemic, state Public Health Officer Alexia Harrist and Gov. Mark Gordon signed public health orders closing and restricting businesses and limiting public gatherings to slow the spread of the illness.

Under Barlow’s bill, the state public health officers and county health officers could continue to issue orders addressing the actions of people who are ill, such as quarantine orders.

Health officers could also issue orders limiting the activities of people who are not sick, but those orders would only be in effect for 10 days. After 10 days, local and state governing officials, such as county commissioners and the governor, would be responsible for approving any extensions of the orders.

Rep. Sue Wilson, R-Cheyenne, a co-sponsor of the measure, said the bill would make elected officials responsible for actions affecting people who are not sick.

“One of the requests of the people was to have someone who was an elected person be ultimately responsible,” she said.

Rep. Hans Hunt, R-Newcastle, said such an arrangement could prevent unnecessary economic disruptions in the future.

“The way we currently address these problems has got to change,” he said. “The economic impact we have seen to our state and country over the past year based on the actions taken to address the problem have been astronomical, incalculable. Taking these steps is a huge step in the right direction to the elected officials and to common sense and sanity.”

The bill is one of several introduced during the Legislature’s session to limit the authority of public health officers to restrict businesses and actions in the wake of the business shutdowns prompted by the coronavirus.

The bill now moves to a second reading in the Senate. 

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Bouchard’s Gun Bill Passes Wyoming Senate’s Committee of the Whole

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A gun rights bill that would have Wyoming declare federal gun laws that restrict the ability of law-abiding citizens to keep and bear arms null and void won approval in its first full Senate review Monday.

Senate File 81, sponsored by Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne, would declare federal laws identified as “infringements on the people’s right to keep and bear arms” as invalid.

“We have a lot of threats in the federal government coming through Congress and I think everyone can agree, they’re there to have a chilling effect on gun owners and manufacturers,” Bouchard told his colleagues during the Senate floor session Monday.

The bill would also declare invalid any federal law “ordering the confiscation of firearms, firearm accessories or ammunition from law abiding citizens.”

The bill would bar any Wyoming law enforcement officers from enforcing any federal laws ruled an infringement on the Second Amendment.

The law would apply to federal rules and laws already in place as well as any passed in the future.

“Law-abiding citizens should not have the harm of overreach from the federal government,” Bouchard said.

The federal actions the bill identifies as infringements on the Second Amendment include any tax or fee imposed on firearms and accessories “that might reasonably be expected to create a chilling effect on the purchase or ownership of those items,” the registration or tracking of firearms or ammunition and any act forbidding the possession, ownership or transfer of a firearm.

Earlier this month, the Wyoming Sheriff’s Association said the bill, in its original form, could leave its members in a dilemma while trying to enforce the law.

“The … Act, while well intentioned to prohibit firearms confiscation by federal entities to unknown future laws, could actually inhibit Wyoming peace officers from enforcing certain Wyoming statutes, conducting complete investigations and ensuring successful prosecution,” said the letter, signed by all 23 of Wyoming’s sheriffs.

The letter said the law would leave law enforcement unable to seize weapons from people accused of serious crimes.

“For example, we could normally seize a firearm as part of a local case and turn the firearm over to federal entities for prosecution,” the letter said. “These cases run the gamut of aggravated robbery, child pornography and various dangerous drug investigations.”

The sheriffs also objected to a section of the bill that would allow people whose weapons have been seized to sue the officer involved, who would have no immunity from damages, even if acting within the scope of his duties.

“To punish and hold liable a peace officer who seizes a weapon which is later returned, is wrong,” the letter said. “It is already difficult to recruit and retain quality peace officers.”

The bill must be approved in two more Senate votes before it can be sent to the House for review by representatives.

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Wyoming One Step Closer to Making Bestiality A Crime

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A bill that would make bestiality a crime was sent to the floor of the Senate for debate on Friday by a legislative committee.

Rep. Clark Stith, R-Rock Springs, testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Friday morning in support of a bill submitted in response to a Sweetwater County incident and told members Wyoming is only one of only four states in the country that doesn’t have a bestiality law on its books.

“I don’t necessarily consider it a widespread or growing problem but in my county, we did have an incident last year where the matter was investigated, it was actually on video, there was no question about the facts,” Stith said. “Law enforcement investigated it. They were able to prosecute for trespass, but not anything more. The community felt trespass didn’t quite capture the justice in this matter.”

Stith is sponsoring House Bill 46, which has already been approved by the House, which would make bestiality a misdemeanor in the state and a maximum sentence of one year in prison and/or a $1,000 fine.

This incident to which he was referring occurred last summer when a man in Sweetwater County was found to have trespassed onto private property to engage in sexual activity with horses.

The property owner told the deputy that they chained and locked the gate a certain way when leaving the corral at night. When they returned to the corral the next day, it was chained differently.

“While shocking, this is actually a very difficult case,” Sweetwater County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Jason Mower said at the time of the crime. “Wyoming is only one of a handful of states without a bestiality statute on the books.”

Mower also explained that for an animal cruelty charge to hold up in court, it would have to be proven that the man actually injured the horses.

Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, also testified in support of the bill, but also the committee to consider making bestiality a felony, not just a misdemeanor.

“The good bringer of the bill has taken the first step, but when you look at other states that have similar laws in place … perhaps in this case it would be appropriate with a second or subsequent conviction to make it a felony-level offense,” Zwonitzer said.

Tara Muir, public policy director for the Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, also testified in support of the bill, whether the crime is considered a misdemeanor or felony.

However, she said the bill didn’t include any provisions for victims who might be forced into bestiality, so she asked for an amendment consideration for their defense.

“I think [being forced into bestiality] happens more than we know,” Muir said.

Committee members agreed they would consider an amendment during a second reading of the bill.

Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police spokesman Bryon Oedekoven also testified in support of the bill.

“This bill came out of an incident in Sweetwater County but unfortunately, I can tell you this happens all over the state,” Oedekoven said.

The committee unanimously agreed to send the bill to the Senate for consideration on “general file,” when the amendments would be offered. “General file” refers to the consideration by the full Senate of a bill approved by a committee.

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Suicide Prevention Bill Languishes In Wyoming House

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming’s wide open spaces are refreshing to some, but desolate and lonely to others. And for those struggling with depression, the isolation can be literally fatal.

Wyoming health rankings in 2020 indicated that suicide was a leading cause of death in Wyoming for the ages of 15 through 24. And a recent Wyoming study conducted by the private Prevention Management Organization (PMO) showed that half of all residents in the state have been touched in some way by suicide.

That’s why a bill that would train students to recognize the signs of suicidal thoughts in their peers would be a benefit, according to freshman Rep. Rachel Rodriguez-Williams, R-Cody.

“I’ve met several families who have lost a loved one to suicide, particularly the youth, a child, and so often they tell a friend before they tell a trusted adult,” she said.

Williams has taken up a bill that was introduced in the interim last session which was supported by veteran legislators Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody, and Rep. David Northrup, R-Powell. 

Coe, who passed away a few months ago, and Northrup, who retired last year, had both served on the Joint Education Committee, where House Bill 175 has been considered.

And although the bill died in the interim, Williams has chosen to champion the cause, resurrecting it for the general session.

“After it failed in the House, I received numerous calls numerous emails from various suicide prevention advocates, across the state and in our local community, asking for it to come back,” she said.

Williams says the bill proposes an amendment to the Jason Flatt Act, which the state adopted in 2014, requiring teachers to be trained in suicide prevention methods. This bill would require school districts to provide suicide awareness and prevention programs to Wyoming students grades six through 12.

“I have been told by local school psychologists that up to 80% of the time, when a teen contemplates suicide, they tell a peer, they don’t tell an adult,” Rodriguez-Williams said. “And I’ve seen that firsthand.”

The statistic is confirmed by Terresa Humphries-Wadsworth, a licensed psychologist who for several years worked for the state of Wyoming in community suicide prevention – until all funding was cut for such programs in 2017. 

But she’s still working in the field, now on a national level, and says that especially for youth, talking about suicidal thoughts is more than just taboo.

“In high school, friends are so important that what they think of them is so important,” she said. “When they’re encountering these kinds of problems, they may kind of hint to their friends of what this is like, early in their thinking process. But as they start spiraling down, they start withdrawing from their friends and their activities. And when they go silent, that’s when it’s really scary.”

Humphries-Wadsworth, who lives in Cody, points out that the bill being considered would give teens tools to help friends who are in trouble.

“There are so many teens at suicide funerals, who say, ‘He said this to me, but I didn’t know I didn’t know he meant death. If I’d known, I could have said something, I could have done something,’” she said. “And I think that’s what this bill is trying to do – give them knowledge and tools to help save their friends.”

Rodriguez-Williams said the bill does not require any funding.

“There’s no fiscal note tied to this bill at all,” she said. “And if it does pass, most school districts will access the suicide prevention experts in their respective counties.”

According to Rodriguez-Williams, if this bill passes, school districts can look into a number of different evidence-based programs that are proven to work. 

“Suicide prevention has come a long way over the years,” she said. “We know what’s effective and what’s not. And it looks different in every community. So I think it’s important for school districts to choose programs that are right for them based on their demographics.”

The bill in question wouldn’t create “mini-counselors”, according to Rodiguez-Willams — just help students recognize signs that they may not have known about and teach them how to turn to a trusted adult, or to utilize services such as the 1-800 Lifeline number (1-800-273-TALK).

“But what’s most important is that we’re building resiliency in our youth,” she said. “And we’re also teaching new skills. We’re teaching youth to recognize the signs and symptoms that come along with suicidal thinking.”

Rodriguez-Williams isn’t alone in the fight. In addition to advocates like Humphries-Wadsworth, Rodriguez-Willaims said she’s had support from other suicide prevention stakeholders in Park County. 

She emphasized again that there are no funds tied to this bill, which is why it could work.

“Prevention funds already exist at the county level, it’s not changing how these funds are dispersed or how they’re used,” she said. “It just simply allows school districts and schools to access services that are already provided. And the funding is already there, they can choose their own path.”

But the bill may not survive. 

HB 175 was referred to the House Education Committee on March 4, but no hearing on it has been scheduled.

Friday is the last day for bills from the House to be reported out of House committees. Bills not approved by committee by the end of Friday’s work will generally not be heard on the House floor.

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Death Row Exoneree Testifies In Support of Wyoming Repealing Death Penalty

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A man who once sat on death row for a crime he did not commit recently testified in support of Wyoming repealing its death penalty.

Ray Krone testified before the Senate Revenue Committee last week, telling the story of how he was wrongly accused in 1991 of killing a woman who was found dead in a Phoenix bar he frequented.

“I used to support the death penalty, since it wouldn’t affect me and my family, so what do I care about it?” Krone said in his testimony. “I found out how wrong I was when I was 35 years old and got sentenced to death in Phoenix, Arizona.”

Krone was convicted one year after his arrest due to dental impressions found on the victim’s body that supposedly matched his. Ten years later, Krone was exonerated when it was discovered the woman was actually killed by another man who was also known for being a violent sexual predator.

The Wyoming Legislature is considering Senate File 150 (sponsored by Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas), which would repeal the state’s death penalty. The Senate was to debate the bill on Wednesday, but its discussion was held back for a day because of weekend blizzard that halted activity in southeastern Wyoming for two days.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the last person executed in Wyoming was Mark Hopkinson in 1992.

During a Senate Revenue Committee meeting on March 4, Boner explained his reasoning behind the bill.

“It’s during time of fiscal constraint that it’s more important than ever we reassess state government and maybe some things that used to work in the past are no longer relevant,” the senator said.

He described the death penalty as a rusty old tool on the shelf that didn’t work and was expensive.

There is only one person on death row in Wyoming, Dale Eaton, convicted of kidnapping, raping and murdering a Montana teenager in 1988 and then throwing her body into the North Platte River. His death sentence was overturned by a federal judge in 2014 although prosecutors said they would continue to seek his execution.

Wyoming’s Legislature passed a bill in 2004 banning the death penalty for juveniles.

Krone’s testimony to the committee was part of partnership between his organization of death row exonerees, “Witness to Innocence,” and the American Civil Liberties Union of Wyoming.

The ACLU of Wyoming has been a major proponent behind repealing the death penalty in the state, arguing it is costly and ineffective.

The ACLU believes the death penalty inherently violates the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment and the guarantees of due process of law and of equal protection under the law.

Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne, who is a co-sponsor of the bill (along with 12 other legislators, both Democrat and Republican), shared a video of the March 4 meeting with an impassioned plea.

“Let’s end the death penalty once and for all. Let’s end it now!” he wrote on social media.

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Legislator Says Wyoming Could Save Millions With Weed Legalization

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A state representative from Laramie recently crunched the numbers and determined Wyoming would save millions with a recently introduced marijuana legalization bill.

Rep. Karlee Provenza, D-Laramie, asked during a presentation on House Bill 209 (which would legalize medical and recreational marijuana in the state) last week what the savings to the Wyoming Department of Corrections would be if the bill was approved.

“They reported back that approximately 335 people are incarcerated for drug offenses, 2,501 are under supervision, and the total cost is approximately $19,498,525,” Provenza tweeted.

However, DOC Director Daniel Shannon said the department was unable to identify those who were incarcerated or under supervision specifically for marijuana possession.

According to the Legislative Service Office, Wyoming would see $30.7 million in tax revenue increases every fiscal year with the legalization of marijuana.

Provenza, along with a number of other legislators (including Reps. Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, and Cyrus Western, R-Big Horn, and Sens. Cale Case, R-Lander and Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie) is a co-sponsor of the bill, which was introduced by Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne.

“Legalizing marijuana will save millions and provide millions more in tax revenues,” Provenza added on Twitter. “This is far better for Wyoming than continuing to criminalize personal choices and freedom. The cost in money and human lives is tragic and ineffective.”

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