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Democrats call for Hutchings’ resignation; Senate promises probe

in News
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By Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming’s Democratic Party on Monday demanded the resignation of a state senator criticized for her comments to a group of students.

As the state Senate promised a thorough investigation into the complaints lodged against Sen. Lynn Hutchings, R-Cheyenne, a leading House Republican noted that Hutchings has the right to express her opinion.

In a news release, Joe Barbuto, Democratic Party chairman, called for Hutchings to resign because of her comments made to Cheyenne Central High School students Feb. 1.

The 10 students, members of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, asked Hutchings to discuss House Bill 230, a bill that would prohibit employees from being fired because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. The bill died in the House.

Hutchings is alleged to have told the students: “If my sexual orientation was to have sex with all of the men in there and I had sex with all of the women in there and then they brought their children and I had sex with all of them and then brought their dogs in and I had sex with them, should I be protected for my sexual orientation?”

Wyoming Equality, an LGBTQ advocacy group, reported the students interpreted the comments to compare homosexuality with bestiality and pedophilia.

Hutchings on Monday declined requests for an interview with Cowboy State Daily.

Barbuto called Hutchings’ comments, first reported by Wyoming Equality, “indefensible, insensitive and repugnant” and said her decision to share her thoughts with the high school students at the Legislature “shows a clear lack of good judgment.”

“Senate District 5 deserves a senator who they can trust to behave and speak in a manner that upholds the dignity of the office and reflects an understanding that every person deserves to be treated with respect,” he said. “Lynn Hutchings is now incapable of providing that level of representation. She must resign immediately.”

Wyoming Equality reported the incident in a letter to Senate President Drew Perkins, R-Casper. The group said the encounter so disturbed the high school students that they “quickly removed themselves from the Jonah Business Center to process this interaction and provide a supportive space for one another.”

Wyoming Equality said some of the students were “deeply hurt and disturbed.”

While no formal complaint had been filed as of Monday afternoon, the Senate’s Republican leadership pledged to look into the incident.

“In the coming days, we will continue through the process designed to properly vet and address complaints filed against members,” Perkins, Majority Floor Leader Dan Dockstader, R-Afton, and Senate Vice President Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, said in a joint news release. “Both Sen. Hutchings and these students deserve fair consideration and respect as we work to address this matter.”

However, asking for Hutchings’ resignation at this point is premature, said. Rep. Tyler Lindholm, R-Sundance, the House majority whip.

“Nobody’s heard from Sen. Hutchings in this regard,” he said. “If Sen. Hutchings comes out and gives a statement that she said those things, first of all, she’s got First Amendment rights. If she did say those things, I’d say it was not classy, but calling for her resignation is definitely premature.”

If the statements were made, an apology is in order, Lindholm said.

“If it’s true, I would definitely think an apology … should happen,” he said. “I think about my kids, if somebody said something like that to my kids, I wouldn’t be OK with that.”

But Nina Hebert, director of the Wyoming Democratic Party, said the party wants Hutchings’ resignation.

“It is the position of the Chairman Barbuto, as well as the Democratic Party, that Sen. Hutchings should bring whatever dignity she can back to the office she holds by immediately offering her resignation,” she said.

College, city, state help workers displaced by Western Sugar closure

in Agriculture/Business/News
A forklift loading sugar into semi trailer, ALT=Western Sugar layoffs hit 200 Torrington workers
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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

City, state and educational institutions are stepping up to help the almost 200 Western Sugar Cooperative employees in Torringon who will soon be out of work with the closure of the cooperative’s plant there.

“We’ve done a rapid response already, and we have one planned in mid-March,” said Wyoming Department of Workforce Services Torrington Center Manager Gilbert Servantez. “(A rapid response is) a core team that meets with individuals that are going to be laid off and lets them know what services we can provide.”

As first reported by the Torrington Telegram, Western Sugar recently announced they planned to layoff 193 employees from the Torrington facility by mid-March. The layoffs are predicted to be permanent, and Western Sugar attributed the workforce reduction to evolving business needs, the Telegram reported.

Many of the employees at the plant are seasonal. However, Western Sugar would not respond to requests for additional information or comment.

Torrington Mayor Randy Adams said the news of the layoffs was not surprising, because Western Sugar announced a coming round of layoffs in 2016, but the timing of the move is less than ideal.

“Western Sugar is not our only problem — just this weekend we had a major fire downtown,” Adams said, explaining no one was hurt, but a major business was shut down. “In the last year, we also heard the South Morrill yards, a Union Pacific engine repair facility, was closing. We had quite a few people working at that facility.”

In office for just more than a month, Adams said he’s got a lot on his plate, but he’s not going to let that stop the city from pitching in to help the soon-to-be laid off Western Sugar employees.

“We’re working directly with (Servantez) on all the things he’s trying to do,” the mayor said. “All my departments have been told to consider Western Sugar people who are slated to lose their jobs when an opening comes up.”

As part of the rapid response core team, Adams said the city is also working with the Goshen County Economic Development Corporation — Wyoming’s only economic development organization funded by an optional local sales tax — to explore economic effects the layoffs might have on the area and offer dislocated employees opportunities for opening new businesses. The Goshen County Economic Development Corporation did not respond to requests for comment.

Servantez said another key member of the rapid response team was WDWS unemployment insurance staff.

“That was probably one of the most important core partners,” he said. “There was a lot of questions regarding unemployment insurance.”

Some of the workers could also be eligible for WDWS dislocated worker funding, Servantez added.

“When a business closes down such as Western Sugar, and there is no other place for the workers to go in regards to their skill sets, they qualify for dislocated worker funding,” he said, explaining the money would be in addition to the employees’ unemployment payments. “They do have up to $6,500 dollars that is available to them for whatever it is they want to do after their employment ends.”

One of the challenges of the Western Sugar layoffs is they haven’t happened yet, Servantez said, so determining what programs and training opportunities could best serve the people affected is on hold until after March.

At Eastern Wyoming College, Vice President for Student Services Roger Humphrey said the school is reaching out to Western Sugar employees with information about high school diploma equivalency courses, single-semester certificate programs and other post-secondary training opportunities.

“We’re hosting a job expo scheduled for Feb. 13, and we encourage those displaced workers to attend,” Humphrey said. “We’ll have 20 employers from the around the region in attendance. We’re also offering seminars on employee culture and interviewing techniques.”

The college is also encouraging the Western Sugar employees to enroll for summer and fall courses.

“We’ve went out twice during shift changes (at Western Sugar) and talked about opportunities for financial aid to attend and how to re-enroll in the school,” Humphrey said. “We also outlined all the one-semester degrees and certificates that could potentially put them right into the job market.”

Servantez said it would be difficult for Goshen County to retain all the workers, but WDWS has prioritized finding former Western Sugar employees work as close to home as possible.

“It’s important that our community knows there are some options for these folks — training options and post-secondary options,” he said. “Our goal going forward is to find them work, we will do what we can to find them work here, but the reality is some might need to move to find work.”

With help from the economic development corporation, Adams said new jobs could soon be available in Goshen County as Torrington and the surrounding area push for tourism growth.

“Economic development is rebranding and trying to attract more tourism,” he explained. “We’re on the (U.S.) Highway 26 to Yellowstone (National Park), we’re on (U.S.) Highway 85 to Devil’s Tower — there’s things looking to the future that are positive, and that hopefully we can build on.”

Whatever the path forward may be for Torrington and the Western Sugar employees, Adams said they would work on it together.

“I don’t know that it will be rather quickly, but we will overcome this,” he said.

Wyoming Legislative Week-in-Review: Construction, Medicaid, minimum wage bills all die in Legislature

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By Cowboy State Daily

Funding for construction projects across the state fell in a unanimous vote in the Senate this week, joining several other high-profile bills that failed to make it through the legislative process.

SF 162 would have provided more than $50 million for various construction projects, including upgrades and new construction for community colleges and a new roof for the State Penitentiary. However, senators voted 30-0 against the measure in its final Senate review. Senate leaders including President Drew Perkins, R-Casper, said the bill’s death was part of the Senate’s attempt to save money to offset possible budget shortfalls next year.

Also killed was a bill that would have expanded the number of people in the state eligible to receive Medicaid. HB 244 was killed in its first review by the full House on Monday.

A measure that would have raised Wyoming’s minimum wage from $515 per hour to $8.50 also died. HB 273 was killed in its first review by the full House.

However, two bills aimed at limiting when voters can change their party affiliations were approved for further debate. HB 106 would require voters to change their affiliations at least two weeks before a primary election. SF 162 would require those changes to take place two weeks before absentee ballots for a primary election are mailed to voters — usually in mid-June. 

Also approved was HB 235, a bill creating a penalty of felony animal abuse.

Senate prepares for worst-case budget scenario that leaders doubt will occur

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Although Wyoming’s Senate is preparing for a worst-case scenario with the state’s supplemental budget, the leaders of both of the Legislature’s chambers are predicting their members will reach a compromise on the spending bill.

The Senate on Wednesday changed its rules to allow the late introduction of three bills proposing spending of about $45 million to support air transportation, education and the departments of Health and Family Services.

The appropriations are already contained in the supplemental budget bill making its way through both chambers, but Senate President Drew Perkins, R-Casper, said the Senate wanted to address the issues in separate bills should the supplemental budget die.

“If we can’t come to an agreement on the supplemental budget, we’ve got a backup,” he said. “There’s about four things that absolutely have to happen this session because they were uncompleted issues from the biennium budget last year.”

But House Speaker Rep. Steve Harshman, R-Casper, said he believes that a deal on the budget will be worked out and that the Senate’s backup plan is unnecessary.

“I told my secretary ‘Please don’t bring (the bills) into my office even if they do make it over because I’m not going to walk away from the process,’” he said. “It’s been here long before I was even born, it will be here a long time after I’m dead and gone and I’m not going to be part of trying to muck things up.”

The issue arose as the House and Senate looked at each other’s versions of the supplemental budget, which proposes spending needed between the even-numbered years when the Legislature sets a two-year budget.

As sent to both chambers by the Joint Appropriations Committee, the bill proposes spending of about $206 million, including $119 million from the state’s main bank account, called the “General Fund.”

By some counts, the House and Senate are $70 million apart in their versions, although both Perkins and Harshman set the difference at closer to $40 million.

The main differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill stem from beliefs in the Senate that the state should save its money, given uncertainties in the future of oil and gas prices, Perkins said, along with the idea the supplemental budget should only be used for emergency needs.

“The Senate views the supplemental budget as a supplemental budget, which by definition should be unanticipated needs or emergency needs,” he said. “A lot of those issues, we don’t believe, fall into those categories. The other side, too, is as we look at what we’re going to need next year, the Senate feels pretty strongly we ought to be saving money to cover what we’re going to see as a deficit in the school foundation program next year.”

That uncertainty prompted the Senate to kill a bill providing more than $50 million for various construction programs around the state, including repairs and upgrades at several community colleges and roof repairs for the State Penitentiary, Perkins said.

“We’re just trying to know where we can fill the gaps next year,” he said. “If I knew I was going to be short on my household income next year and I had some extra money this year, I’d set it aside because I’m thinking I’m going to need it next year — and that’s kind of where the Senate is.”

Harshman said many of the remaining disputes over the budget center on when spending might be necessary. He pointed as an example a proposed upgrade of the state Revenue Department’s excise tax computer system, which is based on an old computer language.

“It needs to be upgraded,” he said. “This was really a question of when. I think some senators thought maybe they don’t need this money for another 12 months and we can do it (in the biennium budget) net year. If that’s the case, fine.”

Both men said differences between the House and Senate on the budget are common and both predicted the supplemental budget bill would survive the session.

“We’ve still got plenty of time to resolve these things and get them moved forward and bring this in for a landing before the session’s over,” Perkins said.

‘Wyoming Women’s Suffrage Day’ headed for governor’s desk

in News
Historical Newspaper illustration of Women's Sufferage, ALT=Women's Suffrage Day Wyoming
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By Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming's Suffrage Day bill headed for Governor Mark Gordon's desk. Photo from scene at polls with first woman voter.
Image from Library of Congress: Woman suffrage in Wyoming Territory. — Scene at the polls in Cheyenne / from a photo. by Kirkland. )

Wyoming will celebrate “Wyoming Women’s Suffrage Day” in December under a bill headed to the governor’s desk.

Senate Joint Resolution 3 would have the state recognize the day on Dec. 10.

The bill was sponsored by Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, and was co-sponsored by a number of legislators, including every woman serving in the House and Senate.

Dec. 10 is the 150th anniversary of the day Wyoming — then a territory — became the first to adopt a law giving women the right to vote.

The bill won unanimous approval from members of the House and Senate and on Friday was signed as an “enrolled joint resolution” by Senate President Drew Perkins, R-Casper. It next heads to the desk of House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper, for his signature before going to Gov. Mark Gordon for signing.

Appropriations members say budget difference just part of the process

in News
884

By Cowboy State Daily

Differences between the House and Senate over the proposed supplemental budget are just part of the legislative process and center largely on what constitutes necessary spending, two members of the Joint Appropriations Committee said Thursday.

Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Rep. Tom Walters, R-Casper, agreed that the two bodies will bridge the $70 million gap between the House and Senate versions of the budget.

“Being the wonderful process that it is, we’ll get together and figure out our differences and in the next couple of weeks we’ll have a good supplemental budget that Wyoming can be proud of,” Walters said.

The Legislature approves a two-year budget during even-numbered years. The supplemental budget is a mechanism to provide funding for needs that may arise between the Legislature’s budget session. The supplemental budget submitted this year to the Legislature by the Joint Appropriations Committee outlines spending from the state’s main bank account or “General Fund” of $119 million.

The House and Senate finished their independent reviews of the budget this week. The House added $51 million in spending, while the Senate cut $19 million. The Senate is now reviewing the House changes to the budget while the House is reviewing the Senate version. A “conference committee” will later be appointed to reach a compromise between the two versions.

Bebout said many in the Senate consider the supplemental budget a way to pay for emergencies.

“So I felt we ought to deal with emergencies and as we worked through the budget, that’s where the House had differences from the Senate,” he said. “That’s the process. We talk about it, we debate, you take the vote…”

Part of the difference between the two bodies stems from education funding. The House increased the “external cost adjustment” for schools — an amount designed to help ease the impact of inflation on schools — by $21 million. The Senate cut the amount by $9 million.

Another difference is a software upgrade proposed for in Department of Revenue. The House added $15 million to JAC’s recommendation, while the Senate cut it by $5 million.

“Quite frankly, I didn’t think a lot of the things we brought up as we worked through the process … in the House vs. the Senate, that we had $52 million in additional spending that we needed,” Bebout said. “I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have some, but I felt that was more than I was willing to accept.”

Public documents bill clears House committee

in News/Transparency
Tax records stacked, ALT=Public Documents, House bills
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By Cowboy State Daily

A 30-day deadline would be set for the release of public documents under a bill approved Thursday by a House committee.

The House Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions voted 9-0 to approve SF 57 for debate by the full House.

As approved by the Senate and sent to the House, the bill would give the holders of public documents 30 days to produce documents in response to requests from members of the public. It would also create the position of a public document ombudsman in the governor’s office who would be responsible for mediating disputes between state and local government bodies and the people asking for records

Performance bill proposes bonuses for investment professionals

in News
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By Cowboy State Daily

A bill that would reward the state’s investment professionals for making investment choices that perform better than the markets generally could increase the salaries of those professionals by up to 100 percent.

HB 222 would provide bonuses for investment professionals only if the performances of the investments they are managing exceed benchmarks set by certain segments of the stock and bond market, such as the Standard and Poors 500 or the Russell 3000 small stock index.

The amount of the bonus would vary according to the professional’s position. For instance, Patrick Fleming, the state’s chief investment officer, could double his $250,000 salary, while the bonus for a state senior investment officer, who makes $150,000, would be 75 percent of his salary. The bonus for an investment officer would be 50 percent of the officer’s salary.

However, the bonus would be paid out over three years, with 50 percent being paid out in the third year. If an employee left the state during that time, any part of the bonus not collected would be lost.

The bill is waiting for its first review in the Senate.

Bill funding construction projects dies in Senate

in News
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By Cowboy State Daily

A bill that would finance capital construction projects around the state died unanimously in the Senate.

SF 162 provided more than $50 million in state funding for various projects, including $7.3 million for renovations in buildings at Laramie County Community College, $3 million for a new dormitory at Northwest Community College in Powell and $2 million for an agriculture and equine center at Casper College.

The bill was killed on a vote of 30-0 in the Senate on Tuesday. 

Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, said give the state’s financial problems, senators did not feel approving the projects would be prudent.

“To spend another $51 million on capital construction when we have these deficits and you look ahead to the next biennial budget, there’s a $350 million deficit in K-12 (education), it’s just not the right message to send,” he said.

The bill could resurface in another form later in the session. For instance, it could theoretically be attached as an amendment to the supplemental budget bills making their way through the Legislature.

The House or Senate could also amend their rules to introduce a new version of the bill. The Senate changed its rules Wednesday to introduce four new state spending bills.

One bill, SF 163, called for spending $15 million to support commercial air service in Wyoming. 

Another, SF 165, would set aside $15 million for Department of Health programs and $5 million for the Department of Family Services. The amounts would be used to support programs recommended by former Gov. Matt Mead in his proposed supplemental budget.

Felony animal cruelty bill passes House

in News
Video still shout of dancing and singing dog toy, ALT=animal cruelty
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By Cowboy State Daily

A bill that would give Wyoming its first chance to charge someone with a felony if they repeatedly abuse animals cleared the House on Wednesday.

HB 235 would create Wyoming’s first charge of felony animal abuse. While a conviction of animal abuse once would be a misdemeanor, any subsequent convictions would be felonies punishable by up to two years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000. It won approval on its final House review on a vote of 41-18.

Wyoming has never had a felony charge for animal cruelty, so even if people were found guilty of multiple counts or convicted multiple times, the harshest penalty they could face would be for a misdemeanor violation punishable by up to six months in jail.

The House vote sends the bill to the Senate for its consideration.

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