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Don’t put away your snow shovels just yet…

in News/weather
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In Wyoming, we get our biggest snow storms in the March, April, and May.

We get you up to speed on what to expect from spring weather with Don Day.

Like us on Facebook for this and more news from Cowboy State Daily.

Racines says transparency panel will focus on gray areas of law

in News/Transparency
Racines Transparency Panel
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A transparency task force created by Gov. Mark Gordon and Auditor Kristi Racines will focus on the “gray” areas of Wyoming’s public documents laws, Racines said.

Racines, speaking with a reporter from Cowboy State Daily, said Wyoming’s Public Documents Law has many vague areas that must be addressed individually.

“We keep using this elephant example,” she said “Transparency is an elephant and we’re not going to eat it all in one day There’s not just one big red button we’re going to push.”

Both Gordon and Racines made government transparency an issue during their election campaigns in 2018, pledging the creation of a financial transparency task force to look at how best to make public information on government finances available and accessible.

The task force held its first meeting in January and a second one is planned for March, Racines said.

The task force’s work is complicated by the fact many transactions handled by the state are confidential, such as Medicaid payments, Racines said, and even more are not specifically addressed by state law.

“As far as state expenditures, there still very vague areas in the law,” she said. “You might (look at) one class of expenditures, you ask three different attorneys, you get three different answers. Because it’s not laid out specifically in our statutes.”

In addition to the task force, Racines was a supporter of recently approved legislation setting a 30-day deadline for the production of public documents in response to a request.

Racines said she was particularly enthusiastic about a piece of the legislation creating an “ombudsman” to mitigate disputes over public documents.

“I am really excited about the ombudsman,” she said. “Before (a person requesting documents) have to go to court, you can go to the ombudsman and we can work this out.”

Some have suggested the position be filled by an attorney and Racines said she could understand why that might be helpful.

“As I’m learning about all the intricacies and all the gray areas and whether things are public or not, I can see where being a lawyer might be valuable,” she said. “We have an absolute responsibility to get information out that’s public. But we also are custodians of a huge amount of people’s private information … and so balancing those two, it’s a big deal.”

Want to know more about transparency in Wyoming. Watch our wide reaching conversation with Wyoming State Auditor Racines here.

Public sector tries new approach to solutions for private industries

in Economic development/Education/News
Wyoming Next Gen partnership workforce
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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Few kids see the construction trades as a potential career choice these days, but a new partnership between Wyoming’s public and private sectors is working to change that.

“The Next Gen Sector Partnership is an opportunity to bring industries’ priorities to the center stage,” said Hayley McKee, a Wyoming Department of Workforce Services spokesperson.  “It’s an opportunity for these teams to work together in an aligned approach rather than a siloed approach.”

Initiated in spring 2018, the partnership was designed to position industry professionals as the leaders in economic growth, with the public sector following their lead. 

“In the end, it’s about creating good jobs,” McKee said. “And connecting people with good jobs.”

In Laramie County, Next Gen has already experienced a measure of success, she said.

Larry Fodor, a project manager for the Cheyenne-based Mechanical Systems Inc., said he is working with the partnership to highlight the benefits of in the trades.

“We hope to improve the image and perception of the construction industry,” Fodor said. “The construction industry, in general, is not the dirty, unsafe industry it used to be.” 

Fodor and Next Gen have worked with Laramie County School District No. 1 to coordinate a bus tour for school counselors and staff, visiting several construction businesses around Cheyenne, he said. The initiative can help school district staff and students learn about a variety of construction-based career opportunities, providing details on wages, benefits packages and training options.

“It’s allowed us to show a side-by-side comparison of what a graduate with a bachelor’s degree earns right out of college vs. a journeyman, who’s spent a similar amount of time learning his trade while getting paid,” Fodor explained. “We’ve seen a strong response to the Next Gen approach.”

After working construction in Laramie County for more than a decade, he said the partnership is a refreshing approach to recurring challenges.

“Next Gen as a whole is a new way of looking at solving old problems,” Fodor said. “These problems have been talked about for years without any meaningful way of getting together and moving toward a goal.”

McKee said Next Gen allows entities such as the Wyoming Workforce Development Council, Wyoming Business Council, Wyoming Department of Education and Workforce Services to use data to identify challenges in regions across Wyoming, then approach industry leaders in those regions with an invitation to help develop a solution.

“In Laramie county, they selected trades as their area to focus on,” she explained. “But in other regions, they have looked at finance, healthcare and hospitality to name just a few.”

Still in its infancy, Next Gen could help develop struggling economic sectors, stabilizing Wyoming’s boom-bust cycle while reducing the number of young professionals leaving the state in search of jobs, McKee said.

“It’s not necessarily just challenges, but often the partnership is working to build opportunities as well,” she said. “These initiatives are just starting, and they have selected focus areas, but later on down the line, there are other industries that are prime for partnership.”

What’s next for hemp in Wyoming?

in Agriculture/News
Wyoming approves hemp production sale of CBD oil
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 By Becky Orr, Cowboy State Daily

When Gov. Mark Gordon signed HB 171 into law Wednesday, he made it legal to for farmers to grow industrial hemp and sell hemp-based products like CBD oil in Wyoming.

But it likely will be a while before farmers will harvest the first hemp crop from the Cowboy State’s soil, given all that’s required to start the regulatory process.

Derek Grant, public information officer for the Wyoming Department of Agriculture, said Friday that he would not speculate on when the program would begin. It might be this fall, but perhaps later, he said. “We’re going to move as quickly as we can,” Grant said.  “We’re moving with a sense of urgency with a good dose of caution.”

Approval of HB171 comes after changes occurred in the 2018 USDA farm bill to remove hemp from the Controlled Substances Act. The latest farm bill considers the plant as a regulated agriculture crop.

Hemp is a plant that can be used to make paper, clothing, textiles, food, shoes, building materials and thousands of other products.  The plant is part of the cannabis family but contains only trace amounts of THC – a psychoactive chemical – compared to marijuana.

HB 171 requires farmers to apply to the Agriculture Department for a license to grow hemp. The department is working to develop the required forms. It’s also completing a plan detailing the operation of regulatory program. The plan must be sent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture within 30 days after the bill’s signing.

The law provides $315,000 to the state Agriculture Department to buy equipment that will test the concentration of THC in hemp to make sure it stays below 0.3 percent.  A higher THC content means the hemp will be categorized as marijuana. The bill also provides $120,000 to hire and train people to get the program going.

Rep. Bucky Loucks, R-Casper, sponsored the bill, which won strong approval in both the Senate and House this legislative session. Supporters say it will help Wyoming’s farmers develop a cash crop and diversify the state’s economy.

“I think anytime we can have more opportunity to diversify and find more products in Wyoming is a good thing,” Grant said. “We just want to make sure we do it right.” 

He urges farmers to check the department’s web page for more information.

Ron Rabou and his family operate an organic wheat farm near Albin in Laramie County. Rabou, a long-time supporter of growing industrial hemp,  said he is excited about the new law. 

“The big positive here is that we have a bill now that will provide massive opportunities for Wyoming ag producers,” he said.

But he cautions that farmers must make sure there are markets to buy the crop. Farmers who produce hemp must become experts regarding market demands, he said. 

“This is not going to be where all of a sudden, we can start growing hemp and it will make immediate profitability,” he said.  “In my opinion, it will take years for those markets to develop.”

“I think it’s great to be excited. But just because this bill got passed, doesn’t  mean (there will be) an immediate effect on the ag economy,” Rabou continued. “Be careful about jumping in with both feet at this point. Unless you have a market where you can sell your crop, having all the product in the world will not make a difference.”

For more information on the Wyoming Department of Agriculture’s hemp program, visit the department’s website at: https://wyoagric.state.wy.us/

For more information on Rabou Farms, visit its website at: http://www.raboufarms.com/

Governor signs public records, animal cruelty bill

in Criminal justice/Education/Energy/News/Transparency
Wyoming Legislature bills signed by Governor Gordon
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By Cowboy State Daily

Bills creating a felony crime of animal abuse and setting a deadline for the production of public records were among a group signed into law on Friday by Gov. Mark Gordon.

HB 235, one of the last bills to be approved by the Legislature in the closing hours of its general session, makes it a felony for a person to commit aggravated cruelty to animals resulting in the death or euthanasia of an animal or to abuse an animal with an intent to kill it.

The law takes effect July 1. Currently, a person convicted of animal abuse can only be found guilty of a misdemeanor. A felony conviction carries a prison sentence of up to two years.

The public records law, SF 57, sets a 30-day deadline for the release of public documents. It also authorizes the hiring of an ombudsman to help mediate disputes over the release of public documents.

Under existing law, there was no time limit for government agencies to release public documents.

Other bills signed into law Friday included:

  • SF 159, designed to encourage utilities to sell old coal-fired electric plants rather than retire them;
  • HB 103, requiring doctors who perform abortions to report those procedures to the state Office of Vital Records and requiring the the data be compiled into a public report;
  • SF 122, creating the “Wyoming Works Program,” which will provide grants for students attending technical programs at community colleges, and 
  • HB 99, creating a state “Public Lands Day.”

Gordon has until late March to sign bills into law, veto them or allow them to become law without his signature.

UW ‘Cowboy’ campaign wins national, regional awards

in Education/News
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Courtesy: University of Wyoming

By Cowboy State Daily

LARAMIE — The University of Wyoming’s “The World Needs More Cowboys” recruiting campaign has won two national awards and one regional award.

The campaign’s video was named “Best of Show” in the Educational Advertising Awards competition, sponsored by Higher Education Marketing Report, the university reported in a news release. The video also won a silver award from the association for “integrated marketing campaign.”

The UW’s video was picked as the best from more than 2,200 entries from more than 1,000 colleges, universities and secondary schools from around the country.

The video was also named “Best of Show” in the “Addy” awards, the American Advertising Federation’s regional competition held in Colorado. the video also won a “Gold Addy” in the category of integrated, branded content  campaign.

“It’s wonderful to see that our marketing campaign and its anthem video are being recognized as outstanding not only among higher education institutions, but also across all types of advertising,” said UW President Laurie Nichols. 

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

in Government spending/News/Transparency
Wyoming State Auditor Kristi Racines
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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.”

Dangerous flu strain reported in Colorado could spread north

in Health care/News
Health Department warns flu
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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

A virulent strain of influenza sweeping through Colorado could jump into Wyoming before flu season is finished, a Wyoming Department of Health spokesperson.

While she did not refer specifically to the variation of flu diagnosed in Colorado, Kim Deti, the public information officer for the Wyoming Department of Health, said it is not unusual for different strains of flu to spread.

“Strains move around,” she said. “In flu season, sometimes you will see more than one strain be dominant. That’s not unusual.”

While Influenza A (H1N1) is currently the predominant strain in Wyoming, Influenza A (H3N2), is spreading quickly through Colorado’s population.

“Over the last three weeks, we’ve started to see H3N2 circulating in Colorado,” said Nisha Alden, Colorado Department of Health respiratory disease program manager. “It’s somewhat of a second peak in our flu season. First, we were seeing a lot of H1N1, but in the last two weeks, we’ve seen more H3N2 than H1N1.”

Alden said H3N2 can be resistant to the flu vaccine and tends to affect people older than 65 more severely than H1N1.

“We see more (H3N2) outbreaks in long-term care facilities,” she said. “We see a higher number of hospitalizations. And sometimes, we see a higher number of deaths as well.”

Flu season typically runs from October-May, and during the 2018-2019 season, Alden said several flu-related deaths were recorded, including two fatalities among children.

Deti said Wyoming has also experienced several flu-related deaths in the current season, but none in children.

“Flu season is definitely continuing,” she said. “That’s not necessarily surprising, considering the season can run until late spring. But, we are one of the 30 states that are seeing a higher number of cases in the nation.”

The H3N2 flu strain has not cropped in many places around Wyoming this season, Deti said. But both strains can be combatted with a few simple steps.

“We always recommend the people get the vaccine,” Deti said. “People need to know the vaccine takes two weeks to do any good, so if you wait until everyone around you is sick it might not prevent you from getting the flu for that go around.”

Flu vaccines aren’t perfect, and though H3N2 can be resistant, the vaccine is still the most effective preventative measure, she said.

“Also, frequently wash your hands,” Deti added. “It sounds so simple, but it’s very effective.”

Anyone can contract the flu, but infants, pregnant women, people older than 65 and people with chronic health conditions such as asthma could be at a higher risk for severe complications including death, she said.

“We know flu season is coming every year, but we can’t predict when it will peak, and we don’t always know which strains are going to be circulating,” Deti said. “One our biggest concerns is that because flu is so common, it’s not always taken as seriously as it should be.”

In 2018, 27 people died in Wyoming of flu-related illnesses. Go to www.health.wyo.gov/news for up-to-date information about influenza strains and other illnesses prevalent in Wyoming.

Wyoming’s alternate school-week schedules are not one-size-fits all

in Education/News
Wyoming classroom education
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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

In a rural state, four-day school weeks can be both beneficial and challenging for parents and students alike.

Wyoming school districts have experimented with alternate schedules for the last decade and possibly longer, said Julie Magee, director of the Wyoming Department of Education’s Division of Accountability. 

In most cases, the alternate schedules are requested by school districts to benefit students active in after-school activities such as sports, Magee said, adding the schedules could reduce education costs in some cases. 

Not all Wyoming’s school districts, however, believe the benefit is worth the risk of negatively affecting underprivileged students, some of whom experience food insecurity when school is not in session. Richard Patterson, interim superintendent for Goshen County School District No. 1, said his school board recently voted against moving to a four-day school week.  

“They’ve been looking at this for about two years,” Patterson explained. “What drove it initially was to make sure teachers had more time in the classroom.”

Students in activities often missed class on Fridays as they traveled across the state to participate in events. Longer days Monday through Thursday could prevent those students from missing valuable class time.

When the suggestion was opened to public comment, however, residents and staff voiced several concerns, Patterson said.

“Child care was a big issue, there’s a shortage of childcare universally, but certainly, we deal with it in Torrington,” he explained. “The other concern I heard is with some of these kids, the home environment may not be as stable or as nurturing as we would like, so the school provides a place of structure and nutritious, balanced meals five days a week.”

While GCSD No. 1 does have slightly longer school days Monday through Thursday and a half-day on alternating Fridays, Magee said the Department of Education does not classify the schedule as alternate, because the department clocks half days the same as whole days.

Sixteen of Wyoming’s school districts currently have an alternate schedule in place, including Crook County School District No. 1, according to Department of Education documents.

With three communities and five schools in the district, CCSD No. 1 Superintendent Mark Broderson said the alternate schedule received overwhelming support from staff, parents and students.

“It’s one of those topics that comes up every year, and we’ve tried an alternate calendar in the past,” Broderson said. “There was a lot of days (during the five-day week schedule) we didn’t feel we were getting the most bang for our buck.”

The school district distributed a survey on which at least one question directly addressed a shorter week, he said. Staff, students and parents were polled, and nearly all the survey results were pro-change.

“The staff and faculty responses came back 115 yeses and 7 nos,” Broderson said. “The other surveys were pretty much the same.”

Before suggesting the schedule to the CCSD No. 1 Board of Trustees, the superintendent said he delved into research. 

“There’s only two schools in recent history who’ve gone to a four-day week, then back to a five,” Broderson said. “Neither one of them was based on academic reasons.”

The data he discovered did not provide evidence shorter weeks improved test scores consistently, he said, but attendance improved across the board.

“For some schools, there was a honeymoon period where test scores improved, but most of those leveled out after five years or so,” Broderson said.

Additionally, the school district sent faculty to nearby school districts with alternate schedules to study how best to implement the change. The CCSD No. 1 Board approved the schedule change in Spring 2018.

“Now, we can get all the teachers in the same room talking the same language on the same day,” Broderson said.

To compensate for the lost day, CCSD No. 1 increased the school day Monday through Thursday by about 40 minutes. One Friday a month is also dedicated to intervention and enrichment, allowing students an opportunity to spend time with teachers one-on-one if they are struggling.

“(Intervention and enrichment) days are about making sure kids can get help if they need,” Broderson explained, “and providing kids with things they like to do, because we feel having a healthy culture is also important.”

Wyoming’s school districts will likely continue to experiment with alternate schedules in the foreseeable future, working out what works best for them on a case-to-case basis, Magee said.

“I think the trends show we’ll probably see the same number of (alternate schedule) requests, but it’s hard to say,” she said. “I don’t have any data pointing to an influx or a decrease in requests we might receive in the next few years.”

Senator says change needed in state budget process

in Government spending/News
Wyoming Legislature Budget process reform
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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.

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