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Symons: Groundwork laid to improve government transparency

in Column/Transparency
Wyoming government transparency
1723

By Gail Symons, member of the Transparency Working Group, special column to Cowboy State Daily

While it is easy to “want what I want when I want it,” the challenges of government transparency are much more complex than simply asking for data and receiving it immediately.

It was an early morning meeting the second week of the 2019 Wyoming Legislative Session.  The newly installed Governor Gordon and Auditor Racines brought to order the first meeting of the Transparency Working Group to a packed room in the Jonah Building.  On the phone was the CEO of OpenTheBooks, an organization that had brought suit against the previous Auditor for failure to produce five years of state spending data and vendor files.  A Wyoming based group, Equality State Taxpayers Association, joined in that suit. After being provided an opportunity to air their grievances and expectations, the CEO threatened to add Auditor Racines to the suit if the requested data was not produced in 30 days.

In September 2018, then candidates Governor Mark Gordon and Auditor Kristi Racines announced the Transparency Working Group to explore means to improve financial and operational transparency in Wyoming government.  The Working Group includes Sen Cale Case (R-Lander), Rep Tom Walters (R-Casper), Cheyenne attorney John Masters, Sheridan Press Publisher Kristen Czaban and myself, a civics wonk with 30 years’ experience in data-based process improvement.  Governor Gordon and Auditor Racines serve as co-chairs and are supported by policy advisor Renny MacKay.

Fast forward to the end of February and the close of the Wyoming Legislative Session.  The Auditor’s office had released the remaining spending records, refunded the $8,000 paid by the two groups and the suit had been dropped.  For the first month in office, the Auditor’s team had concentrated on completing the manual scrubbing of the records.  

During this same session, the Joint Corporations Committee had introduced SF0057 Public Records with short time frames for response and felony penalties.  After a committee meeting where it became clear that the impact on state agencies and their ability to comply had not been considered, an unusual working committee meeting was held. 

With input from advocacy groups, private citizens, state agencies and special districts, a substitute bill was crafted and subsequently passed. This removed the felony provisions, eased the time restrictions, required a public records person to be designated in each entity and created an Ombudsman position in the Governor’s Office.  The Ombudsman role is to serve as a mediator between requestors and government entities.

Fast forward again to mid-July.  The State Auditor has rolled out an online state checkbook developed in-house by the office’s IT individuals.  The checkbook can be found at www.WyOpen.gov.  This is static data that has filters and scrubbing applied to state financial data extracts to comply with privacy and other statutory protections.  The Auditor is encouraging use of the site and feedback to increase usability.

Also this summer, Interim Topic priority # 2 for the Joint Judiciary Committee has advanced.  That is a two-year study on public records and public meetings statutes to modernize in light of changes to law, technology and promote realistic transparency.  For 2019, the committee is reviewing the public records law to expand and improve on the work started with SF0057.

The Legislative Service Office has provided a summary of the current Wyoming Public Records Act including the wide range of exceptions to disclosure.  That report cabe be found online here.  To understand the financial and operational impact of records requests, a survey across all entities was conducted on the volume of requests, elapsed time to comply and costs in applied times.  The results are available here

The next Joint Interim Judiciary Committee meeting is scheduled at Casper College, Room EI 100 on August 15th and 16th 2019.

This past week, five candidates are being interviewed for the Ombudsman position by members of the Working Group and the Governor’s staff.  In addition to providing mediation, the individual will receive complaints, establish timelines for release of records and may waive fees charged by an entity.  Given the certainty that a new bill will be introduced by the Interim Judiciary and the uncertainty on exactly what are the exceptions to disclosure and how to apply them, the Ombudsman is expected to also provide policy and guidance.

On June 4th, 2019, Governor Gordon issued a letter to the state Elected Officials and Directors providing guidance on budget preparation for the 2021 -2022 Biennium.  In addition to expecting this to be a true biennial budget, meaning it will last for two years rather than be amended after one year, he emphasized his commitment to transparency with the requirement for having the budget be more readily understood by the public.  New this year is a State of the Agency covering all aspects of the operations and tie directly to the budget request. This letter, agency budget instructions and a budget request strawman can be found on the Budget Office website at https://ai.wyo.gov/divisions/budget.

There is significant truth to the saying, “if it was easy, it would already be done.”  Great strides have been made in reconciling perceptions of transparency (or lack thereof) with statutory, organizational, systemic and human realities.  In a very short period of time, groundwork has been laid to establish improved capabilities at all levels of state and local government with consistent processes and policies. 

The real success of these collaborative efforts will be tested in the upcoming 2020 legislative budget session.

Crop insurance might not cover irrigation canal collapse losses

in Agriculture/News
Wyoming irrigation canal collapse
1718

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

An irrigation canal collapse in Goshen County could devastate more than 100,000 acres of crops and producers may be left without compensation for the loss, a Farm Service Agency (FSA) spokesperson said.

“The cause of loss being failure of irrigation system is a covered cost,” FSA Insurance Officer Vanessa Reishus said. “But, the cause of failure has to have an underlying cause that was a natural occurrence.”

The canal tunnel is located about 1 mile south of Fort Laramie and facilitates the irrigation of about 52,000 acres of farmland in Wyoming and another 52,000 acres in Nebraska. Its collapse last week halted the delivery of water to the land and both states have declared the situation an emergency.

Reishus said the area did receive above-average precipitation this year and excess water load on the tunnel is being reviewed as a possible cause of the collapse.

However, the tunnel was built in 1917 and if engineers determine the structure failed as a result of age, FSA insurance would not compensate producers for their lost crops.

“Crop insurance is a government program, and they subsidize it,” Reishus explained. “But, the farmers pay pretty high premiums to have access to it.”

The cause of the collapse will be determined by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, she said. Because two states are involved, offices in both Billings, Montana, and Topeka, Kansas, will submit paperwork on the collapse. If the two offices disagree about the cause, the paperwork could be sent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a final determination, Reishus said.

“What the (Corps of Engineers) will do is gather the information from the Bureau of Reclamation and review the engineers’ information about what happened and why it happened,” she added.

Brian Lee, a University of Wyoming Extension agriculture economist, said some producers could be hit harder than others.

“The majority of the affected crops are dry bean, alfalfa and corn, but there is some sugar beets and other small crops in there, too,” Lee said. “Most farmers have livestock in this area, and you produce your corn and your alfalfa to feed it to your livestock.”

Without feed for livestock, producers may need to purchase feed elsewhere.

Additionally, Reishus said alfalfa is not generally insured, so those growers would not receive compensation either way.

“I have been in crop insurance for 20 years, and I have never seen anything like this,” she said. “Most of the crop loss causes are a lot more simple than something like this. In our area, (insurance) is used a lot for hail and freezes.”

Lee, who works at the UW Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension Center near Lingle, said the uncertainty of the insurance payment is the worst part for many people. 

“I think this is more detrimental than a hail event, because when hail comes through, you immediately have an answer — it’s a covered loss,” he explained. “Right now, we are all waiting to find out if the canal can get fixed, and if so, how soon.”

Goshen Irrigation District Manager Rob Posten said Thursday professionals were called in from St. Louis to repair the canal. He did not immediately return a request for comment on the status of repairs Friday.

Lee said cool temperatures and heavier spring rainfall this year prevented producers from planting as early as they would have liked.

“We were late putting the crops in, and that could prove detrimental without water during a heat wave,” he explained. “It’s a really sandy soil, so it’s more imperative to have water on a crop. It will definitely affect yield on the back end if they go a good amount of time without irrigation.”

Because the insurance payout is based on each producer’s premium, Reishus said she did not have an estimated total the insurance might pay if the cause was determined to be natural.

“It could easily be $1000 an acre on sugar beets and $500 $600 an acre on corn and beans,” she said. “With 100,000 acres, the cost of payout could be very high.”

Conflict Prevention Takes A Genius

in Cat Urbigkit/Column/Range Writing/wildlife
Be bear aware
1715

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat and presidential hopeful known for his animal advocacy and veganism.

John Barrasso, a conservative Republican from Wyoming who serves in a top leadership position for Senate Republicans, is known for his support of animal agriculture and our nation’s energy industry.

What do they have in common? Both have an interest in reducing human-predator conflicts. Barrasso is the primary sponsor of the bill, but Booker joined together with Tom Carper (D-Delaware), and Kevin Cramer (R-ND), to cosponsor Senate Bill 2194, Promoting Resourceful and Effective Deterrents Against Threats Or Risks involving Species (PREDATORS) Act. If enacted, the bill will amend the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act to establish the Theodore Roosevelt Genius Prize for reducing human-predator conflict.

Last week the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee heard testimony about the possibility of providing a financial incentive for the development of non-lethal, innovative technologies that reduce conflict between human and wildlife predators.

While human fatalities caused by grizzly bears are a concern to Barrasso’s constituents, the committee also heard testimony about shark attacks, as well as conflicts involving mountain lions and alligators. Brad Hovinga of the Wyoming Game & Fish Department provided testimony, as did Animal Planet’s Extinct or Alive host Forrest Galante, and Dr. Nick Whitney of the New England Aquarium.

Hovinga told the committee: “Wildlife agencies use a variety of innovative, non-lethal technologies to aid in reducing conflicts. These technologies include the use of chalk and pepper balls, weapon-fired beanbags, a variety of pyrotechnics and unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. Wyoming recently trained personnel in the use of conducted electrical weapons, commonly known as tasers, for use as an aversion tool for wildlife.”

Hovinga talked about the both the importance and limitations of pepper spray, and the need for innovation in improving conducting electrical devices for use as both an aversive conditioning tool and a temporary immobilization tool.

“Improvements in unmanned aerial vehicles, or drone technology, that allow for the deployment of aversive conditioning tools would greatly improve our ability to keep people safe and influence the behavior of habituated or aggressive wildlife. Developments in FLIR and thermal camera technology for the use with UAVs would significantly increase human safety when assessing dangerous situations.” Hovinga said. “Lastly, long-range acoustic sound devices, or sound cannons, are devices that directionally deliver sound over long distances. The potential for development of long-range acoustic deterrents for wildlife management exists. Work to develop an appropriate aversive conditioning tool for addressing wildlife conflicts would be greatly beneficial.”

One difference I noted between both the senators speaking during the hearing, and the witnesses giving testimony, was perspectives on encroachment – whether humans are encroaching on animals, or animals are encroaching on humans. While some conflicts occur when predators in Wyoming come into urban areas seeking prey (such as mountain lions pursuing deer in urban developments), Delaware Senator Carper noted that human-predator interactions are increasingly common as more people recreate “in wildlife habitat.” Carper said “as humans continue to encroach upon wildlife habitat and compete with predators for the same space and the same natural resources, our relationships with these animals can become, in some cases, adversarial.”

Some committee members emphasized the need to address habitat loss and protect predators, while others expressed the need for more scientific research to understand changes in animal behavior due to climate change, and pressed for public education about wildlife species.

Near the close of the hearing, Barrasso pointedly asked Hovinga: “since the goal of the Genius Prize we are considering is to protect both predators and humans, regarding predators, the key to protecting their lives involves preventing conflicts with humans in the first place. Can you explain why, from your years and history and knowledge, after a conflict with humans occurs, it may be necessary to euthanize some of these predators?”

Hovinga’s reply reflected the reality involved when large predators come into conflict with humans. He said: “That is an unfortunate reality sometimes with wildlife management and wildlife behavior, that we have to realize. With a lot of wildlife, bears specifically and other large carnivores, those behaviors that end up becoming a part of an animal’s everyday behavior, that becomes dangerous toward humans, those are learned behaviors. Those are typically learned through successes over time. It usually revolves around those successes in obtaining food.”

Hovinga gave an example of a black bear that learned when it approached people, the people would drop their backpacks and run away, allowing the bear to receive a food reward from the backpacks. Over time, the bear repeated the action, and the more aggressive the bear became, the higher the probability the person would drop the backpack and run away. He added, “Fortunately, we were able to intervene in that situation, prior to that becoming dangerous and actually somebody becoming injured.”

He continued: “Those learned behaviors are very, very difficult for animals to unlearn. They typically don’t unlearn them. It is irresponsible for us as a wildlife management agency to allow animals to remain on the landscape that engage in behavior that is dangerous toward people. Unfortunately, sometimes those animals need to be removed from the population. The populations are nearly always doing well enough that those removals are not significant in the scheme of the population management, but certainly, a requirement to keep people safe.”

This is an issue all state wildlife managers have to deal with and must justify to the public when wild predators are killed to protect human safety. Listening to the testimony before the committee, it became evident that to some, living with wild predators is more of an idea than a reality. It’s a reality for wildlife manager Hovinga, and to a majority of Barrasso’s constituents. 

As it should, the committee hearing provided a forum for a variety of views on a diversity of predator-human interaction issues. That Democrats from densely populated areas would have differing views than Republicans from sparsely populated areas is to be expected. That they are talking and sharing their experiences for a wider audience is important.

Both Barrasso and Hovinga represented Wyoming well.

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.

Blackjewel closures bad, but not the worst, officials say

in Energy/News
Gillette Wyoming coal
1709

By James Chilton, Cowboy State Daily

GILLETTE – It’s been nearly a month since Blackjewel LLC abruptly shuttered its coal production operations, locking some 600 Gillette-area miners out of the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr coal mines. And as Blackjewel continues to hammer out its fate in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Gillette searches for silver linings to this latest economic cumulonimbus.

For as threatening as the Blackjewel storm cloud may be, the city has seen worse; and not all that long ago, either. Mayor Louise Carter-King said that during the Peabody Energy and Arch Coal bankruptcy proceedings in 2016, oil and natural gas prices were also bottoming out, leaving displaced energy sector workers with few places to turn locally for employment.

“Three years ago oil was down, natural gas was down, coal was down. It was like a perfect storm and it hit us very hard,” Carter-King said. “This time it was more due to (Blackjewel’s) mismanagement rather than the underlying economy, because both of these mines were profitable.”

While she expects the mine layoffs to have a ripple effect on the city’s sales tax revenues, it will be some time before that impact is seen because state remittance of sales taxes are backdated by two months. But Carter-King said she doesn’t expect any impact to be especially long-lived this time around, thanks to a stronger job market that’s provided fall-back opportunities for those who can’t afford to wait for the mines to reopen.

“I know some employees are holding out for that, but those who can get jobs that are equal or better are jumping ship,” she said. “The good news is, a lot of people have been able to find jobs.”

Rick Mansheim with the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services said the DWS Employment and Training office in Gillette took immediate steps to get information out about resources available to the displaced miners, as well as to address some of their most urgent economic questions. In addition, DWS called upon its community and statewide partners to swiftly assemble a job fair that brought in employers from across Wyoming and the Mountain West.

“Five days after the (mine) closings, we had a big job fair at Gillette College where we had 40 employers, not just local, but from Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Montana,” Mansheim said. “They saw over 450 people in one day; and I know a good percentage of people were actually offered jobs that day. So if there’s a bright side at all to this layoff or whatever you want to term it, it’s the fact there were jobs available and a lot of these people were able to find employment relatively quickly.”

For the rest, Mansheim said DWS has been helping walk people through applying for unemployment benefits and ensuring they know how to maintain their health insurance coverage.

“A lot of these people have never gone through something like this, so we’re helping them understand the unemployment process – because it is a process, it’s not something where you just come in, type in your name and that’s it,” Mansheim said. “We’ll probably do another job fair if we hear something about whether the mines are going to be bringing people back or not, and we keep in contact with the city and the county to make sure we’re on the same page.”

City Communications Manager Geno Palazzari said Gillette has also been working with nonprofits and social service agencies to marshal assistance in the aftermath of the mine closures. One of the first calls, he said, was to the Food Bank of the Rockies to enlist the aid of that group’s mobile food pantry, which will set up at Family Life Church, 480 S. Highway 50, from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. July 29 and Aug. 19.

“They’re already mobilizing to get trucks up here,” Palazzari said. “We’ve also reached out to some of the social service agencies in the community we fund … to make sure they didn’t need an advance on the funding we provide them to make sure they can make it through these times.”

While Blackjewel has been an important contributor to the city’s tax revenue base, Palazzari and Carter-King said they don’t expect these latest closures to impact city services. That’s mainly because the city has been extremely conservative with its spending since the 2016 downturn, when it had to cut nearly four dozen positions and $60 million out of its budget.

“Those were tough days. We had to lay off people and we looked at everything with a microscope,” Carter-King said. “Three years ago woke us up and taught us that we’ve got to be prepared for things like this.”

Prior to 2016, the city had enough cash in reserve to keep things running for 90 days without any new revenues. In 2016, the city council voted to increase that to 120 days, and then to 150 days in September 2018.

“There’s approximately $14 million (of operating reserves) budgeted for Fiscal Year 2020,” Carter-King said. “Now, if not another dime came into this city, we could make it 150 days.”

Irrigation tunnel collapse could cost Wyoming’s ag millions, repairs underway

in Agriculture/News
Tunnel collapse Torrington
1703

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

More than 100,000 acres of agricultural land are without irrigation after a canal tunnel collapsed July 17 in eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska.

“The tunnel collapse shut the water off in one of our canals,” Goshen Irrigation District Manager Rob Posten said. “Right now, about 400 landowners are affected just in Goshen County.”

Approximately 52,000 acres of the affected area are in Goshen County and the rest is across the state line in Nebraska, Posten said.

John Ellis, a Goshen County commissioner, said if unchecked, the collapse could have a disastrous impact on the entire county.

“I’ve never seen a disaster close to this scale,” Ellis said. “Agriculture is Goshen County. There’s very little other businesses, and they all rely on agriculture.”

On Monday, Gov. Mark Gordon signed an emergency declaration to allow the use of state resources to help fix the collapse.

“This is a serious emergency, and we recognize addressing an issue of this magnitude will take coordination, especially because it affects so many Wyoming and Nebraska farmers,” Gordon said in a news release. “We are working with an understanding of the urgency of the situation, along with a need to proceed carefully. Wyoming is united in its effort to find the right way to help the Goshen Irrigation District get up and running.”

Created in 1926, the irrigation district was formed to contract with the federal government for water from the North Platte River. The district pays the U.S. a proportionate share of the estimated cost to operate and maintain the facilities that store the water for use, including the Pathfinder Dam and Reservoir and Guernsey Dam and Reservoir, according to the district’s website.

“We supply water to the farmers,” Posten said. “We only have two canal tunnels, and they’ve both been there 100 years. The one that collapsed was built in 1917.”

He said the collapse was not maintenance related.

The district has not yet received state resources to repair the collapse and Posten said it’s still too early to speculate what those resources might be.The repairs, however, are already underway.

“We have people that know how to fix this working on it as we speak — professionals from St. Louis, Missouri,” he said. “I don’t know the full scope of the work needed, but they will likely pump grout in around the tunnel, fill in the voids and install steel ribs to shore it up, and then try to run water through it.”

If the water is not turned back on soon, Ellis said the cost could be through the roof. Although he was not aware of an official estimate of potential damages, Ellis said he’s heard guesses between $90 million and $250 million.

From a policy making standpoint, he said the collapse would likely affect the county’s future, but determining how is a waiting game.

“We don’t know the total impact,” Ellis said. “Until we know the financial impact, it’s hard to tell what we may have to do.”

Whatever the case, Ellis said he’s proud of the way the irrigation district is handling the situation.

“The Goshen Irrigation District have done such an excellent job,” Ellis said. “They’ve left no stone unturned. They’ve done everything possible to get this thing working again.”

Thousands visit Buffalo for ‘Longmire Days’

in News/Tourism/Travel
1706

By Wendy Corr for Cowboy State Daily

Even though it’s been three years since the last new episode of “Longmire” aired, thousands of people last week visited the town that inspired the setting for the books written by Ucross author Craig Johnson.

An estimated 10,000 were in Buffalo on July 18-21 to celebrate the eighth annual “Longmire Days,” an event created to commemorate the popular television and book series.

Fans from around the world flock to Buffalo for the autograph sessions with stars from the show, parades, a craft show, talent show and classic car show that highlight the weekend.

Damaris Miller of Colorado said her love of the show will keep her coming to Buffalo every year even though the show is no longer in production.

“You just feel like you know the characters and you feel like if they walk on the street, you would just feel like you were friends with them,” she said. “You know their history, you know their life. And as you can see from Buffalo, it’s crowded from people who just love the series. I plan on coming every year.”

Buffalo residents enjoy the boost to the local economy that comes with the annual celebration.

“It enriches us by bringing together lots of different folks who come here and appreciate the beauty of where we live,” said Tacia Kolb of Leadership Johnson County.

The streaming service Netflix continues to air past episodes of “Longmire.”

Cheyenne Frontier Days: Behind the Chutes

in arts and culture/Community/Tourism
1700

By Seneca Flowers, special for Cowboy State Daily

You can tell it’s Cheyenne Frontier Days because the heat has finally kicked up to the 90s in Cheyenne. When the July heat starts cooking, Cheyenne Frontier Days gets into gear. Part of the magic can be witnessed by locals and tourists who can step in the arena mud and dirt as part of the Behind the Chutes tour.

The tour features a variety of history and facts narrated by guides as it passes from the Old West Museum through to the animal holding area and emptying out in to the arena near the bucking chutes and chute nine.

Public Relations Committee Volunteer Jessica Crowder is a tour guide for Behind the Chutes and has been so for nearly a decade. She said over the years, she has enjoyed meeting people from around the world.

“We have had people from Europe, South America,” she said. “I can’t think of place we haven’t seen someone from.”

One family took the tour as part of a vacation from their hometown of Bloomfield, Ind. The Holtsclaw family visited Cheyenne as part of a Wyoming and South Dakota sightseeing trip. As a child, Jarrod Holtsclaw would often visit a Labor Day rodeo in Palestine, Ill., near his hometown with his parents and grandparents. The rodeo was not as large as Cheyenne Frontier Days. He said he was impressed by the size of the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo.

His son, Boone, enjoyed being up close to the livestock.

“My favorite part was looking at the bulls they had,” Boone Holtsclaw said.

Although the tour took people along the path for 45 minutes, it was a much tighter tour than it was in the past, according to Crowder. The tour used to be just one to two tour guides who had to know every detail. But nowadays, newer volunteers get to shadow the veterans and take part in guiding the tourists. This allows them to help out without having to know every part of the script.

“That adaptation really made it a lot of fun,” Crowder said.

Although she has done the tour for nearly a decade, she said she enjoys hearing about the tourists’ experiences and watching them have fun while interacting during the tour.

Thunderbirds appear in the sky over Cheyenne for 66th time

in arts and culture/Community/military
1697

The U.S. Air Force precision flying team the Thunderbirds took to the skies over Cheyenne for the 66th time on Wednesday for its annual demonstration of high-speed formation flying.

The Thunderbirds have appeared at every Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo since 1953, with pilots flying their F-16 Fighting Falcons only feet from each other as they put the aircraft through various aerobatic maneuvers such as loops.

Viewers pack F.E. Warren Air Force Base to watch the show and line up on either side of Interstate 25 near the base to get a good look at the performance.

The Air Force describes the Thunderbird team as combining years of training and experience with an “attitude of excellence.”

USDA helps veterans turn from swords to plowshares

in Agriculture/military/News
USDA helps veterans turn from swords to plowshares
1690

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Young people are losing interest in the agriculture industry, but the United States Department of Agriculture is hoping low-interest loans could attract a different demographic — veterans. The USDA’s loan program has been around in one form or another since the 1930s, said Rob Weppner, a USDA Farm Service Agency farm loan manager based in northeastern Wyoming.

“There’s always been a bit of preference toward veterans,” Weppner explained.

The department, however, is ramping up efforts to attract veterans, spending about $64.5 million in direct and guaranteed farm operating loans for veterans in 2018, a USDA news release stated.

Grant Stumbaugh, a USDA spokesperson for the Wyoming branch of the Farm Service Agency, said incentivizing veterans was about more than simply slowing labor force leakage.   

“Veterans have served our country and risked their lives,” Stumbaugh said. “The least we can do is give them every possibility to do what they want to do.”

The USDA offers veterans more than 40 loan, grant and technical assistance programs to support the purchase and development of land and facilities, purchase equipment and supplies, refinance job expansion and finance energy efficiency improvements.

“Nearly one-quarter of veterans, approximately 5 million, live in rural areas,” Bill Ashton, USDA Military Veteran Agricultural Liaison, said in a news release. “(The) USDA is committed to making our programs accessible to help veterans start or grow a career and maximize the potential talent of this population.” 

Low-interest loans

Starting out in the agriculture industry can be challenging and risky, Stumbaugh said.

“A lot of younger folks don’t really want to go out there and work that hard,” he explained. “And to be honest, sometimes the return isn’t that good — you’re not making a whole lot of money, plus there’s the risk of running into natural catastrophes.”

Add that to the rising cost of real estate and the future of ag workers in America starts to look gloomy, he added.

“(USDA loans and grants) give vets a leg up in the industry,” Stumbaugh said. “Plus they can use that money for operating expenses to give them some help to get started.”

Weppner said the loan programs provide people with a low-interest option for funding family-sized farm operations.

“The interest is based on the loan type,” he explained. “But, the (Farm Service Agency) rates tend to be lower than the commercial rates.”

While Weppner said he’s worked with veterans in the past, neither he nor Stumbaugh were aware of any Wyoming veterans currently enrolled in USDA loan programs.

Despite reports of downward labor force trends, the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services reported the industry has experienced a recent uptick in its agricultural workers category.

In 2008, Workforce Services recorded 2,558 people in the sector. In 2013, 2,798 people were employed in ag industries. And by 2018, the workforce grew to 3,016, said Aubrey Kofoed, a Workforce Services administrative assistant.

The growth, however, does not necessarily reflect the number of people taking jobs on ranches and farms in the state, because the department’s agriculture category also includes forestry, fishing and hunting jobs, Kofoed added.

Neither the USDA Farm Service Agency or Rural Development office had data immediately available on the number of ranchers and farmers in Wyoming.

Working the land

Programs like USDA loans are a key component to helping veterans reintegrate into the civilian workforce, a Department of Veterans Affairs spokesperson said.

“The VA focuses on attempting to get veterans jobs and the federal government is one of the largest employers in America,” said Sam House, the Cheyenne VA public affairs officer. “It’s great we have agencies that are willing to partner with us to achieve those goals.”

Every veteran’s experience differs, but for some, returning to the bright lights and constant noise of city life isn’t as attractive as an opportunity to become part of a rural community.

“There’s no greater feeling than being out on the farm and seeing land that needs to be worked and knowing you can do it yourself,” House said. “But it’s a dying industry, and I think veterans could help turn that around.”

For more information about USDA loans, contact your local USDA Field Service Agency and ask to speak to a loan officer. Visit www.fsa.usda.gov for a list of offices in Wyoming.

New approval poll shows high approval of Gordon, Barrasso and Enzi

in News/politics
Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon
1679

By Laura Hancock, Cowboy State Daily

Gov. Mark Gordon has the fifth-highest approval rating of U.S. governors, according to new polling by Morning Consult, a Washington, D.C.-based media and technology company. 

Furthermore, U.S. Sens. John Barrasso, Wyoming’s junior senator, has the fifth-highest approval rating and Sen. Mike Enzi, the senior senator, enjoys the 7th highest, according to Morning Consult’s approval ratings of all 100 U.S. senators

The Morning Consult poll surveyed nearly 500,000 registered U.S. voters. A total of 649 Wyomingites were surveyed: 323 Republicans, 236 independents and 90 Democrats. 

The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percent.

Among approval of Gordon, a Republican: 

  • 59 percent approved of his job performance; 9 percent disapproved.
  • In the first quarter of 2019, when he had just begun as Wyoming’s governor, 53 percent approved and 10 percent disapproved. 
  • 33 percent of Wyoming registered voters were undecided in the second quarter, the highest among the 50 governors.

Gordon is still a new governor, noted Jim King, a University of Wyoming political science professor.

“The Legislature’s budget session next year will be more telling,” King said. “Mr. Gordon will lay out his priorities in his budget proposal and will reveal more about his vision for the state. For now, a Republican governor in a Republican state who has had no notable missteps yields a strong poll rating.”

Among approval for the senators, who are also Republicans: 

  • 57 percent approved of Barrasso’s job performance; 26 percent disapproved in the second quarter of 2019.
  • In the first quarter, Barrasso’s approval rating was 56 percent; 26 percent disapproved. In the second quarter of 2018, his approval rating was 52 percent and his disapproval rating was 33 percent. 
  • 54 percent approved of Enzi’s job performance in the second quarter of this year; 25 percent disapproved.
  • In the first quarter, Enzi’s approval rating was 52 percent; 23 percent disapproved. In the first second quarter of 2018, 52 percent approved and 31 percent disapproved. 

“On the senators, there is no real difference in the ratings of Mr. Barrasso and Mr. Enzi once the poll’s margin of error is taken into consideration,” King said. “These numbers on Mr. Barrasso and Mr. Enzi are quite similar to those in other polls (by) this firm and by others.”

Wyoming’s low population may also play into the likability ratings, said Kristin Walker, a GOP strategist.

Chances are high that Cowboy State voters have personally interacted with elected officials. That doesn’t happen everywhere, said Walker, who is working on the U.S. Senate campaign of Cynthia Lummis, who is seeking Enzi’s seat when he retires.

(Lummis’ daughter, Annaliese Wiederspahn, is the publisher of Cowboy State Daily.)

“This means Wyoming’s politicians are forced to keep a close ear to the ground, and when they aren’t meeting voters’ expectations — they are going to hear about it quick,” Walker said. 

Indeed, the Wyoming Democratic Party criticized Barrasso on Twitter last week for not coming criticizing a President Donald Trump rally in which people chanted, “send her back,” in reference to U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat. 

Levi Shinkle, chairman of the Young Democrats of Wyoming, noted that Barrasso, the third-ranking Republican in the U.S. Senate, toes the party line. 

“We’re in an overwhelmingly pro-Trump state,” he said. 

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