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State legislator takes national stance against ‘endless wars’

in News/military
Bring home the troops
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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

If Congress is not willing to declare war in the Middle East, Rep. Tyler Lindholm, R-Sundance, wants America to bring home its troops.

“This is ridiculous,” Lindholm said. “We’ve been over there for more than a decade, and we don’t really know why.”

By relying on an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) in the Middle East instead of an actual war declaration, Lindholm said Congress has denied service members the clarity they need to finish the job — whatever that may be.

“The reality is, when it comes to the Middle East, we don’t actually have authority to be over there from our Congress,” Lindholm said. “We’re operating off an AUMF from 2001 and 2002. The AUMF of 2001 was to go after terrorists in Afghanistan, and in 2002, it was to be ready to go after Iraq. But none of those speak to full-time occupation.”

As the country moves into its 19th year of combat operations in Afghanistan, Lindholm said enough is enough.

“We need to end the endless wars,” he said, echoing sentiments voiced by President Donald Trump. “I’ve got four kids, and none of them have ever known a nation not at war.”

In a column co-written by Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne, and published across the country, Lindholm called out U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming, and other “war hawks” for encouraging Trump to retaliate against Iran after a U.S. drone was shot down earlier this year.

Additionally, Lindholm is leading the Wyoming branch of Bring Our Troops Home, a non-profit organization intent on ending “the Forever Wars and encourage Congress … to support President Trump’s plan to withdraw our troops.”

Life abroad

Raised in Sundance, Lindholm joined the U.S. Navy to see the world and find his place in it.

“I wasn’t really ready to be a grown up, but I knew I needed to get something going in my life,” he explained. “I left two days after I graduated high school.”

It was May 2001. The U.S. was at peace. The world was a different place.

“I remember training in Pensacola, Florida, before 9/11 — taxi cabs would pull right up to base,” Lindholm recalled. “Then after the attacks, things really shut down. It changed the whole mission going from peacetime to wartime.”

A helicopter mechanic who exited the Navy at the rank of Petty Officer Third Class five years later, Lindholm never deployed to the Middle East, but he did see a side of the world he never imagined.

“We were headed to go shake our sword at North Korea in the 2004 timeframe, and we rolled into Hong Kong on Christmas,” he said of his time stationed aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. “While we were there, this tsunami struck Indonesia — it was a hell of wreck.”

His ship was to diverted to help with rescue and relief efforts.

“We were first on scene there,” Lindholm said. “I remember we were still 50 miles out from our destination, and I was on the flight deck with the rest of the crew.”

The sailors spotted a bloated, sun-bleached body floating near a palm tree, he remembered.

“We were shocked, but the ship just kept on a-steaming,” Lindholm said. “We were asking why we weren’t stopping for the body, but then as soon we got into position we could see why. There was 200,000 people that died in that tsunami and there were bodies everywhere. More than you could count.”

Using the carrier’s helicopters, the Lincoln’s crew spent months resupplying the Banda Aceh province with fresh water, rice and medical supplies. Shortly after Lindholm’s ship returned to the states, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. 

“We were, at that point, the Navy’s rescue and relief experts,” Lindholm said. “So, my squadron got deployed to respond to (Katrina).”

Whereas the Indonesians welcomed the Navy’s response, the U.S. was a different story.

“The people of Indonesia were just so damn thankful,” Lindholm said. “When we deployed to Katrina, there were people shooting at our aircraft, it was nuts. They definitely weren’t thankful we were there.”

Getting mad, getting political

Once his enlistment was complete, Lindholm moved to Texas to work on U.S. Army helicopters as a civilian contractor, but it wasn’t long before Wyoming called him home.

“It was around 2006-2007, and things were really cooking off in northeast Wyoming,” he said. “So, I figured I’d return home to the ranch and find a job.”

Using the electrical expertise he gained in the military, Lindholm went to work as an electrician. But the more he learned about the way of the world, the more it got under his skin.

“Honestly, I just got mad,” Lindholm explained, chuckling. “When I was in the military, I didn’t really think about what I was doing, I just did what I was told. Then I got out, and I really got to thinking about the things I didn’t like, especially in relation to the family ranch, so I became politically involved to change them.”

Now in his second term as a state legislator, Lindholm serves as the House Majority Whip.

“To be 100 percent honest, I thought I was going to be whipped off into the corner,” he said. “But, when I got in there, I realized these are just normal folks like me.”

He campaigned on the idea people should be allowed to drink raw milk if they choose and sponsored Wyoming’s “food freedom law,” which passed in 2015.  Since then, he’s also helped craft legislation facilitating blockchain businesses and banking.

Now, he’s shifting focus to either bring troops deployed in the Middle East home or pass a law in Wyoming hamstringing Congress’ access to the state’s National Guard units.

“This legislation would prevent our guard from being deployed to a foreign place where war has not been declared,” Lindholm explained. “It’ll appear in the 2020 session, and I’ve got bipartisan support on it.”

Working with the other side of the aisle to legitimize or end the nation’s war efforts has been trickier than he expected.

“Before 2008, I could always lean on the democrats to be anti-war,” Lindholm said. “Now, we’re kind of stuck in this weird spot where Democrats and Republicans don’t really know how to feel about these wars. It’s a weird shift.”

As a state representative, Lindholm doesn’t have the power to force Congress’ hand, but he said he hopes Bring the Troops Home will ignite a national conversation.

“We want Congress to think about it, we want them to talk about it, and we want them to vote on it,” Lindholm said. “We owe it to the next generation, because that’s who’s going to be serving over there next. That’s who is serving over there now.”

UW students, NCAR Supercomputing Center help improve forecasts in Asia, Africa, South America

in News/weather
Wyoming NCAR Supercomputer
Courtesy: ©UCAR; photo by Carlye Calvin
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By Laura Hancock, Cowboy State Daily

In the United States, Japan and a handful of western European countries, people can access state-of-the-art weather forecasts that are updated once an hour. 

That’s not the case with the rest of the world. Most people only get weather forecasts with such sophistication once every six or 12 hours.

But a team of undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Wyoming, led by Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Suresh Muknahallipatna, is working to change that. 

In 2017, IBM contracted with the NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center in Cheyenne with a project to help improve weather forecasting around the globe. NCAR then hired the UW team, Muknahallipatna said. 

The key to generating forecasts quickly lies with supercomputers with specialized electronic circuits called graphic processing units. GPUs are capable of better graphic resolution and can update at a greater frequency, according to IBM.

Traditionally, most weather forecasting originates on supercomputers built only with central processing units, Muknahallipatna said.

So the job of the UW team, Muknahallipatna said, is to take code from the supercomputers that only have CPUs and “refactor” it for supercomputers that contain graphic processing units. Refactoring essentially requires restructuring the computer code. 

“By running this on the graphic processing unit we can finish the computations in less than an hour, so you can have a forecast every hour,” he said. 

IMB said in a statement that while there are some computers that have the ability to do fast, high-resolution forecasts for a region, what makes the work it’s doing with NCAR and UW unique is that it’s the first global weather computer model to run on a graphics processing unit with “high-performance computing architecture.”

“This is the first time a full global model exists to provide forecasts for the day ahead at this scale, resolution and frequency,” according to an IBM statement. 

The forecasting gaps the UW is helping to fill include areas among those most vulnerable to increasingly extreme weather resulting from climate change, the company said, specifically pointing to Asia, Africa and South America.

And more frequently updated weather forecasts can make all the difference to people who live off the land. 

“The enhanced forecasts could be revolutionary for some areas of the world, such as for a rural farmer in India or Kenya,” Cameron Clayton, head of IMB subsidiary The Weather Company, said in a prepared statement. “If you’ve never before had access to high-resolution weather data but could now anticipate thunderstorms before they approach your fields, you can better plan for planting or harvesting.” 

The work is providing UW students experience that has led to internships and job offers, Muknahallipatna said.  

“All of them having been doing refactoring code,” he said. “It’s very a special skill set, not all students have this skill.”

Refactoring requires the students to understand code, or software, but also a machine’s hardware. 

“That is why electrical engineering and computer engineering are suited for high-performance computation coding,” he said. “You need to know both software and hardware.”

Customer-generated power electrifies calls for net metering reform

in Energy/News
solar power
2471

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Dr. Jason Bloomberg spent more than $100,000 on his home’s solar and wind energy system with the idea he could recoup the costs through energy savings during the next 20 years.

“The goal is to reduce how much power we are using from the grid,” Bloomberg said.

But his repayment schedule could be put at risk if a plan to make renewable energy system owners pay a larger share of the costs faced by electric power providers is adopted by the state.

While renewable energy system owners can generate a large portion of their yearly power needs, most are still connected to power grids for supplemental power and as backup in case of system failure.

When they generate more power than needed at their location, the surplus is transferred to the power company’s system. For that power, the customer earns credits toward his total power bill. 

This billing mechanism is called “net metering” and is regulated by state statute. 

A net metering proposal brought before the Legislature’s Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee on Nov. 19 could have increased Bloomberg’s timeline to recoup his system’s costs to about 84 years, he said. 

“They are trying to fix something that isn’t broken,” Bloomberg said. “It’s a numbers shell game, it’s a Ponzi scheme that’s being presented by power companies, because the real competition of residential renewable energy is it’s hurting their monopoly on power production.”

While the proposal failed in a tie vote, committee Senate chair Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, said legislators would likely continue to seek reforms in the state’s net metering policies at a later date to eliminate what he described as a subsidy for those generating their own power.

“This next session is a budget session, so I don’t think that’s the place for it,” Case said. “But, we’re going to be talking about this for a long time.”

Nickels and dimes

The debate centers around how much power customers who do not generate their own electricity have to pay compared to the costs paid by those who do have their own power generation systems.

At the Legislature’s request, the Public Service Commission’s Office of Consumer Advocate this year analyzed fixed and variable costs for three private power companies: Rocky Mountain Power, Montana Dakota Utilities and Cheyenne Light, Fuel and Power. 

The results, while varied, showed customers who do not generate their own power could spend 9 to 71 cents per month more on their power bill than those with generating systems.

“This is the amount Sen. Case is going on about when he says there is a subsidy being paid by regular rate payers to net metered customers,” Bloomberg said.

For Case, the amount — no matter how small — proves net metered customers are not self-sufficient and rely on their neighbors to foot a portion of their bill. 

“If nobody had net metering, there would be no cost shift, no subsidies,” Case said.

Case explained the cost shift occurs because private power companies wrap many of their infrastructure costs into the variable fees that net metering customers avoid paying by using credits earned through generation of their own power.

“In the utility industry, when you buy electricity, part of the price per kilowatt hour covers the energy,” Case explained. “But two-thirds of the amount per kilowatt hour covers fixed costs, including transmission lines, power plants and the other costs.”

Rocky Mountain Power spokesperson Spencer Hall said all the power company’s customers pay an interconnection fee, about $20 a month, but that only covers the maintenance of transmission lines, not necessarily additional infrastructure costs.

While the OCA report indicated fewer than 1,000 of the 200,000 customers served by the power companies studied used net metering, Case said that number could grow as people become more carbon conscious, increasing the potential subsidy to regular customers exponentially.

“There’s a lot of commitment here by people putting their own money on the line to make the planet a better place,” Case said. “These are very good people here. They’re very motivated. And, they really don’t believe there’s a subsidy, or if they do, they think it’s offset by them combatting carbon.”

Batteries required

Because the net metered customers are using renewable energy sources, they produce less power at night and during the winter, Case said.

“You might think net metering customers reduce cost on the system, because they are generating,” he said. “But the trouble is they don’t produce all the time.”

During those lulls, Case explained the power companies are experiencing the same problems, so they switch over to providing energy through other means, such as coal-fired power plants.

Essentially, net metered customers create a surplus of power when the company needs it least, generating credits to buy power back when it is most costly for the company to create, he said.

Bloomberg said power companies are installing more solar and wind power generation facilities, which would be counter-intuitive to Case’s peak-time usage argument.

“The reality is these industries are switching to solar and wind, because it makes financial sense,” he said. “There’s less costs associated with natural gas, solar and wind.”

According to Hall, Rocky Mountain Power is the largest renewable energy producer in the West.

“Once you build the windmill, you don’t have to pay for the wind and the sun,” he explained. “That’s a real value to our customers.”

But Hall said the company’s coal generation fleet still ramps up when needed.

“Coal generation is still an important part of our fleet,” he said. “But certainly, the future is renewables and low emissions.”

One of the reasons the power company can rely on renewable energy is the developing field of battery technology.

“Right now, battery technology is still expensive, and most folks can’t afford to incorporate that into their (net metered) system,” Hall said. “A lot of people think when they see those windmills turning, they are storing energy. That’s not the case.”

Because they can’t store the power, it is pushed onto the grid, Case said.

“When I’m producing excess electricity, the utility has to take it,” he explained. “It can’t stop it. So the utility will reduce its other sources of power, which are sometimes cheaper.”

As long as that remains the situation, Case there will be a call for net metering reforms.

Taco John’s to open satellite office in Minneapolis

in News
Taco Johns
2465

By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Taco John’s is expanding its corporate office to Minnesota, the restaurant’s president and CEO announced Monday morning. 

At a press conference, Jim Creel told reporters that the Cheyenne-based corporation will open a satellite office in Minneapolis. He stated that the idea to expand came about two years ago when he instituted a strategic planning process. 

During that process, the company’s board of directors agreed that the expansion should be inside the restaurant’s existing area of operation, which would allow for the greatest potential of growth. Since there are more than 200 Taco John’s locations within a few hours drive from Minneapolis, the board felt expanding to that area made the most sense. 

“This is an exciting time for Taco John’s,” Creel said in a news release. “We have taken a number of steps over the past two years to lay the foundation for expansion. In order for it to take place, we decided that we needed to have a presence where it was all happening.” 

Creel told Cowboy State Daily that he expected the satellite office to open in March 2020, with around 15 staffers holding down the fort. Only a few employees from the Cheyenne headquarters will make the transition to the Minnesota, with most of the rest being new hires. 

“When we’re driving from Cheyenne to Denver to fly out to Minneapolis, we’re losing most of the day,” he told CSD. “It’s the same when we return. The chain will benefit from having our people out working with the franchisees more consistently.” 

With the announcement, Creel said he’s had potential franchisees contact him about opening new locations in the Minneapolis area.  

While some franchisee-oriented departments will be centered in Minneapolis, most of the corporation will continue to be headquartered in Cheyenne, since that’s where the restaurant chain was founded more than 50 years ago. Creel added that the impact of the expansion to the Cheyenne headquarters would be minimal and should only last for a short time. 

“Concurrently, it makes good business sense for departments that provide direct franchisee support to be located where the majority of the franchisees and future franchisees are located,” he said in his news release. 

Taco John’s recent successes made the opportunity for expansion much easier, with a new menu and restaurant redesign that’s soon to be  adopted across the country. The store on Cheyenne’s South Greeley Highway was the first to feature this prototype.  

Creel added that he expected expansion in the Cheyenne headquarters would occur at some point in the future, but he said it was too early to specify what changes might take place.

However, Creel did note that he thinks there will be around 15 new stores opening in 2020 and 20 opening the following year, a rapid growth compared to the company’s normal opening schedule. Creel stated that the ultimate goal for Taco John’s is to have around 500 to 600 stores in the country. Right now, the company is looking to expand in cities including Kansas City, Missouri, Omaha, Nebraska, St. Louis and certain cities in Kentucky. 

Currently, Taco John’s operates and franchises around 400 stores in 23 states.

“We wouldn’t have been able to expand had we not put together back-to-back outstanding years,” he said in the news release. “I have been with Taco John’s for 20 years now and I haven’t seen excitement like this in the franchisee community.”

On Bone Broth, and Coexistence

in Cat Urbigkit/Column/Agriculture
Guardian dogs
2455

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

The morning after Thanksgiving our house was once again filled with the smell of cooking turkey. But this time it was because we were boiling the carcass remains from the previous day’s feast. The bones are placed in the garbage once the broth is complete, but we pour the bone broth with chunks of meat in canning jars for reheating and pouring over the kibble of our working livestock guardian dogs on cold winter mornings.

Bones from a beef roast, leg of lamb, or leftover bird carcass all provide for delicious bone broth that can be used to make soup, but we like providing a nutrition boost for hard-working dogs and females raising pups.

livestock guardian dogs

On Thanksgiving we got the turkey in the oven before daylight and proceeded to outside chores at the first welcoming rays of light. The sheep were still on their bedground with their dogs, so we went across the ranch to check our game cameras, a vital part of our wolf monitoring program.

Fresh wolf tracks in new snow confirmed that wolves had paid an early-morning visit to our sheep range – their third nocturnal visit in a week. A resident female wolf that we helped radio collar a year ago has mostly kept to herself, but after we eliminated her mate a few months ago, she’s brought in another large male to the ranch, and their excursions are becoming more frequent. This male wolf’s track is large and distinct, and I suspect it’s the elusive male we had trouble with last fall and winter.

After we lost our two top guardian dogs, the male had become emboldened, and as I checked the cameras every morning, I would find his tracks atop my boot prints from the day before. As I tracked the wolf, he tracked me, marking and tearing up the ground where I walked, and he began coming to the rocks behind the house. He avoided the cameras, approaching them from behind, until one night in a fit of rage last November he attacked a camera, taking 85 selfies in the process.

That’s when we spooled up the guardian dogs, penned and fed the sheep, and set out wolf traps. After splitting up his pack, the male disappeared from our range. It had been quiet since I’d last come across his sign, but looking at those fresh tracks in the snow, it’s with a tense familiarity.

We follow the wolf tracks through the area our sheep flock grazed the day prior and see where the wolves and the guardian dogs each marked the same territorial boundary. The sheep and their dogs use the area during the day before being pushed toward the house every afternoon. The wolves wait until darkness falls across the range before moving in to explore where the sheep had spent the day.

Two nights ago, the wind-driven snow pushed the flock into the protected cover in the bottom of Sheep Creek. We tracked the wolves up the drainage to within a half-mile of the flock as they moved in response to the sheep movement below. The tracks in the snow left by the wolves, the guardians, and the sheep, lays out the reality of coexistence on the ground. The wolves are nearby, but are currently maintaining a certain distance.

It’s been a hard-fought coexistence. We deferred grazing this range one year and a pack of six wolves took over the range as their own. When we moved in the next year, the wolf pack come within a quarter-mile of the house and our penned sheep, causing massive brawls between the warring canine cousins. The wolves killed pronghorn antelope and mule deer within half-mile of the house, and the pack lounged atop the rocky ridge overlooking our headquarters, as our guardian dogs struggled to widen the territory of protected space. We had guardian dogs injured and killed, dozens of sheep injured and killed, and we’ve injured and killed wolves.

The sheep flock has its own guardian dogs that move with the flock as it grazes, as do the cattle, and we also have a guardian dog pack that controls the area around the ranch headquarters and pens. The wolves are no longer able to roam the ridge overlooking the house because that territory has been taken by the guardian dogs.

The biggest risk is to the sheep, with their smaller size and ever-changing grazing pattern. The livestock guardian dogs have managed to impose a restricted buffer of protection around the flock, but we know that any weakness of the dog pack – or any strengthening of the wolf pack –will cause this uneasy coexistence to end. 

So we prepare the bone broth, to boost our working dogs on cold winter mornings, to nourish them for whatever may lie ahead.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email rangewritesyndicate@icloud.com.

Wyoming opens avenues for cryptobanking

in News
Bitcoin bank
2453

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

The Wyoming Division of Banking is working to finalize the first two applications for a new type of bank: Special Purpose Depository Institutions (SPDI) or “speedy banks,” which will specialize in transactions involving cryptocurrency.

Providing financial services for the modern age, SPDIs could facilitate transactions with cryptocurrency, such as Bitcoin, and access to cryptographic keys. 

Chris Land, general counsel for Wyoming’s Banking Division, said the agency is the chartering authority for the new banks, which were made possible by legislation earlier this year.

“Once an application is filed, the chartering process takes six to nine months, which is the same as any other bank,” Land wrote in an email, adding the first applicants filed in October. “During this time, we’ll review their applications closely and determine whether they have a proposal that meets our high standards and doesn’t present significant risks to the state or national financial system.”

Despite Wyoming typically trailing national trends, the state is paving the way for SPDIs, said Caitlin Long, a member of the Wyoming Blockchain Coalition.

“We’ve done this at least twice before — we did it 150 years ago when we gave women the right to vote,” Long said. “And Wyoming invented the Limited Liability Company in 1977, which is the most prominent form of business entity in the United States today.”

Other states are taking note. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis told Gov. Mark Gordon, “You guys are leading the way on blockchain, and I’m coming for you,” Gordon’s senior policy adviser Renny Mackay told the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Committee on Minerals, Business and Economic Development.

Long said kudos are owed to the policy makers. 

“Other states are behind the curve, because they just haven’t had someone roll up their sleeves and do it,” she explained. “We really needed new economic ideas in Wyoming, and both Gov. Matt Mead and Gov. Gordon got behind this. Legislative leadership recognized this is an opportunity for us to truly lead, and hat’s off to them. They did it.”

Clarifying ownership

SPDI facilities most likely won’t resemble traditional banking institutions, Long said. 

“The average person won’t even know it’s a bank,” she said. “It’s really there to provide custody of access to the cryptographic keys.”

Unlike a typical digital password, private cryptographic keys are a type of password that can’t be changed used to lock or unlock cryptographic functions such as authentication, authorization and encryption. 

Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, said companies attempting to conduct their finances with cryptocurrencies encountered several obstacles in their day-to-day business operations, creating a need for the SPDIs. 

“We put together the legislative framework for SPDI banks based on concerns of federal regulations and statutes that were challenging for innovative companies to overcome,” Rothfuss explained. “They were dealing with these challenges when they were just trying to bank, things like make payroll for their employees.”

Although cryptocurrency has a negative reputation for being hard to track — thus, the currency of the criminal underworld — Long said the opposite was true.

“I came across cryptocurrency in 2012 when I was working on Wall Street,” she said. “When we put money in (a traditional) bank account, we technically are lending the bank that money, and they may or may not pay it back to us. I wanted to be able to own my assets outright.”

On the stock exchange, bookkeeping can be inaccurate as Dole Food Company shareholders discovered in 2015 when more than 4,500 shareholders submitted claims for nearly 50 million company shares, despite the fact only about 36 million existed. Cryptocurrency, on the other hand, allows people to accurately track their assets.

“With cryptocurrency, it’s very clear who owns the asset,” Long said. “If you control the private cryptographic key, which is what enables you to move the asset, then you own the asset.”

Land said law enforcement agencies are catching up to the technology and using cryptocurrency data to track down criminal organizations.

“As long you follow the data, you’ll be able to trace where the asset goes, and where it’s coming from with a higher degree of certainty than you would have with large amounts of cash,” he said. “There’s a lot of software products out there that specialize in bringing transparency to the digital asset markets.”

Bipartisan tech

As with most new technologies, cryptobanking has a potential for hiccups.

“There’s always a risk, because it’s innovation,” Land said. “I’m literally spending 90 percent of my time trying to mitigate those risks. In case one of the banks fail, we have policies and procedures and resources to ensure it doesn’t cost the state money.”

Making sure SPDIs don’t cost taxpayers money while providing a “net benefit” to the state is a top priority for the division, he added.

“We’re trying to control the known unknowns,” Land said.

Wyoming has more laws regulating blockchain, the technology behind cryptocurrency, than any other state in the nation, he said.

According to Rothfuss, Wyoming jumped to the head of the financial technology pack when Mead created the Blockchain Taskforce in 2018.

“This is an emergent field in financial technology that does not have a lot of robust governance structures around the country or world,” he said. “There were a lot of industry advocates trying to get some time with any government. They found a receptive ear in the blockchain task force and people flew in from all over the world.”

Despite growing divisions between political parties nationwide, Rothfuss said penning legislation for the growing sector has been a bipartisan effort.

“This is an area where we fortunately do have a tremendous amount of support from both sides of the aisle,” he said. “This is an area where everyone — regardless of party, regardless of branch — wants to see a path forward to success.”

Although the foundation was laid, but Rothfuss said Legislature has more work ahead.

“Much like with the LLC, you learn from experience, you amend the statutes to improve the functionality of that entity,” he explained.  “We’ll be doing much the same thing as time goes forward with SPDI banks.”

Legislators on dwindling state revenues: ‘It’s real, it’s bad’

in Energy/News/Taxes
Silhouette of a Pump Jack
2450

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

As coal, oil and natural gas revenues decline, state legislators could have some hard decisions ahead, according to information generated by a strategic planning effort created by Gov. Mark Gordon. 

Dubbed “Power Wyoming,” the planning effort forecasts several scenarios for mineral-based state revenue streams during the next five years, all of which predict a deficit in coming years. 

The information compiled by Power Wyoming was presented to the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Revenue Committee on Nov. 11. 

“The best projections in this model are very unlikely, and the worst are the most likely,” said Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, the Senate committee’s chair. “That’s very scary.”

Case worked on Power Wyoming with Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, chairman of the House Revenue Committee. Also on the team were members of the executive branch and economists familiar with the state’s energy sector such as Rob Godby, the University of Wyoming director for Energy Economics and Public Policies Center and a College of Business associate professor. 

Zwonitzer said the planning effort is the starting point to prepare for diminishing mineral revenues. 

“Power Wyoming is just the first step of saying, ‘Here’s what’s going to happen to Wyoming,’” he said. “The group was formed to get the message out there: ’It’s real, and it’s bad.’”

Renny MacKay, Gordon’s policy adviser, said Power Wyoming was not established to be a group of individuals working on potential solutions to the state’s revenue problems, but rather a group of experts working to gather to analyze data.

“This is a cone of different scenarios for both revenue and energy production,” MacKay said.

In its current iteration, Power Wyoming provides insight by compiling information from the state’s Consensus Revenue Estimating Group and the U.S. Energy Information Administration, among others.   

“Energy production is declining … and if there is production decline, the traditional jobs we have in Wyoming would be impacted,” MacKay said. “Information gives us power. The more we look at it, the more we talk about it, we can figure out what our opportunities are as a state.”

Worst case scenarios

While the coal industry’s struggles are being felt across the state, Case said Power Wyoming illuminated potential problems with the natural gas sector as well.

“I did not realize the issues with natural gas were as serious as they are,” he said. “Everybody else is thinking natural gas is doing great, and it’s not.”

The planning effort’s initial simulation results highlight some scenarios where the state’s total mineral revenue drops by 10 percent as early as 2020-2022 before a potential partial recovery by 2024. Some scenarios show a full recovery to expansion in revenues, but Power Wyoming reports they are the least likely cases within the current market conditions and expectations.

Most scenarios predicted a decrease in both Wyoming’s total employment and population, but in the worst case scenarios, the state’s total employment could decrease by about 20,000 jobs by 2024, followed by a similar decrease in population.

“In the next five years, there’s no way to absorb those (lost) jobs,” Zwonitzer said. “That means we’ll either have to have an increase in taxes, or a decrease in government services.”

In the worst case scenarios, he said the state would most likely need to pursue both. 

“We’ve lived a certain way in this state for 100 years with minerals paying the taxes,” Zwonitzer said. “That major revenue source is going away. So what does that look like for our future, and what do we want to do about it?”

Unreliable oil

Some of the scenarios, including those in the best case category, relied heavily on increased oil production balancing decreased coal and natural gas production. But Case warned against putting faith in the oil market.

“I think oil is very susceptible to environmental and carbon risk,” he said. “Changes in policy from Washington, D.C., and from other states could make it impossible to grow petroleum.”

A low-carbon policy consideration was also provided for the Revenue Committee as part of the Power Wyoming data package. Case said the presentation offered a more realistic outlook of oil than the initial simulation results put together by Godby.

In the policy consideration, Shell Global estimates a high usage of liquid hydrocarbon fuels, such as gasoline, in 2020 by about 25 million barrels a day. After the peak, however, the oil company predicts a gradual decrease down to 10 million barrels a day in 2060 and about 2 million barrels in 2100 as part of its strategy to comply with the Paris Climate Accord.

Most scenarios presented by Power Wyoming indicate the mineral sector is going to take a significant hit in the next five years, but even if the best case scenarios come true, Case said the future of energy is moving away from Wyoming’s traditional mineral offerings.

“This will tell you that the bad times are here,” Case said. “This is not just a tool for the Revenue Committee, but it’s also a tool for us. If you’re an employee in the coal industry, it’s probably time for you to get your own house in order.”

MacKay said Gordon is already working on the next steps of the planning effort. 

“We are bringing folks from the private industry now,” he explained. “Power Wyoming will definitely stick around for the foreseeable future.”

Ray Peterson is back, hoping lawmakers will heed his calls for ed funding cuts

in News/Education
Education funding
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By Laura Hancock, Cowboy State Daily

A former state senator who was ousted from the Legislature after sponsoring a bill that threatened to cut education funding is doubling down, saying more money needs to be cut.

Ray Peterson of Cowley said he was alarmed when he learned the Legislature’s Joint Education Committee recommended a $19 million education “external cost adjustment” — a boost to allow school funding to keep up with inflation. Weeks later, Gov. Mark Gordon also recommended an education adjustment of $19 million in 2020, and $19 million for the following year. 

“My concern is it’s not sustainable with the downturn in coal,” Peterson, a Republican who lost re-election in 2018, said in an interview. “That’s where a lot of our education funding comes from: Coal, oil and gas.”

So now he’s speaking out. No longer in the Legislature, he said he wants to start a discussion, hoping lawmakers will be empowered by his talking points. 

“I hope my defeat is not used as a poster child.” he said. “These decisions are hard.”

Nevertheless, the Wyoming Education Association says Peterson’s views are outside the norm and may not pass constitutional muster. The WEA points to a 2017 Public Opinion Strategies poll it commissioned that found 78 percent of registered voters agreed with the statement: “Even with the tough budget situation, funding for K-12 grade schools in the state should NOT be cut.”

And while Peterson questioned education salaries and spending compared to Wyoming’s neighbors, WEA President Kathy Vetter noted in Education Week’s report card, Quality Counts 2019, that the state ranked sixth nationally in education – higher than all five of its neighbors. 

2018 session bill

Education became a central topic in Peterson’s 2018 re-election primary after he sponsored a bill  designed to prevent districts from squirreling away large cash reserves for construction, he said. After several amendments, the cut to Wyoming schools would have been around $40 million, Peterson said, but it was shelved as other school funding measures were working through the legislative process. 

Components of Peterson’s bill were folded into another piece of legislation that cut education by around $29 million — and that bill passed. 

Less than six months later, Peterson – who had served since 2004 and chaired the Senate Revenue Committee — lost re-election to R.J. Kost, a Republican who retired from a long education career. 

This round

This time around, Peterson is offering a graph that he said charts 40 years of education funding in Wyoming — and an overall spending increase of 400 percent.  

If inflation was kept closer to the Consumer Price Index, he said the increase should only be around 120 percent.

Peterson acknowledged some of that increase occurred when legislators decades ago decided to direct more cash toward schools. Money also was distributed from the state to equalize funding among school districts after a series of Wyoming Supreme Court decisions that funding must be uniform. 

He also said some of the education funding increases were a deliberate decision by the Legislature to offer attractive salaries to lure and keep teachers in the state.  

But now Peterson thinks enough is enough. He thinks cuts could be constitutional if they were applied in a manner in which no school district disproportionately suffered. 

“My concern is it’s a runaway freight train and nobody’s tapping the brakes,” he said. 

The constant increases in school funding come at the expense of other state programs, he said, since the state revenue pie is shrinking. 

Possible constitutional issues

However, Vetter, the WEA president, said in an email that in one of the Supreme Court’s education funding decisions, it ruled the Legislature must fund education “adequately and equitably” before anything else. 

The proposal for a $38 million spending increase in the first year of the coming biennium just barely meets the minimum recommendation for education funding set by the Joint Education Committee, Vetter said. 

“The Legislature has established a funding model that meets the constitutional guarantee,” she said. “Gov. Gordon’s budget proposal honors Wyoming students’ constitutionally protected, fundamental right to an equitable, high-quality education.”

Vetter doesn’t deny these are challenging times for the state’s economy, and that other parts of the state budget are suffering. But the Legislature has constitutional obligations.

“Sacrificing on education means sacrificing Wyoming’s future,” she said. 

Powell man part of team to row across Atlantic

in Recreation/Community
FightOrDieTeam
The members of Carl Christensen’s “Fight OAR Die” team, from left to right: John Fannin of San Antonio, Texas, Luke Holton of Juneau, Alaska, Christensen of Powell and Evan Stratton of Denver, Colorado. (Courtesy photo)
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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

Fight OAR Die.

No, that’s not a typo. It’s the slogan for a group of military veterans who next week will begin a weeks-long journey across the Atlantic Ocean… in a rowboat.

Powell resident Carl Christensen is part of a four-man team of former military servicemen who will take off from La Gomera in the Canary Islands next month in their “Woobie” to raise awareness and support for the mental and physical health of U.S. veterans. 

The team will take part in the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge, rowing 3,000 miles from the Canary Islands to Antigua. It’s a symbol of the hardships faced by veterans, and the steps that can be taken to overcome them.

Christensen is a 2001 Cody High School graduate who attended the Naval Academy, then served as a submarine officer and an instructor until his service was over in 2014. He said he watched last year’s team, which boasted members from both Powell and Cody, and was inspired to join the movement to support fellow veterans in their struggles with both mental and physical health post-service. 

But the task he’s facing is no small feat, either.

“Last year’s team did it in 54 days. 40 days is the average, the world record is 33 days,” he said. “We do have 60 days’ worth of food on board.”

Fight OAR Die map
This is a map of the path to be followed by Powell resident Carl Christensen and the other three members of his “Fight OAR Die” challenge to row across the Atlantic Ocean.

Christensen’s team represents more than just the Navy, however. Two Marines will be in his boat – one from San Antonio, Texas, and one from Denver, Colorado – and an Army veteran from Juneau, Alaska will round out the crew. It’s the first time for each of them. 

“The goal is to put four new veterans on the team each year,” he said. “We’re showing other veterans that they can row their own ocean, overcome their challenges.” 

He said the Fight OAR Die team has one mission – they want veterans to stop taking their own lives, and start living them instead.

Training is a must for a physical feat such as this. Christensen said he’s been staying in shape as a member of the Park County Search and Rescue volunteer crew. In addition, his wife, who is a personal trainer, purchased a rowing machine to help him train specifically for this journey.

In August, Christensen said the team did a month of training on an actual rowboat in Mobile, Alabama. There, the city’s mayor presented team members with a key to the city for their efforts in raising awareness of post-traumatic stress and post-combat hardship, as well as raising funds for treatment and research.

Part of the team’s mission is to raise support for other organizations that assist veterans, according to Christensen. The Sturm Center at the University of Denver and the Marcus Institute for Brain Health in Aurora, Colorado, are both working on ways to help veterans adapt and heal after their combat missions. 

“We are actually research subjects,” Christensen said. “They’ll follow us for a year.” 

In fact, he says the Sturm Center is now offering students the opportunity to follow a new specialized path – professional military psychologist – specifically to help veterans. 

Christensen pointed out that people who want to support their team’s mission financially can donate to the Sturm Center and the Marcus Institute to further their efforts.

Of the upcoming challenge, Christensen said it’s important to him to continue to serve his brothers and sisters in arms. With 60,000 veterans dying by suicide over the last decade, he said he is proud to be a part of a group that is working to raise awareness – and funds – to help support those who can perhaps end that trend.

“We’re trying to turn the tide,” he said.

Day, Old Farmer’s Almanac agree — it’s going to be a cold winter

in News/weather
2423

By Cowboy State Daily

The Old Farmer’s Almanac and one of Wyoming’s premier weather forecasters are both predicting the same thing for eastern Wyoming this winter — cold.

The 228-year-old Farmer’s Almanac, which claims an accuracy rate in long-range forecasting of up to 85 percent, is predicting a “polar coaster” in terms of winter temperatures, with the mercury dipping far below average east of the Rockies, from the Continental Divide to the Appalachians. Day agrees.

“Places like Sheridan, Buffalo, Gillette, Lusk, Torrington, they’re probably going to be the coldest parts of Wyoming this winter,” he said. “You get over to Jackson, Rock Springs and Evanston on the other side of the Divide and it’s likely going to be a more mild winter there.”

Day said typically, cold air coming down from Canada is heavy and drops to the lowest point in the landscape, which is the eastern slope of the Rockies.

“Sometimes, in patterns like we’re expecting this winter, the Rockies will keep that really cold air, most of the time, from going over to places like Jackson and Star Valley and Evanston,” he said.

As far as snow, Day said heavier snow than normal can be expected for the first half of the winter, from mid-October through January, particularly in eastern and northeastern Wyoming.

Weather forecasting can be a tricky business. The Old Farmer’s Almanac bases its predictions on a centuries-old secret formula created by its founder. The publication estimates its success rate at 80 percent to 85 percent. The University of Illinois, in a study, set the figure at closer to 52 percent.

Day said he bases his predictions on a combination of computer modeling and looking at past patterns of weather, while the National Weather Services uses only computers and does not look at past trends.

“What we have found is that the formula of mixing those two seems too give you the most accurate weather forecast,” he said. “The Farmer’s Alamanac is coming out at about 52 percent. You know what the (computer) model is at? About the same.”

Day admitted that a little experience in weather forecasting doesn’t hurt, either.

“Weather forecasting is a lot like being a pilot,” he said. “You go and get on an airplane and the captain greets you when you get on board. You like to see a captain with a little what in his hair? A little gray, right? You don’t want a fresh-faced 18-year-old flying a 747, right?

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