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‘Suffrage Day’ measure first from session signed into law

in News
A Grou of proud women wearing yellow rose lapels, ALT=Law declares Wyoming Women's Suffrage Day
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By Cowboy State Daily

A measure setting aside a day to recognize Wyoming as the first state in the nation to give women the right to vote became the first bill of the Legislature’s 2019 session to be signed into law Wednesday.

Senate Joint Resolution 3, setting Dec. 10 as “Wyoming Women’s Suffrage Day, was the first of eight bills signed into law by Gov. Mark Gordon on Wednesday.The date marks the day in 1869 when Territorial Gov. John Campbell signed the bill giving women the right to vote in Wyoming.

The measure, sponsored by Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, was unanimously approved by both the House and Senate.

Other measures signed into law by Gordon on Wednesday included: SF 11, moving back the deadline for the governor to submit a budget to legislators from Dec. 1 to the third Monday in November; SF 21, requiring candidates for elected office to list the addresses of their homes for the last five years on their applications for nomination or election, and SF 17, adding electronic records to the list of documents that county clerks must keep available for examination.

School safety bill awaiting House review

in News/Education
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By Cowboy State Daily

A measure proposing a comprehensive safety and security plan for Wyoming’s schools is awaiting its first debate in front of the full House.

SF 64 would require the state’s schools and superintendent of public instruction go prepare safety and security guidelines for schools, along with staff training and drills to prepare for attacks by intruders.

Schools would also have to develop strategies for identifying students who could potentially engage in violent behavior and craft a system to alert officials when an attack on a school occurs.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow said it is important to consider the issue of school safety comprehensively.

“When we really look at school safety and security comprehensively, we need to consider and act on the well being of every single student to make our schools safe,” she said.

Wyoming schools take Rachel’s Challenge: National anti-bullying program comes to state

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A national anti-bullying program founded in memory of one of the victims of the Columbine High School shooting was brought to a Cheyenne high school on Tuesday.

Rachel’s Challenge, created in honor of 17-year-old Rachel Scott, is based on the “Code of Ethics” she wrote a month before her death in the Columbine shooting of 1999.

Since 2001, Rachel’s family has offered the program to thousands of schools in 14 countries reaching 25 million people. The “challenge” has to do with following five points listed by Scott in her code of ethics: Look for the best in others, dream big, choose positive influences, speak with kindred spirits and start your own chain reaction.

Nate Rees, regional manager for Rachel’s Challenge, said the goal is to get students to agree to pursue the “calls to action.”

“We believe that if you can get to the student’s heart, that they’ll give you their head and they’ll give you their hands,” he said. “But it starts at the heart of the matter and that’s one of the things that Rachel’s story is able to do almost 20 years later.”

Jessica Gerwig, a Cheyenne East High School teacher involved in bringing the program to the school, said she was impressed with the ideas forwarded by Rachel’s Challenge.

“I think that the idea of spreading kindness and positivity is just so important,” she said.

The program is to be offered at high schools in Lyman and Mountain View next week.

Democrats call for Hutchings’ resignation; Senate promises probe

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By Cowboy State Daily

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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By Cowboy State Daily

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Appropriations members say budget difference just part of the process

in News
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By Cowboy State Daily

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public documents bill clears House committee

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

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

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

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

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