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Wyoming businesses come to furloughed federal workers aid

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Across the state, locals are stepping up to help those affected by shutdown

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming businesses and organizations are coming together in support of federal employees who have been furloughed because of the record-breaking federal government shutdown.

Throughout the state, locals are offering discounts and interest-free lines of credit to help federal employees, who missed their first paycheck of the year between Jan. 11-17 — depending on their department. If the shutdown continues, furloughed employees could miss a second paycheck between Jan. 25-31. 

While the Washington Post reported President Donald Trump approved legislation Wednesday granting furloughed employees back pay once the government is reopened, Wyomingites are stepping up to help their neighbors in the meantime.

Teton County

Jackson Whole Grocer owner Jeff Rice kept a weather eye on the news prior to the shutdown, and when it became apparent federal employees could be in for a hard winter, Rice said he met with his employees to devise a plan to help.

“Clearly this was going to be a little longer and have a greater impact on folks,” he said. “A few days before the shutdown happened, it occurred to me that we should do what we can to help people out.”

With Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park and Shoshone National Forest nearby, several federal employees live in the Jackson area.

“I pulled my team together and we brainstormed what we could do,” Rice said. “We decided to offer (furloughed) federal workers essentially a line of credit, about $200 a week up to a max of $1000.”

The credit is interest free, and participants will have up to 60 days to pay back the loan after the government reopens, he said. Additionally, the store is offering furloughed employees a 10 percent discount.

“Our guiding principals include community support and being an active part of our community,” Rice explained. “This is the kind of stuff we do.”

As of Wednesday, he said about 20 people had taken advantage of the credit.

Laramie County

Colleen Zemelka and her husband, Charles, are no strangers to federal pay gaps. A recently retired U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class, Charles Zemelka said while he’s not personally affected by the shutdown yet, many of his friends are furloughed. 

“When the government shutdowns occur, the spouses of your lower enlisted personnel, who tend to work on the base for government entities, get hit pretty hard, creating a double jeopardy situation,” he said. “During a previous shutdown — I believe it was during (former President Bill) Clinton — it ran over a military payday, so we’ve seen what can happen.”

Colleen Zemelka, an independent hair stylist working out of New Wave Salon in Cheyenne, said she is offering furloughed employees and their families free haircuts and 50 percent off chemical treatments such as hair coloring and perms.

“Being from a family that is military, we’ve experienced a month or two when paychecks didn’t come through,” she said. “We’re not sure if at the end of the month my husband will get his retirement check, but either way, I believe helping the community is better than worrying about ourselves.”

The hair stylist said while no one had taken her up on the offer as of Thursday, she’d received some inquiries for openings during the weekend.

Converse County

Without pay, furloughed employees could struggle to pay essential bills — rent, heating, water — during the shutdown, so Converse County Bank is offering payday advances for those affected.

“At Converse County Bank, we truly believe that everyone is a friend and a neighbor,” said Breck Wagstaff, Converse County Bank’s community development officer. “We’ve reached out to our customer base and let them know if they are an active federal employee affected by the shutdown, we’ll loan them their next paycheck interest free.”

The offer started Jan. 8, and Wagstaff said the bank has already helped several furloughed employees — customers and non-customers alike. “It’s not about Converse County Bank, it’s about helping out people in need,” he explained. “We don’t have a great deal of federal employees in Douglas, but we’re happy to help where we can.”

Albany County

When the paychecks stop rolling in, some people might just want to sit back, have a drink and enjoy a burger — the Crowbar & Grill in Laramie is there to help. 

“We’re offering 20 percent off our entire menu to furloughed workers and their families,” Crowbar owner Andy Glines said. “I had seen other businesses were offering discounts, and we wanted to ease the burden on the people affected by the shutdown.”

The offer began Jan. 10, and though Glines said he wasn’t aware of any takers, it will stand throughout the duration of the shutdown.

“We understand the community makes us successful,” he said. “And we’d like to give back to that.”

Statewide

According to the Wyoming Food Bank of the Rockies, about one in eight Wyoming residents experienced food insecurity in 2018, but the shutdown could significantly increase that number, a food bank spokesperson said.

“Food is the last thing these people need to worry about,” said Shanna Harris, Wyoming Food Bank of the Rockies director. “We’re not sure how long this will go on, because hopefully the federal employees will go back to work, but our pantries have a really solid base.”

In addition to the food bank’s regular visits throughout the state, Harris said the Evansville-based organization was conducting “emergency pantry” visits.

On Monday, it distributed approximately 30,000 meals in Jackson. Tuesday, its staff members visited Buffalo, distributing about 12,000 meals. And the organization plans to visit Medicine Bow in southeast Wyoming on Friday, followed by another delivery to Laramie next week.

“It’s not just federal workers, but the shutdown has a ripple effect for people who do contract work for the federal government,” Harris said. “If someone is hungry, then we respond. It’s our goal to make sure people who are food insecure have their next meal, and we’re very good at mobilizing.”

Resolution would declare “Women’s Suffrage Day” in Wyoming

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By Cowboy State Daily

An official “Women’s Suffrage Day” would be commemorated in December under legislation approved in its first Senate review Friday.

SJR 3 would declare Dec. 10 as Women’s Suffrage Day. Senator Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, tells Cowboy State Daily’s Bob Geha that the bill’s sponsors include every woman serving in the Legislature.

Ellis said she hopes the resolution will lead to conversations about the values behind Wyoming’s nickname of “The Equality State.”

“In this last year, I’ve done a lot of research on suffrage and I was shocked at all the things I didn’t know about,” she said. “So hopefully this resolution kind of prompts some conversations so we can better understand that really important history.”

Convention of States seeks constitutional convention

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A former legislator is heading the effort in Wyoming to hold a constitutional convention to consider amendments to impose fiscal restraints on the federal government and impose term limits on members of Congress.

Nathan Winters tells Cowboy State Daily’s Bob Geha that the Convention of States is a national effort started five years ago to convince 34 states to call for a constitutional convention.

Bill would limit amount of information provided on public pay

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By Cowboy State Daily

A bill that would limit the amount of information provided in official notices about how much public employees are paid cleared a House committee Thursday.

HB 146 would remove the names of county and city public employees from a list that is published in the state’s newspapers.

Under current law, that list now must contain the name of each employee, their position and their salary. The bill would limit that information to positions and salaries only.

The House Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee approved the bill on a 5-4 vote for discussion by all members of the House.

However, the bill is opposed by “Foster’s Outriders,” a group formed by former GOP gubernatorial candidate Foster Friess to pursue various interests in government including transparency.

“We view this as an extremely anti-transparency measure and it’s designed to hide from the public the names and salary information,” said Parker Jackson, a spokesman for the group. “They’re trying to separate those two from the public.”

In the interest of disclosure, it must be noted that Foster Friess is an investor in the Cowboy State Daily.

Party switch bill gets first committee review

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By Cowboy State Daily

A bill that would put limits on when voters can change their party affiliations got mixed reviews Thursday in its first session in a Senate committee.

The Senate Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee began its work on SF 32, which would require voters changing party affiliation to do so before the filing period opens for political candidates — usually in May.

Currently, voters can change their affiliations as late as the day of the primary. In last year’s election, the Secretary of State’s office reported an estimated 12,500 voters changed their party affiliations.

After last year’s primary election, Wyoming Republicans made the issue of party switching a top priority.

Frank Eathorne, Wyoming Republican Party chairman, said the bill would make sure political parties can select their own nominees without interference.

“It’s about party integrity,” he said. “Parties are not governmental entities. We are private entities. And we have that destiny in our hands and that decision making is up to us.”

However, Nina Herbert, communications director for the Wyoming Democratic Party, said voters need to be given the chance to vote for the candidate they feel is best suited for office, regardless of party affiliation.

“The Wyoming Democratic Party supports open elections that are easily accessible to every eligible voter,” she said. “Jut throwing up another roadblock on party affiliation changes is not going to accomplish that.”

The committee was unable to complete its work on the bill Thursday and will continue its review next week.

Legislators take up a host of education bills

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By Cowboy State Daily

Support for a plan to expand eligibility for the state’s Hathaway Scholarship is being voiced by groups that have not spoken out on the scholarship program before, according to the chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

SF 43, a bill that gained final Senate approval on Wednesday, would allow students taking technical and trade classes rather than foreign language classes to be eligible for the state-sponsored scholarship.

Coe said during debate on the bill, he’s heard from groups that have never testified on the program before, largely because the state needs more students trained through Career Technical Education programs or CTE.

“The (Wyoming) Stockgrowers (Association), the Business Alliance, the (Wyoming) Contractors (Association), all the people that support CTE” he said. “It’s a signficant problem in the state of Wyoming. There’s jobs that exist out there, but they can’t get skilled people to fill those jobs.”

The bill was approved on a vote of 28-2 in its third reading in the Senate. The bill now heads to the House for review by the state’s representatives.

On the House side, the House Education Committee is preparing to take up another education bill — one that would allow local school districts to set standards for the evaluation of their teachers.

The bill, HB 22, would require teachers to be evaluated annually until they meet performance standards two years in a row. After that, a teacher would only need to be evaluated once every three years at a principal’s discretion.

The evaluation every three years would provide a welcome relief for principals, said Kathy Vetter of the Wyoming Education Association 

“It frees up some time for our principals to be instructional leaders and not just be doing the paperwork on teachers they feel are  master teachers already,” she said.

Another House Committee, the Appropriations Committee, is looking at a bill that would repeal the state’s Family College Savings Program.

HB 118, proposed by Rep. Tom Walters, R-Casper, does away with a program that is not necessary, he said.

State law calls for the state treasurer to set up and administer a statewide college savings program as a trust to hold money deposited in it by Wyoming residents.

However, Walters said the issue was more about tax savings than paying for education. Federal programs already exist that allow people to get a tax break for money they put into special savings accounts. 

But Wyoming has no income tax, so the program had no benefit and was not being used, Walters said.

“Wyoming just didn’t have a need to set that up,” he said. “Somebody at one point thought we may, so we put it on the books. It was looked into, but never taken advantage of. No one wanted to use it because there already other mechanisms out there. Folks all over the state … are taking advantage of these plans. They’re just not using the Wyoming plan.”

Lodging tax clears first full House review

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By Cowboy State Daily

A proposal for a statewide lodging tax cleared an early hurdle in Wyoming’s House on Tuesday, while the Senate killed a bill that would have stiffened the penalties for animal cruelty.

Representatives, in their first full review of HB 66, agreed to move it forward to a second reading on Wednesday.

The bill would impose a statewide lodging tax of 5 percent, with 3 percent to be used to finance the state Tourism Division and 2 percent to go to local governments.

During its review of the bill, the House amended the measure to remove an exemption from the tax granted in the past for guides and outfitters.

Rep. Bucky Loucks, a member of the Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee which reviewed the bill prior to its debate on the House floor, said he likes the fact that the measure would make the state Tourism Division self-supporting.

“The bottom line is tourism is a great part of Wyoming,” he said. “It’s our second leading industry and it needs to be there. I’d like to see (the Tourism Division) supported by the industry it benefits.”

In the Senate, members defeated by a vote of 21-7 a measure that would have doubled some of the penalties handed down for people convicted of animal abuse.

Senate File 33 would have increased the fine for misdemeanor animal cruelty from $750 to $1,500, with that fine rising to $7,500 for a second conviction.

The Senate did give final approval to a bill that would limit opioid prescriptions for some patients.

Senate File 46, approved on a vote of 27-3, limits doctors to providing a 14-day prescription for opioids for patients who have not had an opioid prescription for 45 days. Cancer patients and those with chronic pain would be exempt from the limits.

The bill now heads to the House for review by representatives.

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