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Governor Gordon Will Support New Lodging Tax to Promote Tourism

in News/politics/Tourism
Photo by Walter Sprague, Newcastle Newsletter Journal
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Photo by Walter Sprague, Newcastle Newsletter Journal

By Bill Sniffin, Cowboy State Daily

“I can support it,” Governor Mark Gordon said when asked if he can get behind the concept of a statewide lodging tax to fund the future of tourism.

Gordon was addressing the members of the Wyoming Press Association during that group’s annual meeting in Casper.

“This is an important step for the tourism industry, and I support that industry,” he said.

Tourism is the state’s second largest industry behind energy production and has more employees, 33,000, than any other industry.

Photo by Walter Sprague, Newcastle Newsletter Journal

The new lodging tax proposal contains the following items:

• New title- Wyoming Tourism Account Funding.
• Joint Appropriations Committee sponsored bill
• Imposes a 5% statewide lodging tax (3% dedicated to tourism 2% guaranteed and replaces existing 2% local option lodging tax)
• Up to additional 2% local option lodging tax can be renewed every 4 years but would be vote of governing local government (city council or county commissioners depending if city or county wide tax) instead of vote of the electorate.
• State parks overnight camping would be subject to the tax (except annual resident camping passes, state fair campgrounds and county fair campgrounds- they would all be exempt)
• 80% of the 3% that is dedicated to tourism would be deposited into the newly created tourism account and shall be spent on Wyoming Office of Tourism/Wyoming Tourism Board (subject to legislative approval before spending every year)
• Remaining 20% would be deposited into newly created tourism reserve account. (Subject to legislative approval before spending every year) No more “tipping point”
• Local option lodging tax permissible expenditures amended to include “digital content, social media, staging of events, educational materials and other tourism related objectives including those identified as likely to facilitate tourism or enhance the visitor experience”
• The Bill, if passed, effective January 1, 2021
• Thresholds for when lodging tax shifts from 90/10 to 60/30/10 updated to 2020 dollar values (nothing changes, the thresholds have always been tied to the cost of living index and so thresholds are simply updated to what they are in 2020-they remain tied to index moving forward)
• All existing local option lodging taxes stay in place until their next scheduled election.

Wyoming Attorney General Declines to Sign Letter Condemning Impeachment

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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming Attorney General Bridget Hill did not sign a letter condemning President Donald Trump’s impeachment because she wants to remain impartial in her role as an appointed public servant, she said.

“As an appointed, not elected, attorney general, it is important to me that I remain impartial in matters that may be viewed as political or having a political component,” Hill wrote in an email. “My position is not elected and is not based on a political campaign.”

Republican attorneys general from 21 states signed a letter sent to the U.S. Senate on Wednesday, which said the impeachment process “threatens all future elections and establishes a dangerous historical precedent.”

The new precedent set by the impeachment could erode the separation of powers between the nation’s legislative and executive branches, the letter opined.

Hill wrote that her duties as attorney general are to focus on legal matters alone, so she would not to join what may be seen as a politically motivated rebuke.

“In addition to actually remaining impartial, it is important that I maintain an appearance of impartiality so that the citizens of Wyoming know that my decisions are based on legal factors alone and not my personal political views,” Hill wrote.  “In this instance, the letter in question was only from Republican attorneys general and thus had the potential to create the appearance that it had a political component to it.”

Hill wrote her decision not to sign the letter is not a personal statement, nor an indicator of her stance on the impeachment.

“Nor should my not signing the letter be viewed as agreement or disagreement with the contents and legal points in the letter,” Hill wrote. “My decision was based solely on the potential for this letter to be viewed as me making a political statement, which as an appointed attorney general I refrain from making.”

Hill was joined by four other Republican attorneys general, who did not sign the letter from Arizona, Idaho, New Hampshire and North Dakota.

Attorneys General who signed the letter:
Alan Wilson, South Carolina
Jeff Landry, Louisiana
Sean Reyes, Utah
Steve Marshall, Alabama
Curtis Hill, Indiana
Kevin Clarkson, Alaska
Derek Schmidt, Kansas
Leslie Rutledge, Arkansas
Daniel Cameron, Kentucky
Ashley Moody, Florida
Douglas Peterson, Nebraska
Christopher M. Carr, Georgia
Lynn Fitch, Mississippi
Eric Schmitt, Missouri
Jason Ravsborg, South Dakota
Tim Fox, Montana
Herbert H. Slatery, III, Tennessee
Dave Yost, Ohio
Ken Paxton, Texas
Mike Hunter, Oklahoma
Patrick Morrisey, West Virginia

Wyoming Law Enforcement Not Likely to Enforce Fed Tobacco Law

in News/politics
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By Ellen Fike

Cowboy State Daily

The end of the year is ordinarily a hectic time with the rush to complete holiday shopping and preparing for the new year. People usually scramble to complete their work in time for a relaxing few days off from work.

But lawmakers in Washington D.C. were unusually busy passing one piece of legislation in the closing days of the year: a spending bill that also increased the national smoking age to 21 from 18. 

It can take months to implement new laws, but on Dec. 20, the age increase went into effect immediately, putting a strain on retailers selling cigarettes and other tobacco-related products (such as vapes, chewing tobacco and more).

However, in Wyoming, law enforcement officers enforce state laws, not federal ones, creating some confusion over how to handle the new age for tobacco use.

Crook County Sheriff Jeff Hodge said that the smoke has begun to clear over what it means to enforce a state law vs. a federal law. 

“When the Federal Drug Administration passed the law, it was more for retailers to enforce rather than police,” Hodge said. “We definitely got a lot of calls about it, so I ended up writing a press release to clear up some of the confusion. Ultimately, we’re going to keep marching on as we always have.” 

Legally, no one under the age of 21 can buy cigarettes or other tobacco products anywhere in the country, as it’s a federal crime. 

However until the Wyoming Legislature passes a new state statute reflecting the federal law, officers won’t do much, if anything, regarding possession of tobacco products by those under 21. 

A person between the ages of 18 and 20 can possess any tobacco products in the state of Wyoming and won’t be penalized for it, at least for the time being. 

“For example, if an 18-year-old is involved in a traffic stop and they have tobacco in the car, the officer isn’t going to do or say anything about it at this point,” said Byron Oedekoven, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police. “Really, it’s state law that someone between 18 and 20 can have tobacco. Federally, they just can’t purchase it for themselves.” 

Federal agents could run compliance checks at retailers that sell tobacco, so if anyone is caught selling to a person under 21, hefty fines could be in place for the seller and the business, Oedekoven said. 

While 19 states already had laws on their books stating that no one under 21 could purchase tobacco products, the law passed in December made it apply nationally. 

The change is intended to discourage teens from smoking, as vaping nicotine has surged in popularity among young people in the last few years. In March 2015, the National Academy of Medicine published information that showed by raising the smoking age to 21, more than 223,000 deaths could be prevented among people born between 2000 to 2019. It would also reduce lung cancer deaths by 50,000.

The Legislature could approve a statute mirroring the federal law during its upcoming budget session. But it could either go into effect immediately or not until July 1. 

Once the state law passes to ban those under 21 from possessing tobacco, anyone between 18 and 20 who is caught with tobacco or tobacco products could receive a possession citation, although Oedekoven noted that it’s up to the discretion of law enforcement and prosecutors to go forward with pursuing that type of charge. It would also be up to the court’s discretion on how much to fine someone possessing tobacco. 

“I think it would be fair to say that if you ended up in court with a smoking citation, there were lots of other things you were doing besides just have cigarettes on you,” Oedekoven said. “It’s an interesting dilemma you have here, but this isn’t the only federal law that isn’t enforced in Wyoming.” 

While Oedekoven and Hodge understand why the age was increased from 18 to 21, they both felt as if Congress was a little hasty passing the legislation as quickly as it did. 

“I think maybe the feds are overreaching a bit,” Hodge said. “There are a lot of opinions out there about the increase, like how you can go to war, but you can’t buy cigarettes now. I know vaping is a bigger issue than smoking or chewing, but I just think that this was a haste law that wasn’t very well thought out.”

Legislature Brings $1.25 Million Impact to Cheyenne

in News/politics
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By Ellen Fike

Cowboy State Daily

It’s not hard to spot a legislator downtown during the legislative session. Any Cheyenne resident who’s lived in the town for more than a year or two can attest to being behind a representative at Mort’s Bagels or seeing a group of senators walking toward the closest parking garage. 

On Feb. 10, 75 legislators from all over the state (excluding the 15 that live in Laramie County) will descend on Cheyenne for the 2020 budget session, which is tentatively scheduled to run for four weeks. 

This year will also be the first time in four years the legislators will meet at the Capitol, meaning that they’ll definitely be frequenting the downtown area. But it won’t be just legislators; this influx of visitors to downtown Cheyenne will include lobbyists, constituents traveling for various committee meetings and other individuals.

Estimates for the 20-day session put its direct economic impact at more than $500,000.

Darren Rudloff, chief executive officer for Visit Cheyenne, said the visiting legislators generate about $1.25 million in direct spending during a typical 40-day session. Direct spending means that this is what the legislators (or their spouses or staff members) spend in Cheyenne, whether it’s for meals, lodging, transportation and business services. 

As for indirect spending, Rudloff said the legislators will add another $1.9 million to the economy in 40 days. Indirect spending is expansive, almost like a ripple effect, where businesses will buy more inventory or bring in more staff to take care of their guests. 

“So indirect spending is something like if you went to The Metropolitan downtown and wiped them out of broccoli and tequila,” Rudloff said. “This means they need to restock their supply of broccoli and tequila. This is also going to mean things like a hotel bringing in more cleaning staff to ready the legislators’ rooms or something along those lines.” 

As for local taxes, Rudloff said Cheyenne receives around $37,000 during a 40-day session. 

While it’s not quite the same impact that Cheyenne Frontier Days brings every year, Rudloff did note that potential hotel developers often ask why there’s such an increase in traffic every February. This annual increase helps developers decide whether or not to put a new hotel in the city.  

“It definitely makes a difference, their being here every year,” he said. “It’s a nice shot in the arm to the economy. Constituents usually worry when there’s a special session, but for the local economy, it’s great.”

Little America Hotel and Resort general manager Tony O’Brien said that while the hotel definitely brings in its share of legislators every year, he’s noticed a shift toward the lawmakers choosing rental properties when they come for a month-long stay. 

AirBnB’s website boasted more than 300 listings in the Cheyenne area that would be available during this year’s session, ranging in price from $600 to $1,400 for a one-month stay in not only guest rooms but entire apartments and houses.

O’Brien and Rudloff mentioned occasions when lawmakers would rent an AirBnB house or an apartment and split the cost.

“We haven’t seen a decrease in legislators staying with us, but I’ve talked with some of them during receptions and other events and I’ve noticed the younger legislators using an AirBnB instead of a hotel,” O’Brien said. “I think sometimes when you’re staying here for a long time, you want to be able to have that home away from home experience.” 

The legislators aren’t just coming to the hotel for overnight stays, though. There are also a number of receptions held throughout the session that are hosted at Little America. 

But O’Brien is quick to point out that the legislators’ leisure activities affect all of Cheyenne, not just his hotel. 

“There has been some quality space added to Cheyenne in the last few years,” he said. “Cheyenne just offers a great product for visitors, not just the legislators. Obviously, we at Little America want to provide quality service for all of our guests, including the legislators, but the city and county have just incredible services as a whole.” 

Bill Would Prohibit ‘Gun Buyback’ Programs in Wyoming

in News/politics
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By Bob Geha, Cowboy State Daily

A measure that would prohibit governmental entities from running “gun buyback” programs has been filed for consideration by the Legislature during its upcoming session.

House Bill 28 would prohibit any Wyoming government body, including the University of Wyoming, from buying firearms from citizens.

The programs have been used in some large cities around the country in an effort to reduce the number of firearms on the street, however, no such program has been staged in Wyoming.

Bill sponsor Rep. Tyler Lindholm, R-Sundance, said he wants to make sure it is difficult in the future to launch a “buyback” in Wyoming.

“It’s not really a concern right now,” he said. “But if it is ever a concern, where organizations such as governments, whether local or state, are starting to do this … I want to make it as painful as possible for them to be able to peel back our … legislation.”

The measure has supporters among firearms retailers such as Ryan Allen of Cheyenne’s Frontier Arms.

Allen said in such programs, governments often end up paying far more for firearms than they are worth.

“The broken firearms, the inert, the $20 to $35 firearms … they’re paying four to five times what they’re worth,” he said.

Lindholm agreed.

“There will be some people who take advantage of the incompetency of government and bring in grandpa’s old over-and-under (shotgun) that’s been broken for the last 30 years and get $500 for it,” he said.

Both agreed that the more important issue is that of preserving Second Amendment rights.

“In regards to gun violence, the answer’s pretty clear at that point, you should let people defend themselves, let them practice their own God-given right,” Lindholm said.

“Firearms and gun ownership is part of our culture here in Wyoming,” Allen said. “So hopefully that doesn’t change.”

The Legislature’s budget session begins Feb. 10. Because Lindholm’s bill is not related to the budget, it would have to win support from two-thirds of the House to even be considered.

CREG: Latest Wyoming Revenue Estimate Shows $48 Million Drop

in Government spending/News/politics
2690

By Bob Geha

Wyoming legislators will have $48 million less to spend over the next two years than originally believed, according to a report issued Friday.

The state’s Consensus Revenue Estimating Group (CREG) submitted a report to the Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee that showed revenues for the state over the next biennium, running from July of 2020 through June of 2022, will drop below levels predicted in October.

The CREG told JAC members the decline was largely due to drops in natural gas prices.

The JAC is meeting to prepare its budget for the biennium for presentation to the Legislature, which opens its budget session on Feb. 10. After all of the state’s agencies are funded, officials believe lawmakers will only have about $20 million to $25 million to finance other projects.

Although the state has reserve funds it can use to pay some operations, those reserves will not last forever and lawmakers will have to take that into account, said JAC member Rep. Tom Walters, R-Casper.

“There’s going to be multiple legislators that have great ideas coming from their neck of the woods and we’ll just have to see how those work out,” he said. “Wyoming is in a good position as we do have some reserves that can be used, but those reserves won’t last forever, so we have to make some hard choices for certain.”

Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, another JAC member, said he believes the Legislature will have to be careful with programs that put an ongoing drain on state coffers.

“Those ongoing expenses of government that we have, we need to be careful where we inflate those and where the needs are, because I really do worry about revenues going into the future,” he said.

As the state adjusts to lower revenues from its energy industry, it might turn more to the tourism and outdoor recreation sectors to make up for declining income, said committee member Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Jackson.

“It really puts the attributes that this state loves and the things that we love about living here and puts it right out front,” he said. “We want to display that to the world. That’s the way we can get people to come, to visit, to spend money, which creates money for the state. It’s a good bet for the state.”

Former Wyoming Governor Matt Mead joins Cheyenne law firm

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Former Wyoming Governor Matt Mead has joined a Cheyenne law firm as a partner, the firm announced Thursday.

Mead, a Republican who served two terms as Wyoming’s governor, has joined the law firm of Hathaway & Kunz.

The firm, in a news release, said Mead would continue his work to diversify Wyoming’s economy by bringing new business and opportunity to the state while providing advice to the firm’s clients on business, energy, natural resources and environmental issues.

“As the Wyoming legal landscape continues to advance on subjects such as energy, technology and business development, I look forward to working with the firm’s clients facing cutting-edge and complex legal issues,” Mead said in the news release. 

“The expansion and diversification of Wyoming’s economy and the success of businesses operating here is of great interest to me. I am excited to work on issues important to Wyoming’s future economic well-being,” he said.

Mead, the grandson of former Wyoming Gov. Cliff Hansen, served as Wyoming’s U.S. attorney from 2001 to 2007. In 2010, he won election to the first of his two terms as governor.

Rick Thompson, a senior partner in Hathaway & Kunz, said Mead’s expertise in the areas of energy, the environment and economic development would make him a valuable addition to the firm.

“In his lengthy tenure of government service to the citizens of Wyoming, Governor Mead gained enormous insight into all facets of natural resources, technology advancement, business development and other opportunities to improve the lives of Wyoming citizens,” Thompson said. “He will be a great fit for this firm and the services we provide.”

Wyo State Representative: America First Means Bringing Troops Home, Not Starting Another ‘Forever War’

in News/politics
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Wyoming State Representative Tyler Lindholm

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

With tensions high in the Middle East, now is the time to increase efforts to bring U.S. troops home, according to a state representative who has been a vocal supporter of ending military involvement in the region.

Following the U.S.-ordered killing of Iranian military commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani on Friday, Iran retaliated with two missile strikes Tuesday on military bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq, but no casualties were reported.

“It’s kind of this tit-for-tat game going back and forth, and the only ones that suffer are the troops,” said Rep. Tyler Lindholm, R-Sundance. “If we’re going to be serious about putting Americans first, we need to start bringing home the troops.”

Lindholm, a U.S. Navy veteran, took his anti-war message to Washington D.C. in November as a leading member the Wyoming branch of Bring Our Troops Home (www.wybringourtroopshome.com). 

The non-profit organization was founded with a goal to end “the Forever Wars and encourage Congress … to support President (Donald) Trump’s plan to withdraw our troops.”

But as the U.S. prepares to send 3,000 additional troops to Iraq amid heightened concerns of a war with Iran, Lindholm said continued military action in the Middle East would only serve to hurt future generations of Americans.

“I do believe these actions are a divergence from Trump’s previous message,” he said. “I liked that Trump was kind of known for not listening to some of his intelligence advisers, but that seems to have changed. Those are the same advisers that got us into this whole quagmire 20 years ago.”

After assassinating Soleimani via drone strike in Baghdad, Iraq, U.S. officials said the strike was meant to prevent an imminent attack on Americans. 

“The current narrative we’re being told is Soleimani operated in Iraq and led terrorist types of organizations,” Lindholm said. “They do seem to have lots of evidence pointing to lots of Americans killed because of Soleimani’s actions, but (in the early 2000s) they also had lots of evidence pointing toward lots of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.”

While some top officials have labeled Soleimani a terrorist for his role in overseeing extremist militia groups’ recruitment and training, Lindholm said the U.S. has a different term for engaging in similar activities.

“When it’s used against us, it becomes terrorism,” he explained. “When we do it, we’re teaching ‘freedom fighters.’ I think it’s a fine line.”

Lindholm said the U.S. has been involved in the funding or training of many militant groups throughout the last several decades.   

“I think it speaks to the larger issue in the U.S.’s current foreign policy of heavy interventionism,” he said. “I’m not saying the U.S. shouldn’t protect our interests, but a lot of what is currently being seen and what we’ve experienced in the last 20 years could arguably be called blowback over our interventionism.”

Going forward, the U.S. should rely more on diplomacy and economic sanctions than military force, Lindholm said.  

“I gotta hope this is over,” he added. “There’s been shown no benefit to the American people from these types of actions in the past or as it currently stands.” 

Recent events deepened the rift between Republicans and Democrats, and in some cases, party members returned to more traditional stances on America at war.

“The anti-war left has suddenly shown up again,” he explained. “A lot of my Republican friends are screaming, ‘Bomb them.’ When has that ever worked, besides losing more American lives?”

Soleimani’s killing and Iran’s retaliation could lead to a bipartisan effort to reduce the executive powers of the Authorization for Use of Military Force set in place in 2001 and used to justify actions throughout the Middle East, including Syria.

“I think think the silver lining to all this is people, left and right, will start to want an end and hopefully work toward it,” Lindholm said.

Since Soleimani’s death, both Rep. Liz Cheney and Sen. John Barrasso issued statements in support of the president and the actions of his administration against Iran.


How the Wyoming Legislature builds the state budget: A primer

in Government spending/News/politics
Legislature
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By Laura Hancock, Cowboy State Daily

On Feb. 10, the 2020 Budget Session of the Wyoming Legislature officially begins, one that could be somber and frustrating — considering Gov. Mark Gordon has told lawmakers that after mandated expenses they only have around $23.5 million to play with.

As in prior budget sessions, the 12 members of the Joint Appropriations Committee, which crafts the state’s two-year spending bill, has met for a good chunk of December, poring over rows of numbers, grilling state agency heads and discussing the needs of the state. 

Most sections of the biennial state budget that lawmakers will pass will go into effect July 1 and end June 30, 2022. Read on to learn more about the JAC and the budgeting process. 

The agencies

The budgeting process starts with the heads of state agencies, which fall under the executive branch, submitting budget requests to the governor budget in the autumn before budget sessions, which the Wyoming Constitution states must occur during even-numbered years.

The governor

Each governor is required to release budget recommendations by Dec. 1 prior to a budget session, per the Constitution.

“What the governor does is he meets with all agencies and listens to their requests,” said John Hastert of Green River, a former Democratic lawmaker who served on JAC for about eight years.

The budget recommendations that the governor prepares for the Legislature show the agency requests and whether he accepts, modifies or rejects each one, Hastert said. 

Last month, Gov. Mark Gordon submitted budget recommendations with the expectation of around $3 billion in revenues from the General Fund — the state’s main bank account — and the Budget Reserve Account, which is akin to an overdraft account for the General Fund. 

Gordon largely recommended the Legislature keep spending low, considering the ongoing slump fossil fuel revenues, which most state leaders do not believe will be reversed any time soon, as the natural resources industry is undergoing fundamental changes. 

Gordon called for significant reduction in capital construction and limits on tapping the rainy day fund – to be used solely for legislatively-mandated educational needs and local governments. 

“We have only $23.5 million in structural (ongoing) funding available toconsider distributing during this biennium to any entity, including the entire executive branch, higher education, the Judicial Branch, and the Legislative Service Office,” Gordon said in his budget recommendations. “Additional spending cuts are on the horizon and appear imperative to keep Wyoming moving forward.”

Budget hearings

During the first week of December, the governor and agency chiefs meet with the JAC and explain budget recommendations and requests.

This year, Gordon met with the JAC on Dec. 9. The agency heads met with the JAC through Dec. 20. 

JAC interviews with agencies are expected to continue into the beginning of January, from Jan. 6-10 and again from Jan. 13-17.

Hastert said the information during the interviews with the agencies is valuable: “They get first-hand information,” he said. 

JAC markup

In the last two weeks in January, JAC markup begins. Lawmakers will start on the first pages of the governor’s budget recommendations and “mark up” the items with their own ideas of what the budget should look like. 

“They start with the governor’s recommendations and it’s either an ‘aye’ vote or ‘no’ vote or modify,” Hastert said. “Most of the time, it’s usually taking more of a cut. It’s just the nature of JAC to try to cut even further.”

The JAC’s version of the budget is the one that will be submitted for review by the Legislature.

Former Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal Portrait Unveiled

in News/politics
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Former Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal has joined fellow past governors in being honored with a portrait to be hung on the wall of the Capitol.

The official portrait of Wyoming’s 31st governor was unveiled in front of a crowd of about 200 people during ceremonies in the Capitol on Friday.

Freudenthal, who served two terms as governor, from 2003 through 2010, was alternately praised and roasted by other officials who attended the event, including former Gov. Matt Mead and U.S. Sen. John Barrasso.

Mead noted that Freudenthal, a Democrat, was hesitant to have his portrait painted by artist Michele Rushworth.

Mead recalled that at one point, Freudenthal said no portrait should be painted of him until after his death.

“I know you’ve said in the past ‘Wait ’til I’m dead,’” Mead said. “And when he said that to me, I said, without thinking, ‘What’s the difference?’”

Freudenthal’s wife, U.S. District Judge Nancy Freudenthal, said she finally convinced her husband to sit for the painting.

“I told him that it would happen one way or another and that he wasn’t getting any better looking,” she said.

Freudenthal thanked members of the crowd, who also included former Gov. Mike Sullivan, for attending the unveiling and urged them to recognize the good that they do.

“We thank the Lord for having given us the opportunity and for having given us you for friends and for having given us this family,” he said. “We would ask that you appreciate what you do. It’s kind of you to come and appreciate what we do. But take stock of yourself. You do wonderful things. Be proud of it.”

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