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Looking ahead: What 2020 will mean for Cowboy State

in Column/Bill Sniffin
2020
2628

By Bill Sniffin, Cowboy State Daily

I can see clearly now – the year 2020 will emerge as one of the most important years in Wyoming’s history as various trends emerge.

Like the perfect score on an eye test, 2020 has the makings of perfect vision when it comes to trying to identify issues important to the state. But wait; there is both excitement and dread. Is this the year for some exciting innovations to catch hold in the state?  Is this the year when our spending excesses catch up with us?

State leaders are looking for some home runs in job development.  Maybe more firearm companies will move here. Can we slow down the devastating blows to the fossil fuel industry, especially for coal?

The Legislature meets for its biennial budget session on Feb. 10 and you can bet some hellfire rhetoric will be heard about how “robbing our rainy day fund” is driving the state to the poor house.

Yet the facts will show we have over $1 billion in that fund and some $20 billion in other funds stashed in various coffee cans from the permanent mineral trust fund.  Going broke?  Compared to other states, Wyoming is a beacon of good financial governance.

Gov. Mark Gordon is not one of the shrill voices as he suggests austerity will be with us for a while. Rather than across the board cuts, he likes each agency head to adjust his or her budget in ways that make sense to it and to the state.  Tough decisions are expected to be made and some folks will lose their jobs. 

I am looking forward to covering the Legislature in its brand new remodeled digs.  State Sen. Eli Bebout reminded me that I was wrong in my last column about how much was spent on the remodeling. The correct number is $301 million, or $500 for each man, woman, and child in the state. By the looks of the place, the future will show that it was a good investment.

Looking ahead to 2020, I hope the statues of Esther Hobart Morris and Chief Washakie are placed back outside by the entrance of the building, where they belong.

Some 300 miles northwest of Cheyenne, the huge National Museum of Military Vehicles in Dubois will open in May.  Dan Starks has created Wyoming’s newest great museum.  Folks, this is going to be a treat. You have no idea just how big and how impressive this museum is going to be. It is a game changer for tourism in the western part of the state.

Commercial air service made some big changes when Sheridan, Riverton, Gillette, and Rock Springs all became aligned with United-SkyWest.  We have seen some amazing experiments in state and federally subsidized air service in these communities over the past ten years.  This new plan should be helpful for everyone.

The national election in 2020 will have ramifications in Wyoming. A Donald Trump reelection could provide an economic boost through his support of fossil fuels and his reducing anti-fossil fuel policies from taking effect. Trump’s efforts to improve Ag trade with China would be welcome, too.

In Wyoming, we will elect a new U. S. Senator. The assumption is that current U. S. Rep. Liz Cheney will run.  Former U. S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis is already running hard.  Former Gov. Matt Mead says he is not and Jackson GOP Megadonor Foster Friess says he is weighing his options.

If Liz Cheney moves up to the Senate race, the race for her House seat could be one of the all-time donnybrooks in Wyoming election history.  For political observers, this will be an exciting year in Wyoming.

Two big important jobs will be filled in 2020. The University of Wyoming will hire a new president after trustees did not renew Laurie Nichols contract in 2019.  Also, the Wyoming Business Council will be seeking a replacement for Shawn Reese.

The move toward more transparency (like 2020 vision?) will soon be getting one of its first big tests.  State Sen. Tom James (R-Rock Springs), has requested a list of every Wyoming school employee and his or her salary as he goes into the Legislative budget session.  Lots of folks are complaining and do not want that information out.

Some years ago, the Casper Star Tribune annually published a list of the highest paid state employees showing his or her wages. This request by Sen. James opens the door for some media outlet to also disseminate the list. 

Gov. Gordon and State Auditor Kristi Racines have both showed initiative when it comes to transparency. Will 2020 be the most open year yet?  Let’s hope so.

I am a big fan of the Rachel’s Challenge program, which works with schools to prevent bullying, teen suicides, and school shootings. It looks like 2020 will be a banner year in Wyoming as more schools sign up for the program.

There will be a push to have Wyoming join the federal Medicaid program, which will save the Cowboy State millions of dollars and provide needed medical service to many needy people.  Also on the medical front, there will be efforts to have medical facilities be required to publish their “cash/self-pay” prices for procedures and medical drugs.

Gov. Gordon is also leading an effort in 2020 to have the Public Service Commission investigate Rocky Mountain Power’s new plan, which will close most of its coal-fired power plants sooner than expected. 

Gordon is also working hard to open some ports somewhere where Wyoming coal can be shipped overseas.  Again with a Trump administration, there is promise for this development in 2020.

Also on the energy front will be the development of thousands of new giant windmills, as we see the state slowly transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources in 2020.  The state’s biggest solar project is also due to be expanded, north of Interstate 80 in SW Wyoming.

Figuring out a way to pay for all the maintenance on Interstate 80 will see the beginnings of exploring a tolling system.  Meanwhile, it is hoped that Wyoming drivers pay better attention and fasten their seat belts more in 2020. The 2019 year was deadly on the state’s highways.

We can’t write a column like this without mentioning musical superstar Kanye West and what he is doing in Park County. Now that will be an interesting story in 2020 as he continues to expand his businesses there.

Let’s hope that with a year named 2020, we can maintain a clear vision for Wyoming’s future that improves the lives of its 580,000 citizens.

Happy New Year!

Check out additional columns at www.billsniffin.com. He has published six books.  His coffee table book series has sold 34,000 copies. You can find more stories by Bill Sniffin by going to CowboyStateDaily.com.

Deadly highways, new capitol, coal collapse, new governor & UW president forced out

in Column/Bill Sniffin
Cowboy State 2019
2596

By Bill Sniffin, My Wyoming columnist

The year 2019 will go into the Cowboy State’s history books for a great many reasons – many of them not very pretty.

One big example was Wyoming’s normally benign highways turned deadly in 2019, as a nearly all-time record was set for people killed in traffic accidents.

As of this Dec. 15, some 142 people had died compared to 111 for the entire year of 2018. And getting close to previous all-time record of 150 set in 2014.

Worst economic news came with the bankruptcies of coal companies and the human toll that resulted from them.

In Gillette, companies are still sorting out the aftermath of the Blackjewel companies’ financial demise.  Two huge mines, the Belle Ayr and the Eagle Butte, were shut down by that financial fiasco by the national coal company giant, idling 600 workers.

On the bright side, it looks like many of the Gillette area jobs will be preserved for the near future.

A worse situation is in the small towns of Kemmerer and Diamondville, both a coal mine and a power plant are in the process of being shut down, leaving 300 workers idled. And even long time retirement benefits are threatened because of the bankruptcy actions.

On a bigger statewide picture, the Rocky Mountain Power Co. says it will be closing down giant power plants in Rock Springs, Glenrock, and Gillette sooner than previously expected. 

The demise of the fossil fuel industry both nationally and locally could be welcome news to folks who believe that industry causes climate change, but the harsh reality to Wyoming citizens is that this will be a cold, hard reality check to thousands of people relying on paychecks from that industry.

The Donald Trump presidency has seen the elimination of some onerous regulations such as one rule that resulted in a fine to a Wyoming rancher of millions of dollars for building a small pond. That rule was eliminated and the rancher was saved.  

Bad news hit the ag community when a major canal collapsed near Torrington during prime irrigation season.  High summer temperatures almost ruined crops before repairs were made and the water flowed again to 488 producers in two states.

As of the country’s most windy state, the good news is that thousands of huge turbines continued to be developed in 2019.  Plus there are more on the drawing boards. 

Squabbles over how, or whether, to tax these whirling behemoths will be a continual bone of contention going forward.

The year saw the installation of a new governor, Mark Gordon, who is arguably the most prepared person for the job we have seen in the last 50 years.  He had been the State Treasurer.

Our biggest state institution, the University of Wyoming, sustained a big shock when the trustees failed to renew the contract of President Laurie Nichols. It was all done in secret; no reasons were ever given. She has moved on to Black Hills State in Spearfish and UW is on the hunt for a new president. Lots of controversy swirled around that situation, including efforts by state media to learn the rationale behind the dismissal, but at this time, still no answers have been forthcoming.

In 2019, Wyoming citizens saw their state capitol building turned into a treasure. After fours years and $337 million ($581 for every man, woman, and child in the state), this amazing edifice opened in mid-summer to rave reviews. The facility rivals any museum or attraction in the state, according to former Thermopolis publisher Pat Schmidt, who now lives in Cheyenne.

Longtime geologist Ron Baugh of Casper has a dim view of our energy future: “The first thing that comes to mind about the high (low) points of the last year is the continued demise of the coal industry and the continued shrinking of Wyoming’s tax base,” he says. “This will have a continued negative impact on every person, town and county in the State. If not felt individually, it has and will continue to be felt collectively.” 

“I believe that Wyoming is on the brink of major changes the likes of which we old timers have not seen in our lifetimes. I hope that Wyoming can make the changes and still be Wyoming,” he concludes. 

Also in 2019, moves were made whereby the state’s seven community colleges can start offering four-year degrees in some fields. This was heralded by Brad Tyndall, the president of Central Wyoming College in Riverton.

Wyoming was founded because of the railroads. In 2019 we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the construction of the rails across the country. Wyoming and the nation celebrated the driving of the golden spike in Promontory Summit in Utah Territory on May 10, 1869.

 In commemoration of that, the biggest steam locomotive ever, the newly-restored #1404 Big Boy, left Cheyenne and traveled west and back again to celebrate the event, delighting crowds wherever it went.

And perhaps the biggest surprise of the year was Kanye West adopting Wyoming as his new home. The musical superstar bought ranches near Cody and Greybull and is planning on moving some of his business interests to the Cowboy State.

And finally, we all celebrated the 150th anniversary of Wyoming giving women the right to vote.  What a wonderful milestone that only Wyomingites can celebrate! It can be argued about the why and how it came into being way back when in 1869, but the fact remains it happened here first and it was real.

Next: Looking ahead to 2020.

Check out additional columns at www.billsniffin.com. He has published six books.  His coffee table book series has sold 34,000 copies. You can find more stories by Bill Sniffin by going to CowboyStateDaily.com.

In Brief: Bill to encourage sale of old power plants clears House

in Energy/News
Pile of coal, ALT=Wyoming coal exports
1028

By Cowboy State Daily

A measure designed to encourage utilities to sell aging coal-fired power plants rather than close them was approved by the House on Tuesday.

Representatives voted 50-8 in favor of SF 159, which would authorize the use of regulations to encourage companies like Rocky Mountain Power to sell old power plants.

The measure is seen as a way to keep aging coal-fired plants in operation —and employing workers — rather than having them closed down by their owners. Among other things, the bill would allow the state to encourage power utilities to buy energy produced by the older power plants. The bill would also reduce the amount of the cost utilities could pass on to their customers for the construction of new power plants if old power plants were simply closed.

The bill now heads to the Senate for a review of amendments added in the House.

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