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Land deal

Cat Urbigkit: Governor Rejects Legislative Oversight of Land Deal, But Plows Ahead

in Cat Urbigkit/Column
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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

In his final actions on bills passed by the Wyoming Legislature in its 2020 session, on Friday afternoon Governor Mark Gordon vetoed Senate File 138, the bill laying out the process for state officials to consider purchasing 1 million acres of land in southern Wyoming, along with 4 million acres of mineral rights, from Occidental Petroleum.

Oh, in this current national crisis, this global pandemic, where the United States Congress just passed the largest spending bill in our country’s history, with more than 3 million Americans filing for unemployment, with oil prices in the tank at an 18-year low, Gordon has decided now might not be the time to spend millions, or billions, of state reserves to eliminate a million acres of private property, you ask? Nope.

Gordon has decided the legislature provided too much baggage in the bill, so he’ll go forth on his own.

In his letter rejecting the bill, Gordon said: “I do not take this action lightly. Members of the Legislature and my office worked tirelessly crafting a process to provide the ability to conduct due diligence on the land and assets being offered for sale to the State of Wyoming. I appreciate everyone’s efforts.”

Here’s the zinger: “Unfortunately, owing to the rapid changes of the waning hours of the session, the final bill was flawed. The original concept of the legislation was to establish a process to conduct due diligence and provide the funding to do so, as well as bless the authority to enter into a transaction of this magnitude. The end result is a vehicle so heavily laden with legislative baggage that the ability to conduct thorough and appropriate due diligence takes a back seat to mandated reports and recommendations.”

So Gordon rejected the bill because it provided too much legislative oversight for what could be the largest government purchase of land since the United States purchased Alaska. No doubt the final bill was flawed, but my view of its faults differ from the governor’s view of its faults. Gordon laments the “legislative baggage” in the bill, while I complain that it provided too much power to the State Loan and Investment Board by allowing it “to take all actions the board deems necessary to sell, transfer or otherwise dispose of” the property after the deal concluded.

Gordon’s letter notes that the availability of funding to conduct due diligence on the deal “is in question.” He wrote, “The failure to enact a Capital Construction measure inadvertently squeezes the State Building Commission Contingency Account to the point where existing obligations and priorities are in direct competition for money to pay for the cost of due diligence.”

Gordon also took issue with legislative interference in decision-making on the deal, which he views as executive branch function. Gordon maintains that the final bill “overreaches in its grant of authority to the legislative branch.”

“Unfortunately, I am left with an all or nothing solution,” Gordon wrote, thus vetoing the bill.

Gordon continued to pledge his commitment “that we will continue to find ways to take steps to explore this opportunity.”

Gordon’s letter states that he will work with the SLIB and will report to the legislature any progress made, and commits to providing the basics of their findings to the legislature. Gordon also commits to honor all the requirements for public comment and public involvement outlined in the vetoed bill, and perhaps even exceed the amounts called for in the bill.

Gordon closes the veto letter with a statement that he believes he has established a reasonable step-by-step process allowing for pre-purchase activities. He wrote: “Should an agreement in principle be reached, the Legislature will have the opportunity to review. It is the Legislature’s role to decide whether and how to fund a potential purchase based on the Agreement in Principle.”

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.

Gordon Vetoes Million-Acre Land Purchase Bill

in Uncategorized
3656

By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A bill that would have laid out the process for evaluating the state’s possible purchase of 1 million acres of land in southern Wyoming was vetoed Friday by Gov. Mark Gordon.

Gordon vetoed Senate File 138, one of several measures proposed during the Legislature’s recent budget session to allow the possible purchase of the land from Occidental Petroleum.

The bill would have called for the State Land and Investment Board, made up of the state’s top five elected officials, to study the possible sale and report back to the Legislature, which would decide how and whether to finance the purchase.

Gordon, in his veto letter, said the final version of the bill imposed too many requirements for reports by the executive branch to the Legislature.

“The end result is a vehicle so heavily laden with legislative baggage that the ability to conduct thorough and appropriate due diligence takes a back seat to mandated reports and recommendations,” he wrote.

As written, the bill also raises concerns about the appropriate roles of the legislative and executive branch in such investments, Gordon said.

“In particular as ultimately passed, the act contemplates giving final decision making authority over an executive branch function to the legislative branch,” he wrote. “While there is a role for both branches of government in a transaction such as this, we must be ever mindful that each role must be exercised in the proper manner and at the proper time in the process.”

Gordon said the executive branch will continue its efforts to evaluate the purchase and will report any progress to the Legislature. He also committed to honoring all the requirements for public comment and public involvement in the purchase that were outlined in the bill.

Gordon thanked the legislators who worked with him to draft the legislation in its original form.

“Members of the Legislature and my office worked tirelessly crafting a process to provide the ability to conduct due diligence on the land and assets being offered for sale to the State of Wyoming,” he wrote. “I appreciate everyone’s efforts.”

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Cat Urbigkit: State Will Hear From Public on Land Deal

in Cat Urbigkit/Column/Range Writing
SONY DSC
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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

Last week the Wyoming Legislature adopted revisions to two draft bills that allow state officials to move forward in pursuing a huge land purchase involving 1 million acres of surface and 4 million acres of mineral rights in the checkerboard of southern Wyoming. The properties at issue are the former Anadarko assets owned by Occidental Petroleum.

The major amendments to the bills now require some level of public comment, as well as an affirmative vote of the legislature before the deal could be finalized. There are still more questions about the proposal than answers, and state officials are providing few specifics. Changes have been made to the bills that require more specifics – but the details won’t be revealed until after the legislature gives the state’s top elected officials the go-ahead to conduct its due diligence on the possible land purchase.

Public Input

When it comes to public comment, provisions of the two bills differ in specifics. Senator Cale Case (R-Fremont) amended the Senate bill (Senate File 138) requiring that when state officials present their report and recommendations on moving forward with the land purchase to the legislature, the State Loan and Investment Board (SLIB) will immediately “make available to the public on its website the details of the purchase including the locations of the assets, the purchase price, the funding source for the purchase, the projected costs to manage the land and projected revenue streams from the assets purchased.”

Case’s amendment also requires SLIB to “establish an open public comment period to review the details of the proposed purchase, during which members of the public may submit written comments electronically, by mail or both.”

The bill also requires SLIB to hold at least one informational public hearing within a geographic area in Wyoming that would be affected by the proposed purchase, and that public testimony be taken at such a hearing.

The House bill (House Bill 249) only requires SLIB to hold at least “one public meeting in any county where the land to be purchased is located to gather input prior to the purchase.” This amendment was sponsored by Stan Blake (D-Sweetwater), John Freeman (D-Sweetwater), Albert Sommers (R-Sublette), and Clark Stith (R-Sweetwater).

Other Differences

The bills differ in substantive ways:

The Senate bill provides for two members of the house and two members of the senate to act as liaisons to SLB as it investigates the deal; the House version provides for three members from each chamber.

The Senate bill allows the state to take money from the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account (LSRA); the House bill deleted this provision and instead allows the state to issue special revenue bonds to fund the deal.

Both bills allow the state to dip into the permanent Wyoming mineral trust fund, the common school account, and other sources, to fund the deal. While the House bill allows the state to aggregate its money from these varied accounts to make the purchase, it also requires that each funding source used “shall acquire separate assets that are segregated from assets of the other funding sources used.”

The Senate bill was amended to allow SLIB to accept “federal grants and other contributions, grants, gifts, bequests and donations from any source” to complete the deal. State officials have been mum as to what kind of gift they may be negotiating, and what strings may be attached to such a gift.

Both bills would establish a payment in lieu of taxes program for counties affected by the loss of taxation if the deal is passed (since the land would convert from private property to government property).

Management

How the land would be managed is another issue. The Senate bill calls for the board of land commissioners to manage all surface and mineral interest purchased, with SLIB to manage the “other” assets “in accordance with its management of other state investments.”

The House bill provides for the state land board to manage all the “surface, subsurface and mineral interests,” while SLIB manages “other” purchased assets (neither bill states what those “other” assets are), and allows for the state to retain a manager for the properties, and that “all state laws governing the management of state lands shall be applicable.”

The House bill includes other specific provisions that the Senate bill lacks:

• No royalty payable to the state can be reduced from the rate in existence at the date of the deal; and

• No grazing lease or permit in existence when the deal is made can be modified in any manner without the consent of the lessee or permit holder.

Assets Outside Wyoming

The Senate bill allows the state board of land commissioners to determine whether it should sale any acquired properties that are located outside Wyoming and gives the board the authority to sell those assets. The House bill requires SLIB to report to the legislature whether any of the purchased property in other states “should be reviewed by the board of land commissioners for immediate or subsequent sale or exchange.”

What’s Next

Both bills have passed through their houses of origin and will now be considered by the other chamber. SF138 will be considered in the House, and HB249 will be considered in the Senate. You can follow the action here.

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.

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