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Senator Ogden Driskill

Driskill Apologizes For Bumping Into Sen. James; Says It Was An Accident

in News/Legislature
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By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily 

A state Senate leader said Wednesday what had been reported as an altercation with another legislator was actually an accident.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, publicly apologized to Sen. Tom James, R-Green River, who said he had been involved in an “incident” Tuesday with Driskill.

“I had no intent to cause any harm, was just clumsy,” Driskill said during comments to the Senate on Wednesday afternoon.

James had confirmed to Cowboy State Daily that Tuesday evening after the Senate’s budget session had concluded for the day, he and Driskill were involved in an incident.  

James did not clarify what happened, but said he was waiting to receive video footage from floor proceeds at the time, and would comment further after that.  

The event may have been part of Wyoming Highway Patrol security footage of the session, but it was not part of the video of the proceedings livestreamed to the public via YouTube.  

Driskill told the Senate he owed its members an apology, adding he bumped into James by accident.

“Yesterday when I was trying to get out of the way of a couple of our staff members in front, my bad leg led me to trip into you,” he said. “I know you’re offended by the bump into you. And I’ve apologized to James, and it’s from the bottom of my heart. 

“And now I apologize to the body; I’m sorry for any problems I’ve caused or any heartache,” he continued. “For all of you, this body needs to run in harmony and I’m sincerely sorry if I’ve caused discord between any members or any people.”  

Driskill’s voice thickened slightly. “I’m sorry Tom – Senator James.”  

James told Cowboy State Daily he had no comment on the apology.

Gun Bill, Tension 

Just before the reported incident, senators approved the initial review of a gun rights bill sponsored by Senate Vice President Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, that Hicks called “constitutionally sound.” The bill would prohibit Wyoming government agencies from using state resources to enforce federal gun restrictions that are seen as an improper infringement on Second Amendment rights. 

Earlier that day in the Senate Corporations, Elections, and Political Subdivisions Committee, James and Driskill had sparred over a proposed budget amendment to one of James’ bills.  

James, as a guest speaker, had presented his bill Senate File 50 to the committee, which Driskill chairs.  

SF 50 would establish a hotline for individuals hoping to report government fraud or misuse of resources. It also would protect whistleblowers from employment ramifications from reporting government misdeeds.  

In an sharp exchange, Driskill pressed James multiple times to ascribe a financial cost to his bill. Eventually, James estimated it would cost no more than $10,000.  

“That solves it,” answered Driskill.  

But action on the bill was postponed until Thursday, because both the House and Senate floor sessions were about to start.

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Bouchard Upset At Sen. Driskill For Criticism; Driskill Calls Bouchard “Predator”

in News/politics
10990

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne, fired back at one of his colleagues who publicly criticized him for his announcement last week that as an 18-year-old in the 1980s, he impregnated and then married a 14-year-old girl.

In his latest Facebook video, Bouchard attacked Major Floor Leader Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, for his comments to the London Daily Mail newspaper.

“[Ogden Driskill] is the same guy that attacked me during my re-election, the same guy who jumped in with a whole host of people endorsing my opponent,” Bouchard said.

“He should be looking at all the stuff he’s done to line his pockets, all the things that benefit him as a senator,” Bouchard alleged without mentioning anything specific.

Driskill’s comments came in response to revelations that while living in Florida, Bouchard, then 18, had a relationship with and impregnated a 14-year-old girl. The two later married.

Driskill said the incident may force Bouchard to withdraw from his Republican primary challenge of U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney.

“The lack of transparency he has shown is terrible,” Driskill told the outlet. “I’m not sure he should be running for Congress.”

In his 14-minute Facebook video response, Bouchard called Driskill “scum” and attacked him for talking with the Daily Mail about something that happened nearly 40 years ago.

“Ogden Driskill could have stayed out of this fight,” he said.

Sen. Driskill told Cowboy State Daily that he spoke publicly about the senator because Bouchard’s revelation was so egregious.

“This isn’t the type of person I want in Congress to represent me,” Driskill said.

Calling Bouchard a “predator”, Driskill said there is a “huge difference” between a high school student dating a younger peer and a high school dropout who had a job and was “hanging out with 13 and 14-year-olds”.

“That was not acceptable back then,” he said. “In fact, where I’m from you took your life in your own hands if you went out to date junior high girls.”

Driskill said Bouchard’s “lack of character” should be enough to disqualify him in the eyes of voters for the congressional race. If not, Driskill said Bouchard’s legislative record says it all.

Of the 20 bills Bouchard has introduced none of them have become law, Driskill said.

“Bouchard bills are 0 – 20. True leadership,” he said sarcastically.

Bouchard’s announcement of the teenage relationship and subsequent marriage became international news on Thursday when he published the tell-all video on Facebook. He said he did it because a British news outlet was preparing to release a report about the incident.

Bouchard said the fact the incident had been revived was an example of “dirty politics” and framed the relationship as a teenage romance.

“So bottom line…two teenagers, girl gets pregnant, you’ve heard this story before,” Bouchard said in last week’s video. “She was younger than me. So it’s like the Romeo and Juliet story.”

That analogy did not set well with Kristen Schwartz, the executive director of Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, who called it “dangerous and wrong.”

“Laws exist to protect young people involved in these situations,” Schwartz told The Associated Press. “There’s a reason we have laws against sexual abuse of a minor and it’s because the brain of a 14-year-old is not developed enough to make mature decisions about sex and sexuality.”“

“Any language that would minimize things that are a crime is harmful. It’s harmful to survivors and it’s harmful to our greater community,” she added.

At the time, the two were able to marry because Florida law allowed marriage at any age if a pregnancy was involved and a parent consented. They were divorced about three years later, and the woman ultimately committed suicide in 1990.

Bouchard’s son, Tony Raymond Bouchard, is currently jailed at the Bob Wiley Detention Facility in Visalia, California, on multiple charges, including sodomy by use of force, sexual penetration by foreign object and false imprisonment by violence. He has been incarcerated since 2018, but hasn’t been officially convicted of the aforementioned charges.

Bouchard announced his run for Congress in January, not long after U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney voted to impeach former President Donald Trump for the role he allegedly played in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

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Senator Calls Wyoming’s F+ in Social Distancing Study “Bunk”

in News/Coronavirus
4007

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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Tracking the mobility of Wyomingites using cellphone data isn’t an accurate portrayal of the state’s efforts to “flatten the curve,” a state senator said. 

Unacast, a mobility mapping company, rated Wyomingites among the worst in the nation (awarding it an F+) for staying home during the pandemic, but Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, said the state’s open spaces make such a study not credible.

“The whole thing is complete bunk if you ask me,” Driskill said. “We have ranchers who travel as much as 40 to 50 miles a day on their own property just to feed their animals.”

Using technology originally designed to grant insight about where people were attending live music concerts, Unacast reported that as of April 5, residents reduced their travel distances by less than 25% since coronavirus reached the United States. The company also found that the state’s residents cut their trips to non-essential locations by 55% to 60% during the same period. The company updates its rankings daily and categorizes essential travel as trips to the grocery store, pharmacy and pet supply stores.

Wyoming’s overall Unacast rank improved from an F to C-minus during the course of the last two weeks, due largely to the addition of a new measurement on how likely it was for residents to encounter other people. Wyoming’s “encounter density” dropped by 98% from late February.

But, the state remains poorest ranked in the nation for its overall social distancing, although some counties ranked significantly better than others..

Teton County, which installed travel restrictions early on, ranked highest with an A for decreased average distance traveled. Every county in the state received an “A” for reducing encounters between people. View the full report: www.unacast.com.

Google’s COVID-19 Community Mobility Report reflected similar decreases in mobility on data collected through March 29. Using insights based on data from users who have opted-in to location history for their Google Account, the report found Wyoming users’ trips to retail and recreation destinations declined about 37% from pre-coronavirus levels, but travel to parks — including city parks and national parks — increased by 29%. Travel to workplaces decreased by 29% from base line, but travel to residential destinations increased by 8%.  

View the full report:

Driskill said data doesn’t tell the whole story. Wyoming’s rural nature means many people have to travel long distances for necessities, such as food and healthcare. In some cases in Crook County where Driskill lives, the closest hospital is 40 miles away and most of his neighbors have to travel across state lines to access major grocery stores such as Walmart, he explained.

“The truth is in the pudding,” Driskill said. “The spread is slow in Wyoming. We’ve had no deaths, and all our hospitals have capacity. I think we’re doing good.”

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Crook County Weathers First COVID-19 Case, Braces For More

in News/Coronavirus
3966

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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

As COVID-19 spreads to Crook County in Wyoming’s northeastern corner, rural living and proactive behavior could slow the virus, but at a high cost to the local economy, a state senator said.

“We had our first confirmed case pop up on Sunday,” said Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower. “But, we think the patient’s whole family is infected. There’s certainly more cases than we know about. We’ll continue see cases go up.” 

Driskill’s family owns the KOA campground near Devils Tower and he said he’s issued reservation refunds totaling tens of thousands of dollars so far.

“It’s already hurting our tourism economy and with oil prices the way they are and cattle prices taking a huge hit, we’re looking at hard times ahead,” Driskill explained.

Despite the bad news, he said residents are keeping their chins up and following Gov. Mark Gordon’s stay-at-home advisory.

“I think we were all prepared that it could happen at some point,” he said.

Driskill credited local governments’ and businesses’ quick and proactive response to the virus for the county’s low infection rate. In mid-March, the Crook County Board of County Commissioners closed the county courthouse to the public as a preventive measure.

“Most of the businesses were exceptionally careful before the shutdown,” Driskill said. “I think everybody realized the potential threat of it, and as far as I can see, Crook County has taken this pretty seriously.” 

With only one hospital and one respirator in the county, however, he said residents could be in a bind if the virus spreads too fast. Additionally, many people travel to Montana or South Dakota for health care and groceries, which could be problematic as states like Montana close their hospitals to out-of-state traffic, Driskill said. 

“South Dakota closed down weeks after we did, and a lot of (Crook County) business happens there, so that’s concerning,” he said, explaining the lack of closures in South Dakota could heighten the risk to Wyoming residents doing essential shopping in nearby Spearfish.

With just more than 7,400 people spread across approximately 2,900 square miles, Crook County residents live in mostly rural settings, which are well-suited for long periods of isolation, Driskill said.

“I think our rural nature really helped slow the spread,” he added. “Most of these people don’t go into town but a couple times a month, anyway.”  

However, many residents travel at least 30 miles to visit a hospital, which could reduce the likelihood of an infected person seeking testing or medical treatment in the early stages of the virus.

“I don’t think anyone is going to the hospital for a slight cough,” Driskill said. “Most are waiting until it gets serious.”

As the local economy declines, he said local governments might need to reduce services as relief funding from the state is unlikely. 

“This doesn’t bode well for the cities and county in the next year,” Driskill said. “The state is not going to have the funding to help the county. The preliminary figures are saying this could impact state revenue by as much as $800 million.”

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Increased timber harvest could play role in diversified approach to wildfire prevention

in News
wildfires
2485

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

As catastrophic wildfires become more frequent across the West, people are looking for a single culprit, but it’s not that simple, Wyoming State Forester Bill Crapser said.

“People like to blame Smokey the Bear — that we extinguished every fire for 100 years. People like to blame lack of management from the U.S. Forest Service, saying they let our forests get into an unhealthy state. People like to blame climate change and the list goes on,” Crapser said. “Like everything, the easiest thing is to blame a single villain, but the reality is it’s probably all of that.”

A series of wildland fires racing across California caught the nation’s attention in October. 

The New York Times reported the fire threatened 90,000 buildings. 

CNBC reported 10 of the Golden State’s worst fires occurred in the last decade. 

But it was a viral “Smithsonian” magazine article about goats that caught the eye of Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower.

“Goats — grazing goats — saved the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in California,” Driskill said. “This whole country was sheep and goat country once, but nobody grazes anymore.” 

Additionally, he said reductions in timber removal allowed by federal agencies overseeing Wyoming’s public lands could put the state at risk of suffering California’s fate.

“There’s no doubt we’re in a dry cycle and fires are affected by climate change,” Driskill said. “But this was not an earth-shattering drought year in California. Our (U.S.) Forest Service logs less and less, and as they do, we’ll have larger and larger fires.”

State-owned lands

While no forest is fireproof, a healthy forest is less likely to suffer catastrophic fire damage, Crapser said.

Unlike the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and Forest Service, Crapser’s Forestry Division is a state agency.

Counting seasonal firefighters, the division has about 50 employees to cover approximately 280,000 forested acres of state-owned lands. 

A significant portion of managing forest health is targeted timber harvests, which are usually handled by private contractors, Crapser said.

“We try to do a lot of thinning to reduce the basal area — the square foot of tree cover per acre,” he explained. “That promotes wood growth, helps grasses for grazing and makes the stands more fire resistant.” 

While the division promotes the use of grazing to manage fine fuels when consulting with private land owners, cities and counties, Crapser said it does not oversee grazing on state lands.

Yellowstone

Grazing isn’t a part of the Yellowstone National Park fire management plan, but the park is warming up to the idea of using private contractors for timber management, said John Cataldo, Yellowstone’s Fire and Aviation Management officer.

“This year, we started using a masticator — it’s got a drum head that basically mulches trees up to 6-8 inches in diameter,” Cataldo said. “We were able to treat about 60 acres around the government area in West Yellowstone (Montana). That’s going to buy us about 15 years of defensibility around that community.”

By mulching smaller fuels, the masticator creates a fuel break, which could cause a crown fire in the tops of trees — widely considered the hardest fire behavior to control — to drop down to the ground where fire crews can battle the blaze.

For about $35,000 and a few months of work, the masticator completed a timber management project that could’ve taken park staff years to complete with a much higher price tag, Cataldo said. 

Masticators are in high demand throughout the National Park Service, but the agency only has one operator and a couple of machines in the region. So Yellowstone is looking to private industry for future mulching efforts.

“This year and future years as these mastication treatments expand, we’ll be going to contracts,” Cataldo said, explaining the park has not previously used private contractors for timber management outside of emergency response. “We’ve used private industry when a fire is bearing down on a community, but these are proactive, pre-planned projects.”

Private industry

In recent years, the Forest Service has ramped up timber harvest projects, but nowhere near to the levels seen prior to the 1990s, said Ben Wudtke, executive director of the Intermountain Forest Association. 

The association is a collective of private industry leaders advocating for forest management, in part, by way of timber harvests.

“During the ‘90s, we had an administration that wanted to reduce timber harvest, and it did,” Wudtke said. “The Forest Service used to harvest 12 billion board feet annually, and that dropped to 2 billion board feet.”

Under the current administration, he said the Forest Service is allowing the harvest of about 4 billion board feet a year, but 30 years later, the damage to the logging industry was done.

Driskill said, “Look around, we hardly have any sawmills around the state anymore.”

According to Crapser, about nine mid-sized sawmills operated in Wyoming prior to the harvest reduction. 

Now, there are three.    

Wudtke said the federal government’s increased interest in timber harvesting is largely due to public outcry.

“A lot of that is seeing first-hand what happens when we’re not out there working together with these agencies to take care of these lands,” he said. “We have things like catastrophic pine beetle epidemics. We have stand- and forest-replacing wildfires. We have houses and lives being lost.”

Forest management requires human intervention, Wudtke said. 

“If we don’t, mother nature will,” he added. “And we don’t always like how she goes about it.”

Mounds of data exist in support of forest management through timber harvest, Wudtke said, but preventing future catastrophic wildfires in Wyoming isn’t a one-step solution.

“I’m not sure I’d put my finger on one thing and say if they change this, it would fix things,” Wudtke said. “It’s going to take a lot of work in a lot of areas from both government agencies and the public.”

Medicine Bow

In Medicine Bow National Forest, the Forest Service uses both targeted grazing and timber management projects as preventive measures against wildfire, Forest Service spokesman Aaron Voos said.

“We just finished a vegetation project in the Lake Owen area, and we’re getting ready to start some work in the Rob Roy area as well as Fox Park,” Voos explained. “Some of it was timber sales, some was working with public utilities around water sheds to protect from impact of wildfire as well as opening access to recreation areas.”

Voos said he could only speak to Forest Service practices on the Medicine Bow National Forest, Routt National Forest and Thunder Basin National Grassland. As to the federal agency’s historic timber management practices, Voos said he could only discuss what he personally observed during his time employed.

“What I’ve observed on the Medicine Bow and Routt is we are responding to changing forest conditions,” Voos said. “That hasn’t always been the case, largely because we’ve never seen a beetle infestation of this size before.”

The Forest Service is working on the Medicine Bow Landscape Vegetation Analysis project, dubbed LaVA, through the National Environmental Policy Act process. Over the next 10 to 15 years, the project is slated to treat up to 360,000 acres of beetle-kill affected areas in the national forest with a variety of methods, including private contractors.  

“Right now, we are very fortunate there is still a market for a certain amount of the beetle-killed timber that is still standing and still available,” Voos said. 

Medicine Bow also uses grazing allotments to manage fine fuels where fires can spread wide and fast. 

“There’s constant analyzing of those grazing allotments, and it is impacted by the potential for wildfire,” Voos said.

Even with numerous federal and state projects in play statewide, Crapser said Wyoming is on course to experience increasingly disastrous wildfire seasons.

“We’re probably going to see more fires in the future and rising costs of battling fires,” he said. “We’re also seeing a lot more people in the urban-wildland interface, and that creates a lot challenges for wildfire management.”

Gambling is booming under the radar, hurting players, state coffers

in News/Business
gambling
2329

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Traditionally, Wyoming takes a conservative stance against the gambling industry, but technological innovations and legal gray areas are moving the state closer to its Wild West roots, a state senator said.

“We really don’t know what’s there, and it varies county to county and town to town,” said Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower. “You may have a poker game in one town, and the next town over, it isn’t allowed.”

The overview of gambling in Wyoming is further muddied by “skill games,” which are becoming increasingly popular barroom additions across the state.

“We had so-called skill games or gray games come in on what they saw as a crack in the law regarding skill games,” Driskill said. “At this point, there’s probably between 500 to 1,000 of these machines out there that at some point in the past would’ve been deemed illegal.”

A member of the Legislature’s Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee, Driskill is drafting a bill that would transform the state’s Pari-Mutuel Commission, which currently oversees horse racing and historic horse race gambling ventures, into the Wyoming Gaming Commission, which would oversee gambling on a broader spectrum.

“The attempt at the commission and the new bill are not attempts to expand gaming in Wyoming, merely to define what’s already there,” Driskill said. “It would also create a model that anyone who is gaming in Wyoming would need a permit or a license, so the state knew where and what gaming is occurring.”

Mike Moser, executive director of the Wyoming State Liquor Association, said he’s lobbied for both the alcohol and gaming industries throughout the years, and Wyoming could benefit from an oversight committee.

“There’s nothing keeping bad operators from coming in and setting up shop right now,” Moser explained. “(The Liquor Association) is in a highly regulated industry, and we appreciate oversight, because we serve a product that provides some wonderful benefits when consumed in moderation, much like the gaming industry.”

Many of the skill games currently operating in the state are located in places that serve alcohol, so the operators Moser represents have questions about how to keep it all above board.

“We don’t want our retailers to get in trouble,” he said.

Determining what is legal, however, is complicated, Driskill said.

“Right now, there’s really only two entities that regulate gambling — the county attorneys and the (then-Wyoming) Attorney General,” he said. “Consequently, because of the number of lawsuits in the works by the gaming industry, (the county attorneys) aren’t willing to take it on, because these guys have enough money to take it to court. They don’t want to end up in endless litigation.”

Mired in gray areas and absent the support of county attorneys, gambling is being overlooked by local law enforcement, Driskill added.

“From the testimony we’ve had in the counties, their law enforcement in cities and counties don’t know what’s happening in their boundaries at all,” he said. “It really leaves it to the Wild, Wild West.”

Despite most gambling being illegal throughout the state, games are taking place on a regular basis. But, without oversight, the players bear all the risk.

“The machines that are out there, you don’t know what they’re set at, 1 percent (payout) or 80 percent,” Driskill said. “You really don’t have anywhere to go if someone cheated you in a poker game or to report a bad machine.”

A gaming commission could alleviate many of these problems, but it’s not a new idea.

“Gaming commissions have been proposed in some form for the last decade,” Moser explained. “We’re the only state that doesn’t license bingo or pull tabs, and the skill games are falling into the same area.”

Skill games are typically defined as games in which interaction with the player affects the result, he said.

“They consider video poker as a game of chance,” Moser said. “Games of skill are legal and games of chance are not for the most part.”

Responding to an inquiry from Natrona County District Attorney Michael Blonigan requesting a formal opinion regarding some machines manufactured by Banilla Games, Attorney General Peter Michael listed ten skill games his office deemed gambling. Those games include:

  • Bathtime Bucks
  • Fruity Sevens 
  • Searing Sevens 
  • Snake Eyes
  • Wheel Deal
  • Spooky’s Loot
  • Mega Money Reel 
  • Lucky Striker 
  • Major Cash
  • Pedro’s Hot Tamales

Moser explained Michael’s formal opinion determined these games were won by chance, rather than the player’s skill.

Despite the list, Driskill said numerous other machines are still in operation.

“These machines are nearly doubling every year,” he said. “The initial numbers right now indicate that the creation of the commission and authority to require licensing would raise $12 million to $15 million for the state.” 

With or without oversight, Driskill said gambling is growing in the Cowboy State.

“The biggest takeaway is whether you’re pro-gaming or against, you’re going to have major expansion in gaming if you don’t do anything with it,” he said.

Wyoming Legislature’s tax panel draws a crowd

in News/Taxes
1599

Wyoming’s legislators are examining several proposed new taxes and changes to existing taxes as the state’s coal industry continues its decline.

Members of the Revenue Committee, meeting in Cheyenne on Monday, reviewed several proposals that have been rejected by the Legislature in the past, including changes to the state’s wind energy tax, an increase in fuel taxes and a tax on large national retail stores.

Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, the committee’s co-chair, said it is important that the committee study all options available to it to keep the state’s revenue stream stable, even if those options are unpopular.

“We’re going to be bringing something (to the Legislature’s 2020 session) and people probably won’t like it,” he said. “People don’t like taxes.”

The recent closure of two major Wyoming coal mines owned by Blackjewel indicates that it is time for the state to plan for different levels of coal production and how that will affect the state’s revenues in the future, said Buck McVeigh, acting chief of staff for Gov. Mark Gordon.

“The strife that’s facing our coal industry and that steady revenue player that we always counted on during the tough times with oil and gas, we’re losing that,” he said.

One proposal being considered is a corporate income tax that would be assessed against large retail stores with headquarters outside the state. Dubbed the National Retail Fairness Act, the tax is designed to account for the fact that the cost of goods sold by such retailers often includes an element for corporate income taxes assessed in other states. Backers maintain the measure would let Wyoming collect its fair share of the taxes paid by its residents.

The proposal was rejected by Wyoming’s Legislature during its recent general session and Senate Vice President Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, said he is not sure any more support exists for the measure going forward.

“Some things just don’t know when to die and they get revisited and revisited,” he said. “That came out of left field pretty fast last year. I don’t think there was good understanding on either side of it.”

The measure has the support of the Wyoming Education Association because of the $40 million to $45 million it could raise annually.

“The National Retail Fairness Act is one step in the right direction to increase funding for schools,” said Tammy Johnson, the WEA’s government relations director.

The Revenue Committee continued its meeting Tuesday.

Driskill: DC judge’s ruling on Wyoming oil & gas permits “idiotic… a tragedy”

in Energy/News
1163

By Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming Senate Vice President Ogden Driskill for Senate District #1 has strong words on the ruling from Washington, D.C. judge Rudolph Contreras.

The federal district court judge ruled in favor of environmental activists, finding that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) failed to consider climate change when issuing permits on 300,000 acres of federal land in Wyoming.

The ruling blocked further development on those lands until climate change’s impacts are assessed.

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