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Senate strips House plan for funding Wyoming schools, deepening impasse as Legislature begins last week

CHEYENNE — The Legislature appears further away than ever on the question of how to solve Wyoming’s $660 million education deficit after a Senate committee killed the House’s school finance proposal Monday, shortly after the House killed the Senate’s version. Later in the day, a committee created to bridge the differing budget proposals from each chamber appeared to be at a stalemate on where the dollars to pay for education should come from.

Despite an impassioned defense by House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper, the Senate Education Committee voted 3-2 Monday morning to strip his chamber’s key education bill and replace it with one that relied exclusively on cuts and failed to close the deficit.

On Friday, the House Education Committee had voted to indefinitely postpone the Senate’s school bill, effectively killing it.

Lawmakers have the remainder of this week to craft a budget for the next two years, covering an $850 million deficit, the bulk of which comes from the funding gap in education accounts.

Constitutionality debated

The Senate Education Committee stripped the House bill on the basis that it was unconstitutional. Bills must only cover a single topic, which must be outlined in its title. Chairman Hank Coe, R-Cody, said he believed the version of House Bill 140 before his committee was unconstitutional because it had been amended in the House to include items not in its title.

Specifically, Coe cited revenue increases to schools created by moving around funds, as well as earmarking some specific dollars to education.

“That’s our quandary,” Coe said, while praising Harshman’s overall work on the issue.

Coe cited a memo by Legislative Service Office attorney Ted Hewitt, who provided a synopsis of the law regarding what may be included in a bill. The memo determined that a House amendment made to HB 140 “may alter the bill beyond its original purpose.”

“The amendment, among other things, would provide for significant additional revenue diversions for public education,” Hewitt wrote. “The bill’s title, however, makes no mention of any revenue diversion.”

Harshman, who had advocated for the amendment in question when the House Education Committee was considering the bill, said that the House Rules Committee had determined the changes were legal.

“Did we push that title? You bet,” Harshman said. “But that’s what we’re supposed to do: push stuff and solve problems.”

Harshman dismissed the memo, which he described as written by “a junior attorney in his second year at LSO.”

A representative for the LSO declined to comment.

Hewitt qualified his memo in its introduction, writing, “Due to the constraints of the budget session, my ability to research this issue is limited and so is the legal analysis in this memorandum.”

Senate, House differ

The Senate has taken a more aggressive approach to cutting funding for public schools in Wyoming, passing a bill that included about $75 million in reductions to education spending. The House has called for closer to $30 million in reductions and covered much of the funding gap by moving revenue streams from savings accounts to operations.

But despite a lengthy presentation on the details of the House plan by Harshman, the debate Monday did not touch heavily on the substance of the two competing plans. Rather, it focused almost exclusively on whether the text of the bill was legal.

Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, said he supported Harshman’s plan and preferred it over the Senate’s bill but nonetheless voted to strip it due to questions over its constitutionality.

“I’ve never seen the leader of either chamber lose a constitutional argument in their own chamber,” Rothfuss said. “But I’ve never seen the other chamber happy with that argument.”

Rothfuss joined the 4-1 vote to strip the bill and replace it with one previously killed by the House. Sen. Stephan Pappas, R-Cheyenne, was the lone no vote. Rothfuss then joined with Pappas to vote against the bill as amended.

The merits of the House proposal did come up during a meeting of the “conference committee,” composed of members of the House and Senate who are meant to create a single budget bill that can win the support of both chambers.

Sen. Bruce Burns, R-Sheridan, proposed that the budget use the House’s funding model for education in the first of its two-year cycle and use the Senate model for the second year. The House model, crafted largely by Harshman, would peg certain dollars that currently go directly into savings accounts to education. The Senate version relies on spending directly out of cash reserves.

While on their face the two models result in spending the same amount of money on schools, Harshman has argued his plan offers a sustainable model where the Senate plan would quickly deplete cash reserves and require repeated appropriations from savings accounts.

Education lobbyists, including representatives from the Wyoming Education Association and Wyoming School Board Association, spoke in favor of the House’s plan during the education committee meeting. A group of students from Riverton High School also spoke, expressing concern that further cuts to education would risk the elimination of school safety resources. The Legislature cut roughly $75 million from education spending last year for two years.

“We’re begging you, please don’t add your name to the list of adults who are already failing us,” said senior Kat Tyler.

But Burns attacked both Harshman’s model and his efforts to win over lawmakers during the conference committee meeting.

“The Speaker has been hauling people into his office for his multimedia show — like a timeshare salesman — for weeks now and he’s convinced and apparently has you all convinced,” Burns told the House members on the committee.

“We think that it makes no sense,” he added. “It’s needlessly complex and unnecessarily opaque.”

Because it appeared that the conference committee, which is split evenly between lawmakers from each chamber, was not going to agree to adopt a single model to pay for education, Burns said his compromise to try each model for one-half of the budget cycle was a reasonable middle ground.

Rep. Bob Nicholas, R-Cheyenne, who chairs the committee, said that while he was intrigued by the proposal he would need to consult with his fellow state representatives, as well as House leadership.

The conference committee cleared several points of disagreement during their first meeting last week, but lawmakers appeared to be at loggerheads on several more contentious points Monday. Nicholas said the the Legislature’s leaders had hinted the session would be extended through the middle of next week — beyond its scheduled Saturday end date — and that Burns’ proposal could prevent that.

“If there are not other resolutions this could be one way we don’t come back on Monday or Tuesday,” he said.

The LSO budget director Don Richards told the committee that they needed to approve a final budget bill Monday afternoon in order to send it to Gov. Matt Mead by Tuesday night, the necessary deadline if lawmakers wanted the ability to override any potential line-item vetoes by Mead. But at press time, it was not clear when the conference committee would next meet.

In addition to the main budget bill, which includes the provisions on how to fund education, there is the question of how much, exactly, the state will spend on education. The only school finance bill that has not been killed is the one stripped and rebuilt by the Senate Education Committee Monday morning, and it remained unclear whether the full Senate will pass that measure and whether the House will accept the dramatically altered piece of legislation.

Casper oil firm likely cleared to explore for natural gas in Wyoming Range

True Oil will likely be permitted to look for natural gas in a largely no-drill area of public lands in the Wyoming Range of western Wyoming.

The exploratory drilling, associated infrastructure and road development in the Bridger-Teton National Forest could begin as early as this year, pending a final decision from the U.S. Forest Service expected this month.

The agency published a list of stipulations for approval Friday, each a response to pushback from locals and environmental groups.

If the Forest Service greenlights exploration, and True finds gas that is economic to drill, the company would still have to seek federal approval to fully develop the area.

New oil and gas development is generally not allowed in the region thanks to a 2009 act of Congress sponsored by Sen. John Barrasso. The Wyoming Range Legacy Act withdrew public lands in the area from future development. A U.S. Forest Service Management Plan in the area excluded nearly 40,000 acres from new leasing.

But existing leases remained valid.

True has maintained production on three leases since 1982. It has three natural gas wells in the area drilled in the ‘80s, and one gas well drilled in 2001.

The company’s proposal includes three wells, two exploration wells drilled on an expanded, existing well pad and another exploratory well drilled after reconstructing a reclaimed well pad. The project area lies about 25 miles northwest of Big Piney.

Drilling in the Wyoming Range has been a point of division for environmental groups and industry, with some arguing the area, which encompasses much of the national forest, should be sheltered from development. Companies argue that they can drill responsibly.

Various groups raised objections to True’s exploration proposal in the Lander Peak area of the forest, including the Wyoming Outdoor Council, nearby ranchers and Trout Unlimited. Those concerned noted issues such as the location of busted shale buried after drilling, the components of fracking fluids used in drilling, dust abatement on local roads and the current stability of the existing infrastructure to gather gas.

“Discussions during the objection process have resulted in a number of improvements to the project,” said Big Piney District Ranger Don Kranendonk in a statement Friday. “In an effort to avoid impacts to the environment, design features to contain potential spills and address invasive species, including noxious weeds and aquatic invasive species, will be included in the project design.”

The Forest Service included a number of stipulations for approval of the exploration based on the protests. True is required to hire a third party contractor to do ground and surface water sampling and analysis. The amount of water to be dumped on impacted roads for dust abatement was increased and the company will have to pressure test its existing pipelines and gathering lines with water or an inert gas to ensure the infrastructure’s integrity.

A representative for True Oil did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Trump, Ryan face off in rare public GOP clash over tariffs (copy)

WASHINGTON — In a remarkably public confrontation, House Speaker Paul Ryan and other Republican allies of President Donald Trump pleaded with him Monday to back away from his threatened international tariffs, which they fear could spark a dangerous trade war. Trump retorted: “We’re not backing down.”

The president said U.S. neighbors Canada and Mexico would not be spared from his plans for special import taxes on steel and aluminum, but he held out the possibility of later exempting the longstanding friends if they agree to better terms for the U.S. in talks aimed at revising the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“We’ve had a very bad deal with Mexico; we’ve had a very bad deal with Canada. It’s called NAFTA,” he declared.

Trump spoke shortly after a spokeswoman for Ryan, a Trump ally, said the GOP leader was “extremely worried” that the proposed tariffs would set off a trade war and urged the White House “to not advance with this plan.”

Likewise, Republican leaders of the House Ways and Means Committee circulated a letter opposing Trump’s plan, and GOP congressional leaders suggested they may attempt to prevent the tariffs if the president moves forward.

Trump’s pledge to implement tariffs of 25 percent on steel imports and 10 percent on aluminum imports has roiled financial markets, angered foreign allies and created unusual alliances for a president who blasted unfavorable trade deals during his 2016 campaign. Union leaders and Democratic lawmakers from Rust Belt states have praised the planned tariffs, joining with advocates within the administration including Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and White House trade adviser Peter Navarro.

But the president has been opposed internally by Defense Secretary James Mattis and White House economic adviser Gary Cohn, who warned against penalizing U.S. allies and undercutting the economic benefits of the president’s sweeping tax overhaul.

Likewise, the statement from Ryan’s office said, “The new tax reform law has boosted the economy, and we certainly don’t want to jeopardize those gains.”

Asked about that public rebuke, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “Look, we have a great relationship with Speaker Ryan. We’re going to continue to have one, but that doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything.”

Canada is the United States’ No. 1 foreign supplier of both steel and aluminum. Mexico is the No. 4 supplier of steel and No. 7 for aluminum.

Congressional Republicans say any tariffs should be narrow in scope, and they privately warned that Trump’s effort could hurt the party’s hopes to preserve its majority in the fall elections.

As the president dug in on his position, any potential compromise with foreign trading partners and Republican lawmakers was expected to still include some form of tariffs.

“Trump is not someone who retreats,” said Stephen Moore, an economist with the conservative Heritage Foundation and a former campaign adviser. “He’s going to need to be able to declare some victory here.”

The tariffs will be made official in the next two weeks, White House officials said.

“Twenty-five percent on steel, and the 10 percent on aluminum, no country exclusions — firm line in the sand,” said Navarro, speaking on “Fox and Friends.”

Republican critics on Capitol Hill and within the administration argue that industries and their workers that rely on steel and aluminum for their products will suffer. The cost of new appliances, cars and buildings will rise for Americans if the president follows through, they warn, and other nations could retaliate.

Two dozen conservative groups, including the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and the National Taxpayers Union, urged Trump to reconsider, writing in a letter that the tariffs would be “a tax on the middle class with everything from cars to baseball bats to even beer.”

The Trade Partnership, a consulting firm, said the tariffs would increase U.S. employment in the steel and aluminum sector by about 33,000 jobs but would cost 179,000 jobs in the rest of the economy.

The end result could erode the president’s base of support with rural America and even the blue-collar workers the president says he’s trying to help.

“These are people that voted for him and supported him in these auto-producing states,” said Cody Lusk, president of the American International Automobile Dealers Association. Lusk noted that of the 16 states with auto plants, Trump won all but two.

The administration has argued the tariffs are necessary to preserve the American aluminum and steel industries and protect national security. But Trump’s comments and tweets early Monday suggested he was also using them as leverage in the current talks to revise NAFTA. The latest round of a nearly yearlong renegotiation effort is concluding this week in Mexico City.

At those talks, U.S Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said Monday that progress has been less than many had hoped and “our time is running short.”

“I fear the longer we proceed, the more political headwinds we will feel,” he said. And he added that if three-way negotiations don’t work, “we are prepared to move on a bilateral basis.”

Natrona County School District will not punish students participating in walkout

Students participating in walkouts spurred by a recent school shooting will not be punished by administrators, the Natrona County School District announced Monday.

The statement comes two days ahead of a planned walkout at Natrona County High School, where student organizers intend to use the demonstration to show solidarity with school shooting victims and not as a political stance on gun control. The students, organized under the Casper Youth for Change, said they expect more than 50 students to walkout of class Wednesday morning.

The protest is planned to last 1,606 seconds, representing the reported number of mass shootings that have occurred nationwide since the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.

Last week, organizers said they weren’t sure if they would be punished for the demonstration. While the walkouts have become more common across the country as its reels from another school massacre, there has been pushback from some administrators. In one Texas district, for instance, the superintendent threatened protesting students with suspension.

In Natrona County, district officials wrote that while participants will be recorded as absent to ensure “the school is able to account for those who are present and/or absent, thus ensuring student safety.”

“Those who choose not to report back to class in a timely manner will be marked as an unverified absence and may face appropriate disciplinary consequences, per district policy,” the statement continues.

Superintendent Steve Hopkins said last week that he hadn’t heard of any planned walkouts but that his initial reaction wasn’t to punish students.

The NCHS walkout was originally planned to take place on the high school’s front lawn, but an organizer said it was likely to be moved to the football field.

“Administrators will be working with student leaders to determine a location on school campuses for those electing to participate,” the district’s statement said. “The walkouts are student-led and will be coordinated in conjunction with school administrators to keep students safe while respecting their choice to share their voice. Local law enforcement will have an increased presence in the areas of high school campuses during the planned walkout with the goal of keeping students safe.”

District spokeswoman Tanya Southerland said she hadn’t “been made aware of any other planned events in the district” as of Monday afternoon.

The organizers of the NCHS walkout stressed the event is being held in solidarity with victims.

“No one should have to go to school in fear,” the organizers wrote in a letter distributed to school staff last week.

Their march is also separate from the nationwide walkout set for March 14, the four-week anniversary of the shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead at the hands of an assault weapon-wielding gunman.

That’s intentional, the students said: They don’t want to take a stance for or against gun control. The March 14 walkout has been sparked by survivors of the Florida shooting. Those students have repeatedly called for stricter gun control.

Casper College student stuck in Mexico after immigration problem

Marisela Burgos entered the consulate in Juarez last month expecting to walk out as a permanent resident of the United States. She’d lived there since she was 3, and in nearly every sense of the word, America was — is — her home.

Instead, she walked out of the building numb, surrounded by white noise. Her permanent residency application had been rejected by an apathetic immigration official who kept checking his phone. As tears formed in her eyes, she shook off her father and kept walking, past him and her older brother and the crowd of people waiting for their relatives to emerge from the same building with their own news.

With the rejection came a penalty. Burgos would have to stay in Mexico for three years before she could return to the United States, to Wyoming, to her dorm room at Casper College, to her place on the forensics team, to her family.

“Everything was going so smoothly,” the 18-year-old said by phone last week. “We were all working to get through this process to be able to finally live in the United States and not have the fear of being deported. And then it all just came crashing down.”

Burgos’ parents moved to Greybull 15 years ago, when she was a toddler. They both had visas but overstayed them, so the family traveled back to Mexico to renew their papers. Burgos said they spent a few months there, in late 2007 and early 2008. It was the first time she met her grandmother and the first time she’d been back in Mexico since her family moved away.

But those few months became critical. Because she left the country and returned on a new visa, Burgos said, she was no longer eligible under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. She would have to apply for permanent residency first, as her older brother and parents had done.

So she started that process more than two years ago, when she was a budding National Honor Society member and high school debater. She often used her voice on the Casper College team to advocate for immigrants’ rights, teammate Carter Dunn said. Her mom sponsored her permanent residency, but because neither of her parents were yet citizens, she and her younger brother would have to travel to Juarez for their interviews.

The city is across the border from El Paso, Texas. But it’s roughly a thousand miles from her dorm and in a country that Burgos barely knows.

“That got us pretty nervous because we didn’t want to leave the country ... because there’s a chance we couldn’t come back,” she said. “Our lawyer said he’s had many cases where that happened and they came back. We trusted in our lawyer, and we came to Mexico on the 16th of February.”

Burgos said the family’s attorney had told them she and her younger brother should both be in the clear because neither had turned 19 yet. They trusted him, she said again, so they traveled to Juarez and jumped through the hoops, which included providing their fingerprints and undergoing a physical exam.

Finally, they arrived at the consulate. She and her brother stood in front of a window, staring at an immigration official like they were in line at the bank. The process had been smooth up to this point, but Burgos said she started to get nervous during her interview. The man behind the glass asked them only a few questions and kept checking his phone.

“Our case was already decided,” Burgos said.

The man approved her brother. Then he turned to her. He asked her if she had an immigration pardon. No, she said, their lawyer told them they didn’t need one because she was still under 19.

“Right then and there he told us I did need one, that I had overstayed my stay in the United States,” she said. The man handed her a blue sheet, already printed and ready, explaining why her permanent residency was rejected.

The impersonal nature of the rejection sticks.

“They don’t care. It’s just another case number, another file,” she said. “It’s not a person. It’s not a life that’s being put on the line.”

Now she’s living in Aldama, a town four hours deeper into Mexico and four hours further from Wyoming. She’s applying for that immigration pardon the man said she needed, but even in that base-case scenario, she might be here for months, even a year.

But if she does not get the pardon — which often costs at least $6,000 — she will be stuck in Mexico for three years.

“Those bars are pretty hard,” Laramie immigration attorney Travis Helm said of the penalty. “ ... This isn’t just a legal issue, this is someone who just got exiled.”

Burgos is living with her grandmother, whom she’d met for the first and only time on that trip to Mexico a decade ago. She has just the two duffel bags of belongings she brought with her when she thought this trip would be brief.

“It’s hard on me being far away from them and everyone I have over there because all of my family, teachers I grew really close to, everyone who cares about me and I care about, live over there,” Burgos said. “And I’m unable to go there for three years. I am losing three years of my life here. It’s hard to look at it in a positive way when I have no one here, really. I feel alone being in this country.”

That’s not to say she’s been forgotten. Dunn has helped start a fundraising campaign to help Burgos pay for expenses including Wi-Fi so she can continue taking her classes online. As of Monday afternoon, the effort had raised $2,000 in 12 days.

“We didn’t think to ask her if she was OK with it until after it had launched,” Dunn said. “But she’s been involved since then.”

Her parents are going to ship Burgos the things in her dorm room, Burgos said, and her family will hopefully be able to visit sometime soon. They’re looking into attorneys who can fight for the pardon she needs.

In the meantime, she’s going to try to keep up with her schoolwork. She’s nervous to go outside. It’s dangerous, Burgos said, and because she doesn’t have cellphone service, she’s virtually cut off from the outside world without Wi-Fi.

For now, Burgos is stuck. But she’s still determined.

“I mean, we weren’t in the United States because we liked being degraded and constantly people saying we’re there for the wrong reasons and that we’re criminals when my parents were just trying to give me a better education,” she said. “I just want people to know that we’re not all criminals. We’re good people who are trying to contribute to the community.”