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Govt-and-politics
Mead recommends lawmakers reverse cuts to social services, including the health department

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead has called for increasing spending on various social services in the state, saying that cuts made to weather the economic downturn caused by the energy bust have gone too far.

Mead made the recommendations as part of his budget presentation Thursday morning.

The governor has recommended that state lawmakers increase the Department of Health’s budget by $48 million and argued against allowing $17 million in cuts proposed by the department as part of a cost-saving effort. He also called for the Legislature to boost spending for the Department of Family Services.

While Mead accepted the Legislature’s decision last year to cover the education funding shortfall — up to $282 million — with reserve dollars, he said that even with a boost in spending for certain agencies his budget proposal entirely covered state government operations with money to spare.

“We were able to put together a budget in its entirety without using any rainy day funds,” Mead said at a press conference. The budget totals about $2.9 billion, with $24 million left over.

Many of the cuts to both social services, as well as other departments including agriculture and corrections, had been implemented for long enough to determine that they were hurting those agencies’ ability to deliver services, he said.

The governor noted that he had declined to accept proposed cuts to the health and some other departments that had been proposed by the agencies themselves. However, he said the proposed cuts came at the request of the Legislature, which sought to reduce state spending by $13 million last year.

Mead said that he had found about $9 million in cuts but rejected additional spending reductions that would have reduced services too severely. Some suggestions went too far, he said, such as allowing the Department of Health to privatize a state-run assisted living facility and nursing home.

“I think before any of us go down that road to privatize those two places we would need a solid plan with assurances for long-term care,” he said.

Mead also rejected a request to eliminate spending on immunizations, among other items.

Other notable parts of the budget proposal include:

  • Allocating $500,000 to the state’s Homeland Security emergency fund, which currently has just $695;
  • reinstating and increasing funding for the Wyoming State Fair to $1 million over the next two years;
  • allocating an additional $500,000 for brand inspection by the state livestock board following cuts last year;
  • allowing the Department of Health to collect $1.7 million in federal funding for community mental health and substance abuse programs;
  • allocating $8.3 million for the Department of Family Services to renew contracts with the two tribes on the Wind River Reservation;
  • boosting the State Public Defender budget by $1.9 million;
  • increasing the Department of Corrections budget by $1.4 million to allow raises for employees
  • spending $37.5 million in rainy day funds on Endow, Mead’s economic diversity initiative.

Mead noted that his proposed budget represented $400 million less in spending than 10 years ago, when his predecessor Dave Freudenthal, a Democrat, was in office.

Just a recommendation

It is unclear whether lawmakers will go along with the exception requests in Mead’s proposed budget, though the core of the budget provides a useful starting point for the Legislature to fund state government. The body convenes in February for a short, four-week session to set the budget for 2019-2020.

House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper, said that he was largely supportive of reversing cuts to the health department and believed other lawmakers were as well.

“Budgets are people and 40 percent of our budget is the Department of Health and it goes directly to people and those cuts are being fully felt across the state,” Harshman said. “So I think folks are going to be really open to those proposals.”

Senate President Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, has been more critical of state spending. Bebout was traveling and did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

But Harshman said that where Mead’s budget proposal relies on several sources of one-time funding, including unspent funds rolled over from last year, he expects the Legislature to seek more stable funding models.

The governor’s budget finds funding in a handful of somewhat unique ways. For example, it calls for using $80 million in leftover severance tax dollars from the current two-year budget cycle, using $10 million of previously allocated school construction funding and eliminating a cap on state royalty deposits into the construction account, a boost of $80 million that has also been discussed by the Legislature’s revenue committee.

Mead said that revised revenue projections for the next two years eased the process of making a budget.

“We do have some challenges, but because revenue has improved the challenges have not been as bad as we thought they were going to be,” he said.

CREG eased woes

In October, the Consensus Revenue Estimate Group estimated the state will have $200 million more than anticipated to spend over the coming budget cycle. That increase fully covers the cost of state government operations, the Legislative Service Office said at the time. However, it does not fully close the funding gap for K-12 education in the state or take into account other expenses like discretionary payments to local governments.

The education account has a $340 million deficit over the next two years. Earlier this year, state lawmakers passed legislation that would cover any shortage through the rainy day account. Mead said that while he does not support spending reserves as a long-term strategy for education funding, he did not propose an alternative in his budget.

“It’s an OK option for this biennium,” Mead said. “We’re not just going to short (schools).”

Mead also said it was hard to decide what to spend on schools, or where those dollars should come from, before the report on education funding recalibration is complete. A draft of the report was presented to lawmakers this week but the final copy is not due until January.

The governor has requested that the Legislature distribute $105 million to local governments, a payment that was initially discretionary but that cities and counties have begun to rely upon. However, after the drop in revenue last year, the Legislature was forced to pay the $105 million out of its rainy day fund. Harshman said that Mead’s request that the money come from the general fund rather than the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account was not a true solution to the question of how to fund local governments.

“We’ll fix the local government issue,” Harshman said. “But rolling it into the general fund and not spending it out of the LSRA doesn’t fix it.”

Bebout and Harshman have directed the Legislature’s Revenue Committee to propose plans to raise revenue by $100 million to $300 million ahead of the budget session in February with an eye toward closing the education funding gap.

But Mead said he believes it is now unlikely that any of the more dramatic revenue proposals that have been considered, such as statewide increases to sales tax or property tax, will pass. The increased revenue projections mean lawmakers may accept smaller increases to specific taxes, such as tobacco or lodging, but may be unwilling to do more.

Mead said he hopes the discussion on tax reform continues. The state currently receives roughly 70 percent of its public revenue from various taxes levied on energy companies, a tax structure that makes the state highly susceptible to booms and busts in the commodity market and poses a challenge for economic diversification.

“We’re a very conservative state. Nobody wants to raise taxes,” Mead said. “At the same time, I think the Legislature ... should continue to work on it along with all of us.”

Harshman said that he was largely supportive of the substance of Mead’s budget, even if he differed on some of the funding sources suggested. He also acknowledged that some of the disagreement on funding was likely due to the fact that the governor is less able to make policy recommendations on reallocating funds or changing investment strategies in the same way that the Legislature can choose to do.

“We’ll probably get to a similar point just maybe through different roadways,” Harshman said.


Energy
Wyoming submits its take on sage grouse changes; governor again pleads caution

Before Gov. Matt Mead began explaining to officials in Washington D.C. how to manage an imperiled western bird, he made sure they noted his position on the federal plans Wyoming already has in hand.

Don’t mess these up.

“I have advocated against dramatic changes to the way the states and the federal government manage sage grouse,” Mead wrote in a letter Monday to the Interior Department.

Wyoming agencies and state regulators also submitted their official comments to the Interior Department ahead of a Friday deadline for public input on changes to federal plans to manage the bird across 11 states.

Federal sage grouse plans helped preclude the bird from an endangered species listing two years ago. The bird has experienced a steep decline in numbers in the West due to loss of habitat from residential and energy development.

The federal sage grouse management approach hasn’t been without controversy. Polarized views on how to save the bird often clash, and nowhere more so than Wyoming, home to about 30 percent of the bird’s population.

Picking up on some lingering disagreements over the plans in the West, the Trump Administration initiated a snapshot review of sage grouse management earlier this summer and came up with a list of changes to be considered, some significant enough to spark a fair amount of pushback, particularly from environmental groups in the West.

But Mead has also been a key figure in advising caution, a conservative governor at odds with the direction and style of Interior. The plans were put together through collaboration and need a chance to work, Mead has said in the past.

Oil and gas regulators, heads of state lands and the Department of Agriculture were by and large in sync with the governor in their letters Monday, suggesting revisions that clarify language or that would bring the federal plans closer to what Wyoming does to manage the grouse.

They stop short of suggesting the kind of wide spread revisions that were thrown out earlier this year by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, such as allowing controversial methods like captive rearing be incorporated in some states, or shifting management focus to population counts rather than the habitat protections approved by the scientific community.

In his letter, Mead noted his continued disapproval of those strategies as inefficient and at odds with established science.

“Before I go through the areas where I would like to see changes, I need to be clear about the things that I do not want to see changed,” Mead wrote in his comments Monday. “I continue to resist any proposal that could lead to an Endangered Species Listing.”

Then the governor listed what’s wrong.

***

Wyoming lies at the heart of the sage grouse debate and may have the most to lose if the bird’s numbers continue to drop.

If the plans fail, Wyoming and 10 other western states will have to grapple with a possible endangered species listing. In Wyoming, a listing would most certainly threaten the oil and gas industry’s ability to explore and drill, hobbling the bedrock industry of the Wyoming economy, experts agree.

Wyoming is heavily invested in the federal plans, and it led the way about a decade ago by developing a strategy to keep sage grouse from blinking out. The Bureau of Land Management plans in the cross hairs today largely follow in Wyoming’s footsteps.

But there are disputed areas in the complicated federal documents that lay out sage grouse protections.

Many of the Wyoming comments took issue with “net conservation gain,” a goal post that essentially asks that a sage grouse habitat is improved upon after disturbance, not just repaired.

This better-than-you-found-it provision is too vague to be consistently applied and leads to confusion on the ground, Mark Watson of the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission wrote in his official comment Monday.

The Office of State Lands and Investments had similar criticism of the net gain language, along with skepticism over federal standards for grazing in sage grouse areas.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department asked that the feds align their mitigation requirements with Wyoming’s.

A host of industry and agricultural groups also put their two cents in on the federal changes. Most in Wyoming report that they do not want widespread changes to the plans, but each have adjustments that in one way or another would ease restrictions.

***

Environmental groups, however, have been outspoken in their concern over Interior’s actions.

Any management approach as complex as the one written for sage grouse will have areas that need to be improved, said Nada Culver, senior director of agency policy and planning at The Wilderness Society.

But the suggestions offered by the Interior are not surgical adjustments, and the motive has been clear, the environmental lawyer said.

“We have significant concerns about the stated effort to look at the potential change of the plans through this lens of removing any restrictions on energy development,” she said. “If we start to take away the management of energy development, we start to take away from the effectiveness of the plans.”

Interior’s report comes across as a list of things officials there simply don’t like, she said.

“That’s not a basis,” Culver said. “That’s not a scientifically reported recommendation.”

The governor’s comments Monday close with requests he’s made all summer: that the feds keep in mind the 11-state impact of a potential listing and focus on changes that don’t require overhaul of the plans. Lastly, in keeping with his mild requests for collaboration, he offered up Wyoming’s expertise on the grouse once again.

“Working together, we can more fully identify all of the areas that could be improved,” he said.


Crime-and-courts
Judge dismisses case against Evansville that alleged discrimination

A federal judge last week dismissed a lawsuit brought by a former Evansville public works employee alleging the town fired him due to his national origin and disability.

Roy Mestas alleged that his supervisor at the public works department called him and another Hispanic city worker a racial slur before eventually firing him.

Judge Nancy D. Freudenthal on Nov. 21 granted the town’s motion for summary judgement, which means the case was dismissed before it could go to trial.

Freudenthal wrote that Mestas’s claims of racial harassment did not indicate a hostile work environment and he did not show that he was retaliated against for reporting harassment at work.

The judge noted that Mestas recorded some conversations with his boss, but none included racial remarks. Mestas did not tell any city officials about the alleged harassment at the time.

Even if the claims are true, however, “they represent offhand comments and isolated incidents” which did not amount to a pattern, the judge wrote.

The judge likewise found that Mestas did not qualify for protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Mestas fell at work in November 2012 and went on medical leave until mid-January 2013. He was dismissed from work in mid-April of the same year. After applying for disability benefits, the Social Security Administration determined he was totally disabled and received corresponding benefits.

Although Mestas called upon the ADA to keep him employed, he did not have a recorded disability as required by the legislation, the court determined. Mestas did not inform his supervisor about the seriousness of his injury or provide a doctor’s note after he returned to work that January as is required by the ADA to be legally protected.

By the time he was dismissed, Mestas was no longer able to perform his job duties. Protection by the ADA requires someone still be able to work.

As a result, Mestas’s claims of suffering a hostile work environment and retaliation on the grounds of his disability were denied.

The town maintained throughout the legal proceedings that Mestas was not discriminated against. It cited the at-will nature of Mestas’s employment, which allowed the town to dismiss Mestas without giving a reason.

Megan Hayes, who represented Mestas in the case, said she and her client were considering appealing the decision. They will have until Dec. 21 to file an appeal.

A person answering the phone at MacPherson, Kelly and Thompson, the law firm that represented Evansville in the case, said none of the lawyers who worked the case would comment.


Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

Former Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen throws a pass in the Cowboys' game against New Mexico on Oct. 28, 2017 at War Memorial Stadium in Laramie.