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Mead approval rating falls sharply, but he remains one of the nation's most popular governors

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead remains one of the nation’s most popular governors, but has seen his approval rating dip nearly 10 points since the summer, according to a poll released Tuesday.

The poll, conducted by research firm Morning Consult, found that 59 percent of Wyoming voters approved of the job Mead is doing while 23 percent disapproved. That ranks Mead ninth in the nation.

Still, the October rating showed a sharp decline from July when a poll by the same firm found Mead with a 67 percent approval rating and only 15 percent of voters disapproving of his job performance — good enough to rate third-most popular in the United States. The drop in approval and rise in disapproval combines for a net decline of 16 points.

Morning Consult is the only firm conducting recurring approval ratings of Mead and its polls show an interesting pattern. In May of last year, Mead registered a 67 percent approval rating before falling to 52 percent last fall and then recovering to 67 percent once again in July.

“(T)hese things go up and down,” Mead spokesman David Bush said in an email. “Governor Mead works hard for Wyoming and the results of these polls show that the people of Wyoming recognize this.”

University of Wyoming political science professor Jim King said the fluctuations may have to do with the legislative cycle. The spring and summer polls represent surveys conducted shortly after the conclusion of Wyoming’s winter legislative sessions, while the fall polls capture the opinion of voters at a time when the governor is often out of the headlines.

“The governor is much more in the news during the legislative cycle than he is now,” King said. “Given that the legislative sessions in Wyoming of late have not been especially contentious, that’s probably going to be something in his favor.”

Wyoming governors tend to be popular and voters have sometimes appeared to select the state’s chief executive officer on the basis of personality rather than party or partisan policy positions, periodically sending Democrats to Cheyenne by wide margins despite otherwise voting for Republican candidates.

Mead and the Legislature have largely cooperated over the last two years, with the most notable points of contention coming on whether to expand Medicaid in the state — Mead supported doing so, lawmakers did not — and on guns, when Mead vetoed a bill that would have allowed people at government meetings to carry concealed firearms.

Mead has also expressed more willingness than many in the Legislature to consider raising taxes or spending more of the state’s reserve funds to avoid steep budget cuts.

But over the last several months his focus has been on promoting Endow, his economic diversity initiative.

King said state leaders have managed to avoid blame for the recent poor economic conditions caused by the energy bust.

“Wyoming officials have done a pretty good job of deflecting the criticism,” he said. “It’s the problems with the coal industry and problems in the coal industry are caused from outside. So it’s not like the governor would be taking strong hits on his approval rating because of the decline in the energy industry.”

Barrasso, Enzi fall

The same poll also found Wyoming’s two U.S. senators, John Barrasso and Mike Enzi, with approval ratings of 53 percent. Barrasso had a disapproval rating of 26 percent, one point higher than Enzi.

Those numbers are significantly lower than in April, when a Morning Consult poll found Barrasso to be the third-most popular Senator in the nation with a 69 percent approval rating and Enzi just behind in fourth place.

The Morning Consult measured approval ratings of governors and U.S. senators across the country. The firm surveyed 255,120 registered voters between July 1 and Sep. 30 and answers were weighted to match national demographics.

The Wyoming results had a margin of error of plus-or-minus 6 percent, the highest of any state and likely owing to its small population.

Yellowstone volcano eruptions caused 80-year winters, researchers say

As winter approaches, take heart in the fact that it won’t last 80 years.

That’s how long two volcanic winters may have lasted after two separate explosions of the Yellowstone volcano about 630,000 years ago, the same eruptions that formed the Yellowstone caldera, and the last big eruptions of the volcano. The explosions occurred about 170 years apart and helped drop the ocean surface temperature by about 5.4 degrees.

These conclusions are the result of a detailed examination of sediments collected in Santa Barbara Basin, off the Southern California coast. By drilling into the basin’s mud, scientists from the University of California Santa Barbara could see the individual layers on an almost decade by decade basis, an amazingly detailed view.

Their research was revealed in a press release from the Geological Society of America last week.

Grabbing headlines

Mention Yellowstone and volcano in the same sentence and news feeds hum, Facebook lights up with frightening posts and some websites hype a foreboding end to life on Earth. Especially in the past few months, Yellowstone’s supervolcano has garnered several such headlines.

First came a swarm of earthquakes, mostly small, that spawned theories of an impending eruption. Earthquake swarms are common in the area, hitting as many as 3,000 in 1985. The cause is either changing stresses in the vicinity of the 1959 Hebgen Lake earthquake, or it could be water or magma moving around under the surface, according to Mike Poland, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey and the scientist in charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory.

This summer’s log of earthquakes was high at 2,500, but Poland pointed out that the seismic infrastructure monitoring the Greater Yellowstone Area is also much more sensitive and yet may still be missing some smaller, more localized temblors.

Another story that grabbed attention said that NASA scientists had studied how to inject cool water into Yellowstone’s magma chamber to depressurize the system and halt an eruption, according to the BBC. The system could use venting steam to power turbines, a double benefit.

Quicker refill

Other recent headline-capturing stories have been based on a scientific study that, taken out of context, was used by some websites to create doomsday scenarios.

Arizona State University graduate student Hannah Shamloo, who analyzed fossilized volcanic ash from Yellowstone, reported that an injection of fresh magma into a system like Yellowstone’s — enough to cause a supereruption — could happen in decades rather than thousands of years.

“It’s shocking how little time is required to take a volcanic system from being quiet and sitting there to the edge of an eruption,” Shamloo told The New York Times.

That statement was qualified, though, with the footnote that there’s more work to do before scientists can verify a precise time scale.

Poland happened to be in the Yellowstone backcountry when that story appeared, requiring his predecessor to field calls on the subject from the national and international media. Although Poland has worked in Hawaii where volcanic eruptions can generate a lot of local interest, he said he was surprised by the “intense media focus” related to Yellowstone.

“There’s a psychology to this I didn’t expect,” he said, “which has me wanting to get more information out to the public, because it seems like the public really eats it up.”

Geyser gazers

An example of the continuing public interest Yellowstone’s plumbing can generate also came in October when University of Utah scientists published a report providing a better picture of the underground workings of Old Faithful geyser and the surrounding geyser basin. By using seismic sensors to capture faint vibrations, the researchers were able to map the hot water reservoir that supplies water to the geyser.

“The neat thing about these geyser systems is they are repeat experiences,” Poland said. “Assuming the plumbing doesn’t change, they can deploy in one area, move to another and see the same process to map out the plumbing system.”

The scientists estimated that the underground hot water reservoir — which is really a system of cracks and fractures rather than one large pool — has a diameter of about 200 meters, “a little larger than the University of Utah’s Rice-Eccles Stadium, and can hold approximately 300,000 cubic meters of water, or more than 79 million gallons,” according to a university press release.

By comparison, each eruption of Old Faithful releases around 8,000 gallons, leaving a lot in reserve.

“Although it’s a rough estimation, we were surprised that it was so large,” said doctoral student Sin-Mei Wu, the first author of the research.

Old Faithful got its name because it regularly erupts about every 44 to 125 minutes.

Back to mud

Old Faithful’s eruptions are like seconds on the geological time scale when compared to the data analyzed in the mud of the Santa Barbara Basin. Poland said although the findings are intriguing, he’s going to hold off on endorsing the evidence until it can be reconciled with other information found around Yellowstone.

“I don’t know much about the offshore geology,” he said. “But even if it is only a couple of hundred years, I think you would see it in the stratigraphy that was mapped in Yellowstone. It could be completely consistent.”

U.C. Santa Barbara geologist Jim Kennett, who led the study, said the evidence was so apparent because of the basin’s unique formation. About 1 millimeter a year of sediment is deposited into the basin, which is fed nutrients from the ocean that include tiny shellfish. The shells preserved in the sediment are a record of oxygen isotopes from which scientists can deduce the sea surface temperature when they were alive.

Oxygen levels on the bottom of the basin are so low that no mud-dwelling marine animals live there, animals that could burrow into the mud and mix up the sediment layers.

“Thus, it is not surprising that Kennett and his group can look in detail at the climate changes following a volcanic eruption,” Cathy Whitlock, a Montana State University professor whose Paleoecology Lab has used sediment cores from mountain lakes to track fire and climate history in the West, wrote in an email.

“Their study gives us insight into a period that is generally poorly known,” she added. “It was a time of tremendous change in our region, with the eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano, which was likely a series of closely spaced eruptions.”

So cold

Each volcanic winter lasted longer than it should have, according to simple climate models, Kennett said in the news release.

“We see planetary cooling of sufficient magnitude and duration that there had to be other feedbacks involved.” The feedbacks might have included increased sunlight-reflecting sea ice and snow cover or a change in ocean circulation that would cool the planet for a longer time.

Such findings didn’t surprise Whitlock.

“We saw cooler temperatures around the world as a result of the Mount Pinatubo eruption in the early ’90s,” she wrote. “This was due to the ejection of particulates and sulfides in the atmosphere. It sounds like this group is seeing a similar but greater cooling impact from the Yellowstone eruptions, which would have been many times larger.”

If the research holds up, Poland said volcanologists will have to adjust their models.

The ability to examine an event so long ago based on layers of sediment in a basin in California is fascinating to Poland and just one more example of how continuing technological evolution is painting a broader picture of ancient events, and giving greater insight into the functioning of the Yellowstone caldera and its unique geology, tales of which are always good for a headline.

Big GOP tax bill would cut rates — but also popular breaks

WASHINGTON — With fanfare and a White House kickoff, House Republicans unfurled a broad tax-overhaul plan Thursday that would touch virtually all Americans and the economy’s every corner, mingling sharply lower rates for corporations and reduced personal taxes for many with fewer deductions for home-buyers and families with steep medical bills.

The measure, which would be the most extensive rewrite of the nation’s tax code in three decades, is the product of a party that faces increasing pressure to produce a marquee legislative victory of some sort before next year’s elections. GOP leaders touted the plan as a sparkplug for the economy and a boon to the middle class and christened it the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

“We are working to give the American people a giant tax cut for Christmas,” President Donald Trump said in the Oval Office. The measure, he said, “will also be tax reform, and it will create jobs.”

It would also increase the national debt, a problem for some Republicans. And Democrats attacked the proposal as the GOP’s latest bonanza for the rich, with a phase-out of the inheritance tax and repeal of the alternative minimum tax on the highest earners — certain to help Trump and members of his family and Cabinet, among others.

“If you’re the wealthiest 1 percent, Republicans will give you the sun, the moon and the stars, all of that at the expense of the great middle class,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

And there was enough discontent among Republicans and business groups to leave the legislation’s fate uncertain in a journey through Congress that leaders hope will deposit a landmark bill on Trump’s desk by year’s end.

Underscoring problems ahead, some Republicans from high-tax Northeastern states expressed opposition to the measure’s elimination of the deduction for state and local income taxes. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah called the House measure “a great starting point” but said it would be “somewhat miraculous” if its corporate tax rate reduction to 20 percent — a major Trump goal — survived. His panel plans to produce its own tax package in the coming days.

GOP lawmakers concede that if the tax measure collapses, their congressional majorities are at risk in next November’s elections.

The package’s tax reductions would outweigh its loophole closers by a massive $1.5 trillion over the coming decade. Many Republicans were willing to add that to the nation’s soaring debt as a price for claiming a resounding tax victory. But it was likely to pose a problem for others — one of several brushfires leaders will need to extinguish to get the measure through Congress.

Republicans must keep their plan’s shortfall from spilling over that $1.5 trillion line or the measure will lose its protection against Democratic Senate filibusters, bill-killing delays that take 60 votes to overcome. There are just 52 GOP senators and unanimous Democratic opposition is likely.

The bill would telescope today’s seven personal income tax brackets into just four: 12 percent, 25 percent, 35 percent and 39.6 percent.

The 25 percent rate would start at $45,000 for individuals and $90,000 for married couples.

The 35 percent rate would apply to family income exceeding $260,000 and individual income over $200,000, which means many upper-income families whose top rate is currently 33 percent would face higher taxes.

The top rate threshold, now $418,400 for individuals and $470,700 for couples, would rise to $500,000 and $1 million.

The standard deduction — used by people who don’t itemize, about two-thirds of taxpayers — would nearly double to $12,000 for individuals and $24,000 for couples. That’s expected to encourage even more people to use the standard deduction with a simplified tax form Republicans say will be postcard-sized.

Many middle-income families would pay less, thanks to the bigger standard deduction and an increased child tax credit. Republicans said their plan would save $1,182 in taxes for a family of four earning $59,000, but features like phase-outs of some benefits suggest their taxes could grow in the future.

“The plan clearly chooses corporate CEOs and hedge fund managers over teachers and police officers,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J.

One trade-off for the plan’s reductions was its elimination of breaks that millions have long treasured. Gone would be deductions for people’s medical expenses — especially important for families facing nursing home bills or lacking insurance — and their ability to write off state and local income taxes. The mortgage interest deduction would be limited to the first $500,000 of the loan, down from the current $1 million ceiling.

Led by Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, the authors retained the deductibility of up to $10,000 in local property taxes in a bid to line up votes from Republicans from the Northeast. The panel planned to begin votes on the proposal next Monday.

“It’s progress, but I want more,” said Rep. Leonard Lance, R-N.J., who wants the entire property tax deduction restored.

Reduced to 25 percent would be the rate for many “pass-through” businesses, whose profits are taxed at the owners’ individual rate. But some of those companies would face higher rates.

Fremont County school district, family battle over expulsion of student with disabilities

A Fremont County school district filed a petition in federal court last month asking a judge to review an order from a state investigator that reversed the expulsion of a student with disabilities.

At the center of the controversy is whether an outburst — which allegedly included a threat to a staff member’s life — by a 15-year-old Riverton High School student was a manifestation of the teen’s disabilities, which include attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

The student received special education services through the district. Multiple tests also found the student had an IQ between 66 and 72, according to an order overturning the expulsion, and he may have had other behavioral conditions.

On one side is Fremont County School District No. 25. Officials there don’t believe the student’s conditions played a role in the outburst that led to his expulsion.

What appears to be generally agreed upon is the details of the inciting incident. In December 2016, a paraprofessional at the high school told the student to join a different group of peers in an automotive class.

That “set the student off,” according to the investigative report, and the teen allegedly threw a pair of safety goggles and walked out of the room. The student — whose name is not revealed in court or state documents — then allegedly told another teacher that he was going to “kick his a—. I will f—-ing kill him,” referring to the paraprofessional.

The student then spoke with an assistant principal at Riverton High, who — at first — was unaware that the threat was made. The teen apparently asked to go back to the classroom, where he apologized. But the administrator was told about the threat.

“We believe that was the behavior that was the expelable offense,” said district Superintendent Terry Snyder. “We believe that was not an action that was a manifestation of his disability. And I’m going to protect the safety of my staff and students.”

Connected to disability?

After the incident, a “manifestation determination” meeting was held, to decide if the teen’s conditions played in role in his outburst. With the exception of the student’s mother, who participated in the meeting, the group’s members decided that the incident was not a manifestation of his disability.

At first, Snyder proposed a plan through which the student would avoid an expulsion. But if the teen had any other behavioral incidents, then he would be removed from school.

But before the agreement was finalized, another, undisclosed “behavioral incident occurred,” according to the state report by Bob Mullen, the hearing officer hired by the state Department of Education to examine the expulsion. The deal was canceled, and the student was ultimately expelled in February.

What followed were months of hearings and assessments as the student’s mother, arguing that the December incident was a manifestation of his disability.

Ultimately, Mullen examined the case and, citing an examination by two doctors, ruled in favor of the student and his mother.

“The Student’s behavior on December 14, 2016, in (the teacher’s) automotive class, for which the Student was subsequently expelled, constituted a single behavioral act, which was a manifestation of the Student’s disabilities,” Mullen wrote.

He continued, “The Student has a long history of difficulties—for almost as many years as the Student has been in school, it is incredible that a conclusion could be reached by (the district) that this was not in some significant fashion tied to the Student’s well documented limited cognitive capabilities.”

Mullen added that the district did not fully follow the student’s behavior plan and suggested that had the blueprint been dutifully carried out, the incident might have been “avoided, or failing that, effectively interrupted.”

Snyder — and the district — disagreed. Snyder maintains that the incident was not brought about by the teen’s disability. He added that the district had followed the student’s behavior plan.

The district filed a petition on Oct. 11 to have a federal judge examine the order.

For now, the student is still not back in his high school classroom, Snyder said; a stay was placed on Mullen’s order while a judge reviews the district’s petition.

Past issues

The December incident wasn’t the student’s first issue during his time in school.

“(B)eginning in Kindergarten through most of fourth grade, a period prior to the Student’s enrollment (at Riverton High), the Student engaged in behavioral issues which resulted in persistent discipline,” Mullen wrote. “Anecdotal notes and ratings indicate, for example, that the Student could not control personal behavior at school.”

In October 2015, the student told a bus driver that he “will bring a knife and kill everyone on the bus,” Mullen noted.

That incident also prompted a manifestation determination, though the results of that investigation are unknown. Snyder says there was disciplinary action taken, though he said he could not elaborate.

Mullen wrote that in the months before the December incident that led to the student’s expulsion, the teen was suspended at least four times. His mother expressed concern about his behavior and was told that the high school was “going to put a plan in place to help the student with behavior.”

Associated Press  

A wildfire moves closer to homes along Highway 261 on Oct. 9 in Tustin, California. Dave Jones, California’s insurance commissioner, said Tuesday that losses from a series of wildfires in the state in October now exceed $3.3 billion.