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Wyoming ‘stand your ground’ bill sent to governor; Mead has expressed concerns

CHEYENNE — Wyoming’s controversial “stand your ground” self-defense bill was sent to Gov. Matt Mead on Saturday, who must now decide whether to veto it.

The legislation is meant to strengthen and clarify Wyoming’s self-defense laws, something advocates say is necessary to empower law-abiding state residents to protect themselves. But critics have expressed a variety of concerns, ranging from the restrictions that the bill would place on law enforcement to novel legal mechanisms that would be introduced to state statute.

In an interview last week, Mead expressed concern about an earlier version of the bill that would have initially granted suspects in assault or murder cases immunity from arrest or prosecution if they claimed to have acted in self-defense.

“I thought you were creating almost a super-class there,” Mead said. “I don’t think that is good law.”

But the two “stand your ground bills” being considered by the Legislature, which became largely identical after several major amendments, eventually removed the criminal immunity provision, which also would have required a judge to find a defendant claiming self-defense guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt” before a trial would be allowed to proceed.

Mead praised that change, spearheaded by Sen. Drew Perkins, R-Casper, despite warnings against the change from the National Rifle Association and Wyoming Gun Owners.

Chris Mickey, the governor’s spokesman, said Monday that Mead had received the bill but would take the full three days allotted to decide whether or not to veto it.

“He hasn’t decided yet,” Mickey said.

The House will convene briefly Wednesday afternoon to receive veto messages from Mead and both chambers will be in session Thursday to consider veto override votes and solve remaining state budget items that were not resolved on Saturday, when the Legislature’s 2018 session was scheduled to conclude.

To override a veto, two-thirds of lawmakers in both chambers must vote against the governor’s position. The bill sent to Mead, House Bill 168, passed the House 49-11 and the Senate 26-4, both well over the two-thirds that would be required for an override.

The two “stand your ground” bills being considered by the Legislature this year went through something of a tortured legislative process. House Bill 168 was introduced by Rep. Tim Salazar, R-Dubois, while Senate File 71, another self-defense bill, was introduced by Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne.

Early in the session, Salazar requested that the language of his bill be entirely deleted and replaced with the text of Bouchard’s legislation. Bouchard’s bill was then heavily amended by the Senate over his objections to remove the criminal immunity provision, which was opposed by both the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police and the Wyoming Trial Lawyers Association.

Salazar then requested that his bill be changed once again to match Bouchard’s now-amended Senate bill.

The House then passed a further amendment to Bouchard’s legislation that would have granted immunity from civil liability — basically being sued for damages — to anyone who used force in self-defense. Rep. Mike Gierau, D-Jackson, noted that the civil immunity clause would bar innocent bystanders from suing someone who shot them so long as that person was intending to shoot an attacker. For example, if someone was being chased by a knife-wielding man and shot a gun attempting to hit the man with the knife but accidentally striking someone else standing nearby, the victim would be barred from suing.

Gierau’s amendment, which passed the House, clarified that only an attacker would be barred from suing someone who used force against him or her.

But the Senate decided not to take a final vote on Bouchard’s bill, instead approving Salazar’s measure — which lacks Gierau’s amendment — and sending it to Mead.

Wyoming educational program
Legislature passes bill to bring computer science into all Wyoming schools

Computer science will likely be taught in all Wyoming schools in the coming years, thanks to a bill passed last week.

“This is landmark legislation,” state Superintendent Jillian Balow said Monday. “... By and large and in many ways, we’re pioneers of this. That’s a really exciting place to be.”

The measure, which has been sent to Gov. Matt Mead for final approval, will fold computer science into the state’s educational program. It will become one of several areas — like math and science — that will have its own content standards, created by state educators.

The legislation affects both graduation requirements and the Hathaway success curriculum. Students could swap computer science for a science credit — of which they need three — for graduation. For the Hathaway Scholarship, it can also stand in for a math class.

Balow said the work to build enthusiasm about computer science began years ago and was initially met with disinterest.

“I broached the idea with (the Joint Education Committee) about two and a half years ago during the interim and didn’t get any traction whatsoever,” she said.

But as months went by, educators, business leaders and the tech industry voiced support. Not only was computer science a chance to add to a Wyoming student’s education, but it could also help provide a sorely needed workforce. At the time, the state was going through another energy bust, and officials were looking for ways to diversify Wyoming’s economy.

Sen. Hank Coe, the chairman of the education committee that sponsored the bill, told his fellow lawmakers last month that he had heard from a tech official that there were “$30 million worth of (computer science) jobs in Wyoming that are unfilled.”

Over this past interim — the months between legislative sessions — lawmakers on two education committees put forward legislation to codify computer science into Wyoming’s schools. Balow said that while the state Department of Education supported both measures, education officials leaned more toward the eventually successful Senate measure.

That bill — titled Senate File 29 — would place computer science into both the common core of skills and common core of knowledge. The skills component are areas that are taught across subjects — like critical thinking. The common core of knowledge, meanwhile, is often its own subject area, which is why computer science will have its own state-developed standards for it.

“That is really essential,” Balow said. “It gives pathways for computer science education at each grade level.”

While computer science found fertile ground among education-minded lawmakers, some educators voiced concern about just how to teach it. How would a small school district be able to attract qualified instructors? Even if they could bring them in, what’s stopping that teacher from turning around and taking a higher-paying job in the tech industry later?

Balow acknowledged that was a concern. But computer science won’t be fully rolled out for five years, which she said should give districts and teachers ample time to prepare.

The state hopes to train 500 instructors to teach computer science by 2022. That will look different for different grade levels, she said. For instance, a fourth-grade teacher may not need a math certificate to teach the subject. But that instructor does need training. The same would go for elementary school-level computer science teachers.

At the secondary level, Balow says she anticipates “that we’ll have a number of teachers step forward and want to what’s called micro-credentialing.”

“Basically, add an endorsement that’s designed and approved by the Professional Teachers Standards Board,” she explained.

Trump's strong words on guns give way to political reality

WASHINGTON — Not two weeks ago, President Donald Trump wagged his finger at a Republican senator and scolded him for being "afraid of the NRA," declaring that he would stand up to the powerful gun lobby and finally get results on quelling gun violence following last month's Florida school shooting.

On Monday, Trump struck a very different tone as he backpedaled from his earlier demands for sweeping reforms and bowed to Washington reality. The president, who recently advocated increasing the minimum age to purchase an assault weapon to 21, tweeted that he's "watching court cases and rulings" on the issue, adding that there is "not much political support (to put it mildly)."

Over the weekend, the White House released a limited plan to combat school shootings that leaves the question of arming teachers to states and local communities and sends the age issue to a commission for review. Just two days earlier, Trump had mocked commissions as something of a dead end while talking about the opioid epidemic. "We can't just keep setting up blue-ribbon committees," he said, adding that all they do is "talk, talk, talk."

Seventeen people were killed in last month's shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, prompting a national conversation about gun laws, fierce advocacy for stronger gun control from surviving students and, initially, a move from Trump to buck his allies at the National Rifle Association.

In a televised meeting with lawmakers on Feb. 28, Trump praised members of the gun lobby as "great patriots" but declared "that doesn't mean we have to agree on everything. It doesn't make sense that I have to wait until I'm 21 to get a handgun, but I can get this weapon at 18."

He then turned toward Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pennsylvania, and questioned why previous gun control legislation did not include that provision.

"You know why?" said Trump, answering his own question. "Because you're afraid of the NRA, right? Ha ha."

His words rattled some Republicans in Congress and sparked hope among some gun control advocates that, unlike after so many previous mass shootings, meaningful regulations would be enacted. But Trump appeared to foreshadow his change of heart with a tweet the very next night.

"Good (Great) meeting in the Oval Office tonight with the NRA!" the president wrote.

White House aides said Monday the president was focusing on achievable options, after facing significant opposition from lawmakers on a more comprehensive approach. Trump will back two modest pieces of legislation, and the administration pledged to help states pay for firearms training for teachers.

Seemingly on the defensive after his about-face, Trump tweeted Monday of the age limit that "States are making this decision. Things are moving rapidly on this, but not much political support (to put it mildly)."

The White House insisted that Trump remained committed to more significant changes even if they are delayed.

"We can't just write things down and make them law. We actually have to follow a process," said press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. "Right now the president's primary focus is pushing through things we know that have broad bipartisan support."

She placed blame for the inaction on Capitol Hill. But Trump has made little effort to marshal the support of congressional Republicans or use his popularity with NRA voters to provide cover for his party during a contentious vote.

Democrats and gun control advocates were quick to pounce on the president's retreat from previous demands, with Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., tweeting that Trump "couldn't even summon the political courage to propose raising the age limit on firearm purchases — despite repeated promises to support such a step at a meeting with lawmakers."

Television personality Geraldo Rivera — who had urged the president to consider tougher age limits during a dinner at Trump's Florida club — tweeted that Trump had "blinked in face of ferocious opposition from #NRA."

Still, Trump argued that this was progress.

"Very strong improvement and strengthening of background checks will be fully backed by White House," he tweeted. He added that an effort to bar bump stock devices was coming and that "Highly trained expert teachers will be allowed to conceal carry, subject to State Law. Armed guards OK, deterrent!"

Without strong advocacy from the White House, an ambitious gun package was unlikely to even get off the ground, given most Republicans' opposition to any new restrictions. The two measures backed by Trump — an effort to strengthen the federal background check system and an anti-school violence grant program — both enjoy bipartisan support, though some Republicans object and many Democrats say they are insufficient.

Trump drew some Republican backing, with Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, who wrote the school safety bill, tweeting he was "grateful" for the White House backing and calling the measure "the best first step we can take" to make students safer.

Separately, Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday directed the FBI to identify localities that are not fully reporting information about arrests and mental health records to federal authorities. Such information could prevent someone from purchasing a gun if discovered during a background check.

Sessions told the FBI that people who can't legally own guns shouldn't be able to pass background checks "simply because information was not available to you."

No deadline was set for recommendations from Trump's planned commission, but officials expected them within a year.

Wyoming budget restores funding for environmental council that denied coal permit

Lawmakers approved two more years of funding for an independent environmental review agency but may still consider cuts stemming from the board’s controversial decision to deny a coal mining permit in Northern Wyoming.

An original version of Wyoming’s two-year budget had struck the second year of funding for the Environmental Quality Council and mandated a report to lawmakers on the council’s efficiency and whether it should retain its own staff or be served by employees of the Department of Environmental Quality instead.

The Senate reinstated funding and that decision was maintained in the final budget passed Saturday.

The two-man agency serves a seven-member board, appointed by the governor and approved by the Senate. That board hears contested cases in Wyoming, from energy firms disputing decisions made by state regulators to landowners complaining about environmental issues.

The council is also the final stop before new regulations from the Department of Environmental Quality are passed on to the governor for approval.

Lawmakers in favor of the funding cut maintained that they were not trying to get rid of the council, but to gauge its performance before deciding on a second year of funding.

Representative Donald Burkhart, R-Rawlins, said in a floor debate Feb. 21 that he had heard that the agency was “having problems,” and that staffing them through the Department of Environmental Quality was within the law.

“The statute says they will get their advice from the state’s top legal mind and they will get support from the agency that handles environmental issues,” he said.

Lawmakers also noted the council’s decision to deny a coal mining permit for Ramaco Wyoming Coal Company last fall as one of the reasons they had concerns with the council.

Ramaco’s proposed Brook Mine in Sheridan County was given preliminary approval by state regulators but was opposed by a number of locals who believed the company’s plan fell short of addressing the impact of a new mine in their backyard. The council voted, with one dissenter, in favor of the landowners and requested that more work be done on the mining plan before regulators could give a permit to Ramaco.

The decision troubled some lawmakers, who could not name Ramaco on the floor per house legislative rules, but alluded to a contentious mining decision. Burkhart said it’s a problem when the state’s regulatory agency sees nothing wrong with a permit, a company spends millions on developing it, but it’s derailed by “radical groups.”

Those who opposed withdrawing funding for the Environmental Quality Council argued that the board was designed to be independent and at times in disagreement with the state. That’s its role and its value, said Rep. Jamie Flitner, R-Greybull, whose husband is a member of the Environmental Quality Council.

“I can assure you, they are the only common sense buffer between your average-day Joe who runs a garbage bus or a gravel pit and government overreach,” she said in the House debate.

Shannon Anderson, lawyer for the Powder River Basin Resource Council, said they would be watching the results of the report on the council during the interim. The Powder River Basin Resource Council opposed the Brook mine permit.

The proposal to cut funding appeared “reactionary,” she said.

“I think there were a number of legislators that self-corrected that and wanted to affirm that this is an agency of public importance,” she said.

Wyoming’s budget was a contentious one this year. More than a third of lawmakers voted against to the final bill, with some seeking more cuts to deal with a large deficit. The state is facing an $850 million budget hole due to declines in energy markets. It largely depends on its savings to keep government funding stable over the next two years.