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LGBT rights
Casper gay rights group proposes city resolution against discrimination

Gay rights advocates will ask city leaders Tuesday to approve an anti-discrimination resolution, contending such a move would help support Casper’s LGBT community.

Attitudes toward Casper’s gay and lesbian community are improving, but support from local officials is still needed, said Ruth Ann Leonard, a member of Casper’s chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

“When my son was growing up here, there was discrimination,” she said. “I know that there is now too, and a lot of people just want to let it be.”

But Leonard is not satisfied with the status quo.

She and other members of PFLAG, an organization that advocates for people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender, are asking that Casper City Council approve a resolution affirming the rights of LGBT citizens to live discrimination-free lives.

City Council will consider the proposal at its Tuesday work session.

The resolution is not an ordinance, but it would “set a tone” of acceptance, which could benefit the entire city, explained Rob Johnston, the president of PFLAG’s local chapter.

Many perceive Wyoming as an unwelcoming state towards the LGBT community, he said. This perception leads some residents to leave the area and might also dissuade businesses or potential employees from moving here.

Although attempts to pass an anti-discrimination bill through the state Legislature have failed, Johnston said other cities in Wyoming have established resolutions or ordinances to promote equal rights and opportunities for LGBT residents.

The Laramie City Council was the first in Wyoming to pass such an ordinance. Complaints about LGBT discrimination there now go to an investigator, and if they are determined to be valid, the accused person may receive sensitivity training. If the accused refuses, the city attorney’s office takes over and can issue fines or even jail time.

Although a resolution doesn’t have the same teeth as an ordinance, Leonard and Johnston agreed that it would be a meaningful show of support to the LGBT community. Gillette recently passed a similar resolution, added Johnston.

City Manager Carter Napier expressed support for the resolution in a memo sent to Mayor Kenyne Humphrey last week.

“LBGT persons have been harassed, rejected and even murdered for being different,” it states. “It is important that Casper illustrates that compassion, understanding and unity are values that are upheld and promoted.”

Council is looking forward to discussing the proposal, said Humphrey.

“We definitely want to show support for all our citizens in the community,” she added.

While some feel hopeful about the prospect of resolutions that support the LGBT community, others have concerns. When state legislators were debating a non-discrimination bill earlier this year, multiple religious leaders spoke out against it, according to reports by the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

Deacon Mike Leman of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne said the bill would be a step in the wrong direction.

“I think there’s a tremendous amount of healing that needs to take place on both sides,” the newspaper quoted him as saying. “We don’t believe this new law will help enable that.”

Better than expected, oil prices nudge $60

The price of oil pushed up against the $60 dollar mark Friday, landing about a buck short of the national benchmark of light, sweet crude.

In Wyoming, where the price for operators is always a few dollars less than the West Texas Intermediate, the positive direction in pricing has buoyed hopes for a strong end to the year and a better new year. It’s also surprised many who have been betting on a much slower return.

“I really didn’t expect this continued escalation of prices,” said Chuck Mason, an oil and gas economist at the University of Wyoming’s Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy.

Wyoming has held onto about 25 rigs for the last six months, up from single digits at the beginning of 2016 when the price fell below $30 a barrel, stifling production, drilling and interest.

The environment has improved this year, despite an unsettling valley mid-summer, and the state’s economy has now absorbed the benefits of increased activity in the oil fields, the consequent uptick in jobs and revenue, experts say.

Wyoming is waiting for good news to make up for the deep dive of years’ past.

Simply put, the price will have to be sustained to push operations further, said Mason, the UW economist.

“If we did believe that $60 or even a bit higher to be the new normal, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a gradual uptick in drilling in the state,” he said.

State revenue projections for the oil and gas sector, published in October, don’t predict a dramatic increase in price or production. State economists are cautious about overstating the numbers that dictate Wyoming’s budget and spending, Mason said.

Either way, $60-a-barrel oil prices are good for operators that are drilling in the Cowboy State right now, said Bruce Hinchey, president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming. They’ll get a better return, he said.

“We’ve got a long way to go to catch up to where we were,” he said.

But operators will react to the stability of the price as much as the uptick. A sustained higher price will bleed into drilling improvement next year, he said, echoing Mason.

Diemer True, the former chairman of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, noted that many Wyoming operators have moved away from building drilling plans around price forecasts, instead developing an outlook based on the price they’ve locked in through hedging contracts.

In the long run, Wyoming’s place in an improving market will depend on the rock and the companies that explore and drill in the state, said True of Casper-based Diamond Oil and Gas said. Diamond isn’t currently involved in exploration or production, but in the buying and selling of producing properties.

While the broader picture of crude remains uncertain, analyst Phil Flynn of Price Futures Group in Chicago is bullish on what can happen in the coming year.

“We are seeing a market that is going from oversupply to tight supply in a very short period of time,” he said, noting the likelihood that international production caps from the oil cartel OPEC will be extended.

A lot of folks thought oil couldn’t come back from its $40-dollar range earlier this year, Flynn said. They predicted low economic growth, poor demand and a risk that shale producers would move into the gap left by international caps and further depress prices.

That’s not how things have played out.

Global economic growth exceeded expectations, he said.

“What I’m saying is that I think we are looking at a generational bottom on oil prices,” he said. “We are going to probably be a lot higher next year than we are this year.”

Senators consider automatic tax hikes if revenue falls short (copy)

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans are considering a trigger that would automatically increase taxes if their sweeping legislation fails to generate as much revenue as they expect. It’s an effort to mollify deficit hawks who worry that tax cuts for businesses and individuals will add to the nation’s already mounting debt.

The effort comes as a second Republican senator, Steve Daines of Montana, announced Monday that he opposes the tax bill in its current form. Previously, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said he opposed the bill, leaving Senate Republicans no room for error as they hope to vote on the bill this week.

Both senators complained that the tax bill favors large corporations over small businesses. Republicans have only two votes to spare in the Senate, where they hold a 52-48 edge and anticipate Vice President Mike Pence breaking a tie.

At the White House, President Donald Trump maintained that the bill would help all Americans.

“I think it’s going to benefit everybody,” the president said. “It’s going to mostly benefit people looking for jobs more than anything else, because we’re giving great incentives.”

A new congressional estimate says the Senate tax bill would add $1.4 trillion to the budget deficit over the next decade. But GOP leaders dispute the estimate, saying tax cuts will spur economic growth, reducing the hit on the deficit.

Many economists disagree with such optimistic projections. The trigger would be a way for senators to test their economic assumptions, with real consequences if they are wrong.

“Do we have realistic numbers and is there a backstop in the process just in case we don’t?” asked Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla.

“We should build in the ‘What if?’ What if this doesn’t work?” Lankford said. “What changes might be needed in the tax code in the days ahead to be able to adjust in what scenario?”

“If the revenue’s not coming in, should the rates change?” he asked.

Lankford didn’t spell out exactly how the trigger would work, noting that senators are still working on the proposal.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said the trigger is possible. But, he added, the proposal could run afoul of the Senate’s byzantine budget rules.

Trump and Senate Republicans scrambled Monday to make changes to the bill in an effort to win over holdout GOP senators and pass a tax package by the end of the year.

“I think the tax bill is going very well,” Trump said.

Trump and Senate leaders are trying to balance competing demands. While some senators fear the package’s debt consequences, others want more generous tax breaks for businesses. In a boost for the legislation, Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky said he would back the measure.

Trump hosted Republican members of the Senate Finance Committee on Monday at the White House. Afterward, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, said the plan is to vote on the current tax bill this week, then work out the differences between the Senate bill and one passed by the House earlier this month.

But as of Monday, GOP leaders still were trying to round up the votes in the Senate to pass the bill.

“We always have to deal with everybody. It’s not any one particular person,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the Finance Committee. “These are tough times, these are tough issues. They’re hard to deal with and we’ve had to deal with them.”

Trump suggested he is open to making unspecified changes to the way millions of “pass-through” businesses are taxed, a sticking point for some lawmakers. These are businesses in which profits are passed onto the owners, who report the income on their individual tax returns. The vast majority of U.S. businesses, big and small, are taxed this way.

Both Daines and Johnson said the current bill doesn’t cut business taxes enough for these types of partnerships and corporations. Johnson gets substantial income from such companies, including a manufacturer he helped found in Wisconsin and a commercial real estate company, according to his financial disclosure statements.

Johnson is set to vote today in the Senate Budget Committee on the measure. He told Wisconsin reporters Monday, “If we develop a fix prior to committee, I’ll probably support it, but if we don’t I’ll vote against it.”

Johnson said Trump has assured lawmakers there will be changes. Trump is to travel today to Capitol Hill to lobby Republican senators personally.

The overall tax package blends a sharp reduction in top corporate and business tax rates with more modest relief for individuals.

In signaling his support, Paul wrote in an op-ed on Fox News: “I’m not getting everything I want — far from it. But I’ve been immersed in this process. I’ve fought for and received major changes for the better — and I plan to vote for this bill as it stands right now.”

UW rodeo coach dies over holiday weekend

George Howard, the coach for the University of Wyoming’s rodeo club, died Sunday after suffering a gunshot wound, according to the Converse County Sheriff’s Office.

Howard, 59, was in an area southwest of Douglas on Friday afternoon when first responders arrived at the scene, according to Converse County Under Sheriff Nathan Hughes. They were responding to a report of a man with a gunshot wound.

Howard was transported to Converse County Memorial Hospital and then taken to Wyoming Medical Center, where he later died.

“The UW community is saddened to learn of the death of Coach Howard,” UW President Laurie Nichols wrote in a press release. “He touched the lives of many cowgirls and cowboys during his 20 years as the coach of our rodeo program, and we appreciate the leadership he provided for so many years. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family and many friends, including our rodeo student-athletes, past and present.”

The press release cited the Converse County Sheriff’s Department. Hughes could not provide additional details including cause of death or if Howard was alone or with people at the time. The investigation is still active.

The Converse County coroner’s office also declined to comment, citing the investigation.

Sen. Bill Landen, who was friends with Howard, called the coach a gentleman.

“He was part of a generation that gave so many students the opportunity of a better life through college rodeo,” Landen wrote in a statement to the Star-Tribune. “He will be missed.”

Howard was the head rodeo coach at Wyoming for 20 years. During those 20 seasons he coached eight College National Finals Rodeo champions. The Wyoming women won the team championship at CNFR in 2007 and 2009. The Wyoming men finished second in 2003.

File, Star-Tribune File 

Rob Johnston helps to serve lunch during the Pride in the Park picnic in June 2014 at Mike Sedar Park in Casper. He hopes city leaders will pass an anti-discrimination resolution.

Brett French, For the Star-Tribune  

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks officials are working to define an area in south-central Montana where a special hunt would be conducted to determine the extent of chronic wasting disease prevalence in the area.

Natrona County High School educator accused of hitting autistic student no longer employed at district

A Natrona County High School educator accused of hitting a 14-year-old autistic student is no longer employed with the district.

It’s unclear whether Mark Brattis, an assistant teacher at NCHS, left voluntarily or was fired. A personnel report shows only that he no longer worked for the Natrona County School District as of Nov. 13, two weeks after the alleged incident.

“The person is no longer employed with the Natrona County School District,” spokeswoman Tanya Southerland wrote in a statement to the Star-Tribune. “As this is a personnel matter, I cannot provide further details.”

She did not respond to follow-up questions about whether the district is still investigating or if the incident has prompted any changes.

Marisol Villescas told the Star-Tribune in late October that her 14-year-old brother, Gabriel, had gotten out of the NC building on Oct. 30 and had fallen off of some construction equipment when staff found him. They tried to help him up, at which point the student began throwing rocks at them, Villescas said.

After Gabriel was taken back inside, he apparently hit Brattis, who then open-hand smacked the teen in the face, the sister said.

Other teachers saw what happened, Villescas said, and they — with Brattis — went to tell high school administrators what happened.

Brattis was suspended after the incident. He did not respond to an email seeking comment at the time and the Star-Tribune could not reach him for comment Monday.

Villescas did not respond to a request for comment Monday. She told the Star-Tribune in October that her family planned to file a police report once the district had completed its investigation.