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Enzi, Barrasso see no need to wait on new Democrat before passing major GOP tax plan

Wyoming’s two U.S. senators both insisted on delaying a vote on President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee for roughly one year, until after a new president was elected last year. But Sen. John Barrasso and Mike Enzi say there’s no need to delay a vote on the GOP tax bill until newly-elected Alabama Sen. Doug Jones, a Democrat, is seated.

Democrats are calling on Republicans to hold off voting until Jones is sworn in. While it appears the tax plan would have enough votes to pass regardless of whether Jones is in Congress, a closer margin would give more influence to moderate Republican senators who are sympathetic to some Democratic concerns about the legislation.

“Senator Enzi believes the Senate has a lot to do and should continue its work as it normally would,” spokeswoman Max D’Onofrio said in an email. “During a traditional election year, Congress doesn’t stop its work in November.”

But Enzi opposed holding a vote on Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, before a new president was elected.

“The presidential election was an opportunity for the American people to have a say in who chooses the next Supreme Court justice,” Enzi said in the press release following the confirmation of President Donald Trump’s supreme court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, last spring.

Barrasso, too, argued that the Senate needed to wait until after the presidential election to vote on a supreme court pick. But he believes there is no need to hold off voting on the tax legislation.

“We are on the same timeline we’ve always been on – the end of the year – to deliver relief to taxpayers starting in the new year,” Barrasso said in a statement.

While Barrasso spokeswoman Laura Mengelkamp did not address the senator’s opposition to a Supreme Court vote before last year’s presidential election, she did argue that the circumstances surrounding the tax bill were different than the Affordable Care Act.

Barrasso has previously criticized the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010 as rushed and unfair. But following a Senate special election in Massachusetts in which the Democrats lost their super-majority, Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that final votes on the health care bill would not take place until the new Republican senator was seated.

“Bottom line: Brown won in large part because of Obamacare,” Mengelkamp said in an email. “Jones’ election had very little to do with tax.”

Jones beat Republican candidate Roy Moore in what was supposed to be a safe Republican seat following a campaign rocked by accusations that Moore had molested teenage girls when he was in his 30s.

Plan settled on

Wyoming’s all-Republican congressional delegation has strongly backed the GOP tax plan, a final version of which was unveiled late Friday along with announcements of support from previously reluctant senators that all but guarantee approval next week, in time to give President Donald Trump the Christmas legislative triumph he’s been aching for.

The legislation would slash tax rates for big business and lower levies on the richest Americans in a massive $1.5 trillion bill that the GOP plans to muscle through Congress next week. Benefits for most other taxpayers would be smaller.

According to a summary of the measure circulating among lobbyists, today’s 35 percent rate on corporations would fall to 21 percent, the crown jewel of the measure for many Republicans. Trump and GOP leaders had set 20 percent as their goal, but added a point to free money for other tax cuts and that won over wavering lawmakers in final talks.

It’s the widest-ranging reshaping of the tax code in three decades and is expected to add to the nation’s $20 trillion debt. The debt is expected to soar by at least $1 trillion more than it would without the tax measure, according to projections.

Democrats are expected to oppose the legislation unanimously.

The bill would drop today’s 39.6 percent top rate on individuals to 37 percent. The standard deduction — used by around two-thirds of households — would be nearly doubled.

Those who itemize their taxes face mixed results. The $1,000 per child tax deduction would grow to $2,000, with up to $1,400 available in IRS refunds for families who owe little or no taxes.

But the deduction that millions use in connection with state and local income, property and sales taxes would be capped at $10,000. Deductions for medical expenses that lawmakers once considered eliminating would be retained.

The benefits for individuals would expire at the end of the current 10-year budget cycle, but the tax cuts for corporations would be permanent.

Polls show the plan is deeply unpopular among Americans, including Republicans.

Wyoming impact

In Wyoming, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy estimated that under the plan, 66,800 residents would pay more income tax in 2027 than they do today. About 71 percent of the tax cuts in the bill would go to the richest 1 percent of Wyoming residents, who would pay $180,000 less annually while the bottom 80 percent of the state’s population would receive cuts of $100 to $1,000, according to an ITEP estimate from earlier this year.

Enzi, who served on the committee that reconciled the House and Senate versions of the legislation, hailed the final version of the tax bill in a press release Friday.

“After years of tax reform debate and months of negotiating, Congress is closer than ever to passing meaningful tax reform that will let folks in Wyoming and across the country keep more of their hard-earned money,” Enzi said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Shifters closure prompts questions about the effect of Casper's downtown boom

After working for years to revitalize Casper’s core, many city officials now consider downtown a point of pride.

The David Street Station, a public plaza offering an outdoor stage and recreational spaces, opened with fanfare last summer. City leaders hoped the complex would breathe new life into the city’s center, and the plan appears to be working. Various new establishments have popped up in the surrounding blocks, including Gaslight Social and Racca’s Pizzeria Napoletana.

But some feel that the revitalization effort has come at the expense of other neighborhoods.

“The city is so focused on the downtown area,” said Todd Sheppard, the owner of the recently closed Shifters. “People tend to forget things on the west side of town.” The former hamburger joint, located along CY Avenue, shut down last month after Sheppard realized it was no longer lucrative enough to justify the time it took away from his family. It was the right decision, but not an easy one, he said.

Sheppard opened Shifters five years ago, but the space has been in his family for decades. His father, Bob Sheppard, opened an A&W Restaurant on the spot in 1954.

The father and son sat at a table inside the establishment last Thursday, surrounded by stacked chairs and packed up boxes. They sorted through various memorabilia, including photos from celebrations at the restaurant and a brown polyester server’s uniform leftover from the 1960s.

The pair said they opted to close quietly because they weren’t up for socializing or answering questions.

“It was a sad day,” explained Bob Sheppard, adding that he has endless fond memories of the business.

TJ’s Bar and Grill, a 23-year-old establishment on CY Avenue, has also lost “quite a bit” of customers since downtown’s revitalization, according to manager Kristi Lockard. While she agrees it’s important to keep the city’s center in good condition, the manager said other areas are being neglected.

City Manager Carter Napier said he understands all areas of the community could benefit from revitalization efforts, but said the city can’t work on every section of Casper at the same time.

“It’s kind of a rotation ... It just happens to be that redevelopment is [now] taking place in the downtown area, which hadn’t happened in quite some time,” he explained.

Gilda Lara, executive director for the Casper Area Chamber of Commerce, previously told the Star-Tribune that the agency hoped new dining and drinking establishments would add vitality to the city, which would encourage residents to go out more and enjoy the town. This could be beneficial for older businesses and new ones, she explained.

And some local entrepreneurs agree with that idea.

“There’s definitely been a big push for the downtown, but I don’t necessary think that’s bad,” said Bernard Ambrosino, owner of Silver Fox restaurant on Energy Lane.

A thriving downtown is good for the city as a whole, he explained, adding that his clientele has expanded in recent years.

The restaurant business is just tough in general, according to Ted Klatt, the general manager of J’s Pub & Grill on Southwest Wyoming Boulevard.

Drawing customers to the west side of town can be challenging, but Klatt said their establishment makes it work by offering plenty of dining options and frequently changing up the menu to keep diners coming back.

Mayor Kenyne Humphrey previously told the Star-Tribune that she considers revitalization and expansion efforts downtown to be among City Council’s greatest accomplishments.

A city’s dying if its center isn’t growing, she explained.

Todd Sheppard doesn’t blame Casper officials for wanting to spruce up downtown. But he hopes city leaders will remember that the west side could also benefit from renovations and publicity.

Katie King covers the city of Casper.

Casper's economic development association answers questions about public money

An economic development organization in Casper that annually receives about $400,000 in public funds presented its budget information at a recent Casper City Council meeting, but some council members said they still need more details about how the money is used.

A one-page document outlining the organization’s budget for financial year 2018 was passed out to council members by Charles Walsh, the president and CEO of the Casper Area Economic Development Alliance.

Out of the 47 line items, the highest expenses were staff salaries and office rent. CAEDA has budgeted $318,225 on salaries for its four employees, $50,107 on office rent and parking, $26,466 on health insurance, $20,890 on marketing and $15,200 on public community events, according to the document.

Organizations that receive public funding are routinely required to present council with information about how it is spent, but council members complained at a meeting in July that CAEDA is not forthcoming with this information.

The development alliance, which is supervised by the Economic Development Joint Powers Board, works to attract new businesses to Casper and help existing businesses improve their profitably. Public funding is directly given to the joint powers board and then trickles down to CAEDA.

Walsh told council in July that CAEDA solicits private funds to use for investments in amounts that dwarf the public contribution. CAEDA officials are therefore concerned that fully opening the group’s books would sink confidential negotiations to recruit businesses to Casper.

Councilman Dallas Laird told Walsh on Tuesday that the document was a “step in the right direction,” but said he expected a more detailed breakdown of the expenses. Instead of listing one figure for staff salaries, Laird explained that he wanted to know exact salaries for each employee.

Walsh said that his salary is $132,000, but explained discussing his staff’s salaries would be an invasion of privacy.

“I don’t compare one salary to another and I think its counter intuitive to a high-performing functional team,” he said.

The CEO then explained that he needed to speak to the organization’s board before he could offer any additional data.

Walsh said Thursday that CAEDA’s board of directors met that morning to discuss the possibility of providing council with more information. He is unsure what the board decided, but said they will be in touch with council this week.

Although the organization is “very appreciative” of the public funding it receives, Walsh said he is unsure why some council members want additional information.

“We gave them a full detailed listing of our budget,” he said.

Some council members agree with Walsh.

“I think Charles Walsh gave us a detailed review of their budget and their expenses...As far as I’m concerned [the matter is] complete,” said Councilman Charlie Powell on Thursday.

Although Powell said transparency is important, the councilman is concerned that this discussion is overshadowing CAEDA’s accomplishments.

Pointing out that the organization obtained funds to extend sewer services out to businesses along Highway 20/26 all the way to the airport, Powell said CAEDA deserves credit for working to drive Casper’s economy.

Vice Mayor Ray Pacheco said Wednesday that he also considers the budget information provided by CAEDA to be sufficient.

In addition to budget information, Walsh gave council members a document listing some of CAEDA’s recent achievements, which included hosting site visits with prospective businesses, promoting Casper during the Wyoming Eclipse Festival and facilitating the creation of a pharmacy residency program in Casper.

But Laird said Thursday that he still expects CAEDA to return to council with more information.

“People have to be responsible with city money,” he said. “You shouldn’t give anybody 10 cents of city money unless they tell you exactly what they’re going to do with and how it’s going to benefit the taxpayers.”

Councilwoman Amanda Huckabay said Thursday that she agrees with Laird.

Other organizations that receive public funding provide more detailed reports about its usage to council, she said, adding that said it is unacceptable that CAEDA does not.

“I think [CAEDA] better take us seriously or there is going to be repercussions,” she remarked.