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Govt-and-politics
Cigarette tax
Wyoming cigarette tax could go up $1 per pack. But questions about reservation sales remain.

CHEYENNE — Smokers in Wyoming would pay an additional $1 per pack and roughly $10 more per carton under a measure given a tentative green light by the Legislature’s revenue committee.

At 60 cents, Wyoming has one of the lowest cigarette taxes in the nation, and on Monday, public health concerns aligned with a need to bring more cash into public coffers amid the roughly $700 million budget deficit. Lawmakers decided to move forward the cigarette tax bill that was effectively tabled during the revenue committee’s August meeting.

“It raises the cigarette tax to about the national average,” said Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, the bill’s sponsor. Connolly said projections show it generating an additional $26 million per year. “To me, that’s not chump change,” she added.

Committee members narrowly voted 7 to 6 to consider at their December meeting whether to recommend the $1 cigarette tax increase to the full Legislature. The bill will be debated and voted on at that meeting along with a host of other tax measures, including one on tourism and increases on liquor taxes.

Concerns about reservation

But the decision to move forward came with an important caveat: the state must negotiate a tax-sharing arrangement with the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes on the Wind River Reservation. Tribal-owned businesses on the reservation are exempt from state taxes and retailers in Fremont County, adjacent to the reservation, fear losing business if the cigarette tax goes up.

Concerns over what to do about cigarette sales on the reservation effectively submarined consideration of the cigarette tax at the August meeting. But Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, successfully amended the bill on Monday to make it mandatory that the state reach a deal with the tribes that tax cigarettes sold on the reservation and remit a portion of those funds to the state. If the state cannot reach an agreement, the tax will not be imposed anywhere in Wyoming.

Case said this was important both to ensure that whatever health impacts come from raising the tax across the state also apply to the reservation and would allow convenience stores near the reservation to stay competitive.

“In a lot of small towns around Wyoming, the convenience store is one of the only things that’s left in them — which is sad — but cigarettes are a big part of why they’re there,” Case said.

While Case’s amendment passed overwhelmingly, Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, opposed the measure. Ellis said she was concerned that it would force the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes to impose a tax identical to the state’s tax when they might prefer to levy a higher or lower cigarette tax just like Wyoming’s neighboring states have the option of doing.

Connolly objected to making the tax increase contingent on an agreement with the tribes because, she said, it was illegal for non-tribal members to purchase cigarettes on the reservation and lawmakers should not take the actions of lawbreakers into account.

“You’re basically saying you think it’ll happen and we need to accommodate it,” Connolly said. “We never need to accommodate illegal behavior.”

Revenue department director Dan Noble said that while wholesale distributors are required to pay taxes on tobacco products, it is not technically illegal for Wyoming residents to purchase cigarettes on the reservation.

Noble said that without an agreement with the tribes, the state was limited in its ability to enforce cigarette taxes on the reservation. The state does not have the jurisdiction to impose taxes on the reservation, but because it is entirely surrounded by Wyoming, Noble said it would be possible — through a messy process — to seize and confiscate tobacco products as they were transported to Wind River.

Ellis warned against using such confrontational tactics, which she said have backfired elsewhere in the country.

“They create damaging relationships between states and tribes, one that are very difficult to overcome,” Ellis said. “I think we need to have a more comprehensive look at this issue before we have a very volatile issue that damages our relationship with the tribes.”

Lobbyists face off

Lobbyists representing both public health organizations and retailers showed up on opposite sides of the issue.

Jason Minser, government relations director at the American Cancer Society, said his organization supported the bill because the $1 increase was sufficient to cut down on smoking rates rather than simply raise additional revenue.

The American Cancer Society has opposed more modest increases in the past, including an unsuccessful proposal during last year’s legislative session to raise the tax by just 30 cents.

Rep. Mike Madden, R-Buffalo, was the sponsor of that 30-cent increase, which would represent simple inflation from the last cigarette tax increase 15 years ago, attempted on Monday to change Connolly’s bill from the $1 increase and application to all tobacco products back to a 30-cent increase and only on cigarettes. His amendment was defeated 6 to 7.

Wyoming Senate committee kills cigarette tax increase

CHEYENNE — Lawmakers killed a bill Thursday afternoon that would have increased the tax on a pack of cigarettes tax by 30 cents, slashing millions in potential revenue that had been earmarked to pay for mental health.

Minser said that any increase of less than $1 was generally absorbed by tobacco producers and distributors who work to discount products so that consumers see the price increase by just a few cents per year and would not convince anyone to quit smoking or not start in the first place.

“If you put forward a bill that is over a dollar, you’re doing some other things,” Minser said. “Adults will quit, kids will quit who currently smoke … potential smokers or kids who are picking up a cigarette for the first time are very price sensitive as well.”

Wyoming’s cigarette tax is currently lower than every neighboring state with the exception of Idaho, where the tax is three cents lower, according to the Tax Foundation. If the Legislature raises the cigarette tax to $1.60, the tax would then be higher than Idaho, Nebraska and Colorado.

Mark Larson of the Wyoming Petroleum Marketers Association said that 21 percent of cigarette tax revenue in the state currently comes from out-of-state consumers who would presumably stop buying tobacco in Wyoming if the price went up.

Connolly said a $1 increase in the tax per pack is expected to reduce the smoking rate in Wyoming by about 5 percent.

Opposing the tax was Mike Moser, president of Wyoming State Liquor Association, who said retailers are already reeling from a 30 percent drop in sales during the economic bust and the cigarette tax is just one of several measures the Legislature is considering that would hurt businesses in the state including a tourism tax and eliminating the sales tax exemption for services.

Business owners are angry that the state has not cut more government spending before considering tax increases, he said.

“Retailers out there are hurting,” Moser said. “There are a lot of people hurting out there and there’s a lot of anger and a lot of rage.”

Future uncertainty

Because the revenue committee has been tasked by the Legislature’s leadership council with coming up with a variety of proposals to raise revenue, voting to consider the cigarette tax increase does not indicate that the committee will actually decide to sponsor such a tax at its December meeting.

It is also unclear whether the committee’s blessing would matter when the bill hits the full Legislature. After his attempt to lower the amount of the tax increase was defeated, Madden voted for the bill anyway but cautioned that most lawmakers were likely to reject any attempt to discourage smoking by passing such a steep increase in the tax.

“Social engineering taxation doesn’t work in Wyoming. We just don’t do that,” Madden said. “A bill like that never passes.”


Education
Natrona County district not trying to close rural schools, though it is part of worst-case scenario plan

The Natrona County School District has no current plan to close its rural schools despite rumors to the contrary, an official said Monday. The move is, however, one of several options the district has examined broadly should state cuts become much more significant than they are now.

For months, the district’s administration has been working on preparing for the worst-case scenario. After it approved a trimmed-down budget in July, the school board wanted to know: Should the state cut $350 million or more from Wyoming’s schools — which find themselves in a significant funding shortfall — how would Natrona County shoulder its share of the cut?

A reduction of that size would be a roughly $48.5 million blow, which would constitute about 25 percent of the district’s funds.

That’s where the rural school closure discussion comes into play. Michael Jennings, the executive director of human services at the district, explained that the planning has included looking at how much could be saved by closing those schools; by cutting the district’s staff by 10 percent or 20 percent; slashing salaries and benefits; instituting pay-for-play policies for some activities; and dropping to a four-day school week.

The rural schools identified by officials are Alcova Elementary, Midwest School, Poison Spider, Red Creek Elementary and Powder River Elementary.

To be clear, the district has no recommendation to close those schools. No board or administrator committee is considering it beyond an exercise in broad preparation. There are no meetings scheduled to discuss it. The committee that recommended the closure of Frontier Middle and Mountain View, Willard and University Park elementary schools has not presented any new proposals to the board, Jennings said.

Indeed, even if the district were to face a $48.5 million cut, it’s not certain what strategy officials would pursue to make up the money. The closing of the rural schools is one potential strategy the district is examining now should more drastic measures become necessary.

“There was not one option endorsed, not one option where they said, ‘Hey, go do this one,’” Jennings said of the board’s response to the potential cuts.

Still, there’s anxiety in the community about school closures. Rumors about the shuttering of the rural schools exploded on Facebook over the weekend. That concern came less than two weeks after the school board voted to close three elementary schools and a middle school.

That decision, in turn, came less than five months after Grant Elementary closed, felled by similar financial constraints.

After the most recent closings — which officials have said will save the district more than $2 million a year — several board members have expressed strong opposition to closing any more schools.

Jennings said those closures were influenced by the district’s significant excess capacity. At the start of this school year, there were nearly a thousand empty elementary seats. That has largely been addressed, he said, so for now, there’s not a need to close schools because of too many empty spots.

“We believe that with this recent round of closures, that (the district) is right-sized,” he said.

But, he stressed, there were factors outside of Natrona County’s control. Right now, the district is working to absorb the $12 million it lost in recent years as a result of state cuts and falling enrollment. The board has already cut about $4 million and will have to cut at least that much in each of the next two years.

That’s the number for now. But, officials have said, there’s a chance that number could grow: The Legislature is currently in the process of examining its education system, a task known as recalibration that could result in changes to the amount of state funding each district receives.

Even if that broad examination doesn’t decrease funding levels, there’s the chance that the Legislature as a whole could institute other cuts — as they’ve done in the past two legislative sessions.

Late last month, Superintendent Steve Hopkins and other officials presented to the school board several strategies that could be deployed should that cut become a reality. They told the board that closing the rural schools could provide the district a savings of $5.8 million a year.

“Not one of those is being advanced right now because we’re continuing down the path of our $12 million reduction,” Jennings said. “However — and I’ll put that big ol’ ‘however’ stamp on it — depending on what comes out of recalibration and the Legislature, depending on what that looks like, we may be going to work on that $12 million target ... all the way up to where we have to take a full $48.5 million out of our budget.”

“Are we out of the woods?” he continued. “I don’t know what they’re going to do. So we have the path for the 12 (million dollar cut), but what happens if we get the 25 percent reduction? These are some of the options that we’d have to give to the board.”


National
AP
Texas church gunman sent hostile text messages before attack

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas — The gunman who killed 26 people at a small-town Texas church had a history of domestic violence and sent threatening text messages to his mother-in-law, a member of First Baptist, before the attack in which he fired at least 450 rounds at helpless worshippers, authorities said Monday.

A day after the deadliest mass shooting in state history, the military acknowledged that it did not submit the shooter's criminal history to the FBI, as required by the Pentagon. If his past offenses had been properly shared, they would have prevented him from buying a gun.

Investigators also revealed that sheriff's deputies had responded to a domestic violence call in 2014 at Devin Patrick Kelley's home involving a girlfriend who became his second wife. Later that year, he was formally ousted from the Air Force for a 2012 assault on his ex-wife in which he choked her and struck her son hard enough to fracture his skull.

In the tiny town of Sutherland Springs, population 400, grieving townspeople were reeling from their losses. The dead ranged from 18 months to 77 years old and included multiple members of some families.

"Our church was not comprised of members or parishioners. We were a very close family," said the pastor's wife Sherri Pomeroy, who, like her husband, was out of town when the attack happened. "Now most of our church family is gone."

The couple's 14-year-old daughter, Annabelle Pomeroy, was among those killed.

Kelley's mother-in-law sometimes attended services there, but the sheriff said she was not at church Sunday.

The massacre appeared to stem from a domestic situation and was not racially or religiously motivated, Texas Department of Public Safety Regional Director Freeman Martin said. He did not elaborate.

Based on evidence at the scene, investigators believe Kelley died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound after he was chased by bystanders, one of whom was armed, and crashed his car.

The 26-year-old shooter also used his cellphone to tell his father he had been shot and did not think he would survive, authorities said.

While in the military, Kelley served in Logistics Readiness at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico from 2010 until his 2014 discharge, Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said.

He was discharged for the assault involving his previous wife and her child and had served a year of confinement after a court-martial. Under Pentagon rules, information about convictions of military personnel for crimes such as assault should be submitted to the FBI's Criminal Justice Investigation Services Division.

Stefanek said the service is launching a review of its handling of the case and taking a comprehensive look at its databases to ensure other cases have been reported correctly.

"This was a very — based on preliminary reports — a very deranged individual. A lot of problems over a long period of time," President Donald Trump said when asked about the shooting as he and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held a joint news conference.

Once the shooting started, there was probably "no way" for congregants to escape, Wilson County Sheriff Joe D. Tackitt Jr. said.

The gunman, dressed in black tactical gear, fired an assault rifle as he walked down the center aisle during worship services. He turned around and continued shooting on his way out of the building, Tackitt said.

About 20 other people were wounded. Ten of them still were hospitalized Monday in critical condition.

Investigators collected hundreds of shell casings from the church, along with 15 empty magazines that held 30 rounds each.

Kelley lived in New Braunfels, about 35 miles north of the church, authorities said. Investigators were reviewing social media posts he made in the days before the attack, including one that appeared to show an AR-15 semi-automatic weapon.

On Sunday, the attacker pulled into a gas station across from the church, about 30 miles southeast of San Antonio. He crossed the street and started firing the rifle at the church, then continued firing after entering the white wood-frame building, Martin said.

As he left, the shooter was confronted by an armed resident who had grabbed his own rifle and exchanged fire with Kelley.

The armed man who confronted Kelley had help from another local resident, Johnnie Langendorff, who said he was driving past the church as the shooting happened. The armed man asked to get in Langendorff's truck, and the pair followed as the gunman drove away.

"He jumped in my truck and said, 'He just shot up the church. We need to go get him.' And I said 'Let's go,'" Langendorff said.

The pursuit reached speeds up to 90 mph. The gunman eventually lost control of his vehicle and crashed. The armed man walked up to the vehicle with his gun drawn, and the attacker did not move. Police arrived about five minutes later, Langendorff said.

The assailant was dead in his vehicle. He had three gunshot wounds — two from where the armed man hit him in the leg and the torso and the third self-inflicted wound to the head, authorities said.

"There was no thinking about it. There was just doing. That was the key to all this. Act now. Ask questions later," he said.

Three weapons were recovered. A Ruger AR-556 rifle was found at the church, and two handguns were recovered from the gunman's vehicle, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The assailant did not have a license to carry a concealed handgun, Martin said.


Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune  

Lost or stolen bicycles recovered by Casper police officers fill one corner of the basement at a city warehouse. The police department will soon begin donating bikes that can’t be reunited with their owners to local nonprofits, rather than auctioning them alongside other seized property.


Energy
SAGE GROUSE HABITAT
Leave it better than you found it approach may not apply much longer for sage grouse habitat

The Boy Scouts are credited with an often repeated rule about camping: always leave the site in better shape than you found it.

That same ethos applies to the much trickier and more expensive Western dilemma of maintaining the sage brush speckled habitat that an imperiled bird needs to survive.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Tuesday that it was accepting public comment on revising or removing the Boy Scout approach, or “net conservation gain,” from its mitigation policies.

It’s an Obama-era concept that lies beneath more than 90 land management plans in the West that govern sage grouse conservation.

At the least, operations like mining or ranching in areas that state and federal partners have decided are key to the bird’s survival are supposed to be balanced by repairs somewhere else.

But the federal rulebook, as it stands today, goes further. Damage should be offset with improvement.

Changing that was expected, and it is the most recent decision in a flurry of Interior Department moves that could change the way Wyoming protects its sage grouse. The federal actions have been endorsed by groups like the Western Energy Alliance and received fierce opposition from organizations such as the Audubon Society. Wyoming’s conservative governor has called for caution.

Some in the oil and gas industries would be supportive of removing the “net gain” provision in federal language, which they say has been unclear and misapplied since its addition. Others see the Boy Scout rule as a move forward in conservation, a field where losing ground, particularly for sage grouse, is the norm.

***

Wyoming is on the front line of sage grouse’s survival. The Cowboy State is home to nearly 40 percent of the bird’s population, and its budget is dependent on continual revenue from energy industries.

Net gain has been a thorny topic in the sage grouse debates from the get-go, but it’s a dry story compared to some of the more controversial changes to sage grouse protections on the table today.

The Interior Department has opened up sage grouse management plans for a number of revisions that would have real and immediate consequences on the ground, including allowing some states to focus on numbers instead of habitat when conserving the grouse or adjusting boundaries around protected habitats. Some figures, like Gov. Matt Mead, have cautioned against extensive changes to the management plans, arguing that they offer long term certainty for the bird and industry.

The conservation language, by contrast, is part of a framework that supports the management plans. The immediate consequences of removing it are unclear, experts say.

However, in a year of uncertainty for federal sage grouse plans, not all are concerned by the notion of a review.

Net gain should be looked at, said Bob Budd, chairman of the Sage Grouse Implementation Team.

“There were no limits, if you will, on what it meant,” Budd said.

By contrast, Wyoming has a clear framework for mitigation that an operator knows from the start, he said. The state’s goal is to make habitat whole after disruptions, Budd said.

The federal provision is ripe for abuse, he said.

“If it’s open ended, that leads to the horror stories that you hear about, where it turns into extracting money for no visible purpose,” Budd said.

Esther Wagner, vice president of public lands for the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, related a Wyoming operator’s experience of a two-year delay on a project largely due to the question of how to meet the net gain goal for disturbed sage grouse habitat.

Not even the federal agencies that enforce this rule can readily define what it means, Wagner said.

“The way we see it is that it hasn’t been defined in a manner that anyone can explain and quantify,” she said. “It’s a concept that’s already been inconsistently applied across BLM field offices.”

***

Conservationists see the Boy Scout provision much differently, and removing it pulls the rug out from underneath the sage grouse strategy, they say.

The federal plans that are under review, which are largely based on Wyoming’s own strategies, already leave some 80 percent of the bird’s habitat unprotected, explained Brian Rutledge, conservation policy and strategy adviser for the National Audubon Society.

That was the trade off with development that conservationists like Rutledge, a member of the state’s sage grouse management team, made peace with after nearly a decade of working with industry, agriculture, state and federal officials.

“Net conservation gain isn’t something anybody is getting,” he said.

The plans can’t work if even the protected areas are disturbed, he said.

Mary Flanderka, spokeswoman for the Wyoming Outdoor Council, echoed a similar view.

Setting a high bar for mitigation in the protected areas makes up for widespread losses to conservation goals over decades, she said.

“There is always more people, more land loss, more land converted to agriculture,” she said. “Nobody is making new habitat. You might be able to restore it, but you’re not gaining anything. You’re just replacing what you took.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting public comment until Jan. 5.