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Air service and internet access top priorities in $56 million request from Wyoming economic diversification council

Improved air service and internet access top the list of funding requests for Endow, Gov. Matt Mead’s economic diversification project. Endow’s leadership presented the $56.3 million request to state lawmakers Friday.

That amount includes $15 million for expanding commercial air service in Wyoming, $10.3 million to improve access to broadband internet and $11 million for supporting entrepreneurial efforts and innovation research in the state.

An additional $20 million would be moved from the state’s mineral trust fund into an investment fund to put money into Wyoming businesses.

“The hard truth is diversifying our state’s economy for the long-term is going to take some investment,” Endow chairman Greg Hill said in a statement. “We should not embark on these efforts unless we fully understand they will be multi-year and multi-million dollar undertakings.”

Other recommendations from the council did not include funding requests. They are:

  • Start teaching computer science to public school students;
  • improve “higher education attainment and retention of graduates”;
  • provide resources for workforce training;
  • begin favoring in-state contractors for government technology needs;
  • authorize virtual currency trading in Wyoming.

The council’s statement noted that workforce training might require funding in the future but that further study was needed.

The statement added that other opportunities for diversifying Wyoming’s economy included research and development of the blockchain — a type of technology that enables virtual currencies like Bitcoin — vertical take off and landing technology, and wind energy.

If the Legislature approves Endow’s funding request, the money would likely come from the state’s rainy day fund. Mead had requested $37.5 million for Endow in his December budget proposal as a placeholder until the council released its specific funding needs.

The $20 million that the Endow council is calling for being invested in Wyoming businesses was not included in Mead’s earlier request.

Senate President Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, has favored cuts over increasing revenue but has been a supporter of Endow and the effort to diversify Wyoming’s economy more generally. In a statement included in the Endow press release, Bebout said he believed the funding request would be approved by the Legislature when it meets in February.

“(W)e must balance the realities of our state’s fiscal situation with strategic investments,” Bebout said. “I remain cautiously optimistic that we can do just that during the upcoming legislative session. After all, if not now, when?”

House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper, also backed the funding request.

Infrastructure tops list

The Endow council’s recommendations were made in a 25-page report that was mandated under the law authorizing the diversification effort passed last winter.

It is broken into three main sections: infrastructure, education and “entrepreneurial development.”

Air service and internet access are the two areas of infrastructure identified as in need of improvement and the Endow report outlines a plan for how to spend roughly $25 million across both areas.

The report backs the Wyoming Department of Transportation’s bold plan to essentially become an airline, contracting with regional carriers like SkyWest and GoJet to provide reliable service between Wyoming cities and the regional hub in Denver.

“With the exception of Jackson, Casper and Gillette (and potentially Cody), Wyoming commercial air service is vulnerable by virtually any metric that is important to sustainable air service,” consultant William Swelbar said in the report.

The transportation committee declined to sponsor a bill implementing the WYDOT initiative, known as the Commercial Air Service Plan, in the fall but members said they would be open to considering a variation on it.

Endow recommends $15 million to fund the CASP project.

The report also identifies access to fast and reliable internet as an impediment to Wyoming’s economy, noting that internet speed in the state is lower than the national average and that the state ranks 46th in “connectivity.”

Rural residents are especially hard-pressed to find fast and reliable access, the report states.

In the proposal outlined in the report, the Wyoming Business Council would oversee a broadband coordinator and Broadband Advisory Council to provide specific recommendations to the Legislature and governor’s office for improving internet access in the state.

The goal would be to have internet speeds up to 1 gigabyte per second in “all business corridors in all Wyoming counties.” That is up from a statewide average of 17 megabytes per second today.

The Endow council is requesting $175,000 per year to fund this effort.

The proposal also includes the creation of a Wyoming Broadband Grant Fund, which would spend $10 million to improve physical internet infrastructure especially in rural areas.

Workforce training

On education, the council recommends implementing computer science standards for K-12 students in the state with a goal that by 2024 all Wyoming high school graduates would have completed two computer science courses and that the University of Wyoming would grant over 100 computer science degrees per year.

The report does not ask for any funding to complete this recommendation.

The council is also recommending that the state seek to boost the number of state residents with college degrees from the current 45.8 percent to 82 percent by 2040. That is higher than the University of Wyoming’s current goal of 75 percent by 2040.

An inadequate workforce was identified as “Wyoming’s single greatest inhibitor” for “growth and stability” and the report recommends creating a program within the Department of Workforce Services to offer continuing education funded by both the state government and private sector.

While the report states that the training should be “in priority economic sectors” identified by Endow, it does not say what those sectors are and adds that the Legislature must determine what resources are needed for the program.

Mead said last year that he expected Endow to put forward a major request to the Legislature to fund workforce training programs.

Investments called for

The Endow council recommends allocating about $11 million for two programs supporting businesses in the state.

The first is called Startup:Wyoming and is focused on “building Wyoming’s entrepreneurial ecosystem” by investing in companies and providing other resources. The report asks for an allocation of $5 million for staffing and an additional $20 million to be invested in the fund from the Permanent Wyoming Mineral Trust Fund.

The second recommendation calls for establishing the Wyoming Research and Innovation Fund to provide money for federal grants that research projects in the state currently miss out on due to a lack of matching dollars. The fund would be overseen by Startup:Wyoming and should be allocated $6 million, according to the report.

Endow was started in the fall of 2016 and is meant to be a 20-year process to diversify Wyoming’s economy. The council’s final strategic recommendations are due in August.

“These preliminary findings represent just that and are only a first step in a long-term process to achieve meaningful and sustainable results for the state of Wyoming,” Endow vice-chair Bill Schilling said in a statement.

Casper's downtown revitalization to continue in 2018

Casper’s downtown grew and evolved in 2017, and the city plans to keep that momentum going in 2018.

Hundreds gathered at the David Street Station in August to celebrate the public plaza’s official opening. The complex offers an outdoor stage and recreational spaces, but the opening ceremony only marked the completion of the project’s first phase.

The station will be expanding this year to include a splash pad, restrooms, an area for vendors and an observation deck, according to the Downtown Development Authority.

One of downtown’s main roadways is also scheduled to receive a makeover in 2018.

Renovations on Midwest Avenue will begin early in the year, Community Development Director Liz Becher previously told the Star-Tribune. The city will be adding street lights, widening the sidewalks and moving the electrical wiring underground.

“We’re going to totally reconstruct it, just like we did with West Yellowstone,” she explained. “We’ll have park benches and bike racks, and at the corners we’ll have planters with trees and flowers.”

Casper will also be getting a couple new businesses.

Two local entrepreneurs recently won bids to buy city property to house apartments and an apparel company along Ash Street north of Midwest Avenue.

New festivals may also be coming to the downtown area.

After the Wyoming Eclipse Festival went off without a hitch in August, Casper City Councilmember Kenyne Humphrey told the Star-Tribune that council members are “definitely” interested in holding other large-scale events.

Thousands came to the eclipse festival, which featured dozens of vendors, street performers, musicians and food trucks situated in the heart of downtown.

“It was perfect,” said Humphrey, who served as mayor in 2017. “I don’t think it could have gone any better.”

Given that she only heard positive feedback from visitors, Humphrey explained that she thinks the festival may also lead to an overall boost in tourism for Casper.

Trump accuses DOJ of being part of 'deep state'

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump accused the Justice Department Tuesday of being part of the “deep state” and urged prosecution against a top aide to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former FBI Director James Comey.

He also claimed that U.S. sanctions on North Korea were having a “big impact” and that he was responsible for preventing commercial aviation deaths in 2017.

Trump’s latest tweets pressed familiar arguments for the president, who is set to begin his first full year in office with the victory of tax legislation but the Russia investigation still hanging over his administration.

“Crooked Hillary Clinton’s top aid, Huma Abedin, has been accused of disregarding basic security protocols. She put Classified Passwords into the hands of foreign agents,” Trump tweeted in an apparent reference to a report by the conservative Daily Caller.

“Remember sailors pictures on submarine? Jail! Deep State Justice Dept must finally act? Also on Comey & others,” he added.

As he remains shadowed by the special counsel’s Russia investigation, Trump has seized on recent revelations of anti-Trump behavior by some FBI officials, including some who once worked on special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, to claim bias against him.

The president’s reference Tuesday to “Deep State Justice Dept.” suggests that federal law enforcement is part of an entrenched bureaucracy that Trump and his supporters say didn’t want him to be elected and is actively working to undermine his presidency.

During the daily press briefing in Washington, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump stood by the tweet.

Trump’s reference to sailors likely referred to a Navy sailor convicted of taking photos of classified areas inside a submarine.

Trump’s blast at the Justice Department came after he returned to the White House from a holiday getaway to face legislative challenges, midterm elections and global threats.

At home, Trump is hoping for more legislative achievements after his success on cutting taxes. He plans to host Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin at Camp David next weekend to map out the 2018 legislative agenda.

Republicans are eager to make progress before attention shifts to the November midterm elections. The GOP wants to hold the House and Senate, but must contend with Trump’s historic unpopularity and some recent Democratic wins, including the pickup of a Senate seat in deeply Republican Alabama.

The White House has said Trump will come forward with his long-awaited infrastructure plan in January. Trump has also said he wants to overhaul welfare and recently predicted Democrats and Republicans will “eventually come together” to develop a new health care plan.

Ryan has talked about overhauling Medicaid and Medicare and other safety-net programs, but McConnell has signaled an unwillingness to go that route unless there’s Democratic support for any changes. Republicans will have just a 51-49 Senate majority — well shy of the 60 votes needed to pass most bills — giving leverage to Democrats.

Congress also has to deal with a backlog from 2017, including agreeing on a spending bill by Jan. 19 to avert a partial government shutdown. There’s also providing additional aid to hurricane victims, lifting the debt ceiling, extending a children’s health insurance program and extending protections for immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Trump has said he wants money for a border wall in exchange for protecting those immigrants.

Colorado killer's social media posts that led to UW alert were "almost nonsensical"

A former University of Wyoming law student’s social media posts led campus authorities to warn students about him almost two months before he killed a sheriff’s deputy in Colorado. Those posts were not criminal in nature and “almost nonsensical,” according to a UW official.

Matthew Riehl, 37, fired more than 100 rounds in his suburban Denver apartment Sunday night and killed a sheriff’s deputy and wounded four more. A SWAT team later killed Riehl.

University of Wyoming spokesman Chad Baldwin said the posts were made in late October. They contained no “overt threat,” he said, but they were “extremely vulgar, outrageous, just almost nonsensical.”

Some included references to committing “sexual acts,” Baldwin said, and some of Riehl’s posts were directed at specific faculty and staff members. Some also included references to rape, Baldwin continued, and the posts included claims that faculty and staff had committed sexual acts with people or wanted to.

College of Law staff saw the posts and notified law enforcement. The university also sent an email on Nov. 6 to faculty, staff and students notifying them to alert law enforcement if they saw Riehl or his car. Security on campus was also increased for several days.

Campus officers called Lone Tree, Colorado, police in mid-November to warn them about Riehl, UW Police Chief Mike Samp said. The University of Wyoming Police Department attempted to contact Riehl but were unsuccessful. They did speak with his family.

There was a significant amount of rage in the posts, Baldwin said, and, coupled with the concern that Riehl was mentally unstable, the university felt it was appropriate to take action.

University police determined there was no criminal conduct that they could act upon, Baldwin said. But there was an increased UW police department presence near the college, including more patrols, for about two weeks in November.

“They were there more than they would’ve been otherwise,” Baldwin said of police.

Baldwin said Riehl was in Colorado at the time that he made the posts.

After graduating from the law school, Riehl joined the Wyoming State Bar in 2011, the bar’s executive director said Tuesday.

Riehl worked as an associate attorney at a Rawlins law firm from June 2011 through February 2014, according to a lawyer at the firm.

William MacPherson, of the Rawlins law firm, wrote in an emailed statement that the firm had no contact with Riehl, “either socially or professionally,” since he left the firm.

“MacPherson, Kelly & Thompson, LLC expresses its heartfelt condolences and deepest sympathies to the victims and their families,” MacPherson wrote in the statement.

MacPherson did not specify in the statement why Riehl left the firm or the reason for the lack of contact.

After leaving the firm, Riehl practiced on his own before rescinding his bar membership in 2016.

Early Sunday, authorities responded to a complaint of a verbal disturbance involving two men at an apartment building in Highlands Ranch, 16 miles south of Denver. A caller said Riehl was acting bizarre and might be having a mental breakdown, but responding deputies found no evidence of a crime and left.

When deputies were called back to the scene, a man who had left gave them a key and granted permission to enter the apartment.

Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock said deputies came under fire almost immediately after trying to talk with the suspect, who was holed up inside a bedroom.

“They all went down almost within seconds of each other, so it was more of an ambush-type of attack on our officers,” Spurlock said.

The three wounded deputies tried to pull the fallen officer, Zackari Parrish, out of the line of further gunfire but were unable to because of their own injuries and only managed to “crawl to safety,” Spurlock said. Two civilians and a police officer also were injured.

All of the wounded except Deputy Jeff Pelle, 32, have been treated at hospitals and released. The son of Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle was in fair condition.

Hundreds gathered Monday night for a candlelight vigil for Parrish inside Mission Hills Church in Littleton, Colorado — the church he attended with his wife and two young daughters.

“I’ve heard from so many different people that he just loved his community and being a police officer,” Mission Hills Pastor Craig Smith said.

“Zack didn’t see law enforcement as a job. He saw it as a calling, as a way to serve his community and a blessing.”