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Energy
Wyoming lawmaker suggests increase state's coal tax if federal fees sunset

Bucking a recent trend of failed measures to shift Wyoming from its reliance on fossil fuels, one lawmaker is proposing a bill that looks to generate money from a traditional source of revenue — coal.

House Bill 80 hinges on a potential reduction in federal fees on Wyoming coal, the sunset of the Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Program in three years.

The Abandoned Mine Land fees, set up in the late-70s to fund cleanup of historic coal mining, may not be reauthorized by Congress in 2021, at once reducing a tax burden on Wyoming coal and erasing income that eventually comes back to Wyoming.

If the Abandoned Mine Land fee is not reauthorized in 2021, Rep. Daniel Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, argues that increasing Wyoming’s severance tax on coal from 7 to 9.2 percent the following year would fill the gap at no increased cost to industry.

“I like coal as much as everybody else,” Zwonitzer said. “They are used to paying this tax, so I thought there would be less heartburn.”

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The bill is not meant to punish coal or stoke a national conversation about Abandoned Mine Land funds, a historically thorny topic, the Cheyenne representative said. Instead, it’s an attempt to find another revenue stream for a state that is likely to dip once more into its savings to run the government for the next two years.

Wyoming’s three key industries — coal, oil and gas — have all suffered setbacks recently. The ensuing downturn in revenue for the state, which receives more than three-fifths of its income from energy, left gaping holes in the Wyoming budget.

Following a few years of sharp declines in industry and resulting cuts in school and government budgets, legislators are set to meet again for the budget session next week to face the funding dilemma. Some have recently voiced optimism that the worst days are over, given recent signs of a turnaround in the oil industry.

But uncertainty about Wyoming’s revenue picture remains, Zwonitzer said.

“One of these days someone is going to have to figure out how we are going to make this work long-term,” he said. “And I haven’t seen a lot of other options on the table.”

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The state’s recent downturn hit coal particularly hard. The traditionally reliable and robust coal sector tumbled under pressure from cheap natural gas that was eating its share of the electricity market. The largest companies in Wyoming were facing a market evolution of reduced demand at a time when they already carried heavy debts. Three companies went through bankruptcy and nearly 1,000 miners lost their jobs.

But Zwonitzer said he’s confident his bill would not be unbearable for the coal companies of Wyoming. Their long-term plans likely calculate paying those taxes to the federal government in case the program is reauthorized in 2021, he said.

“I’m not trying to negatively impact industry, because it’s our best asset in the state,” he said. “It’s been beneficial to Wyoming, and I hope it continues to be beneficial to Wyoming.”

Zwonitzer said most projections show a slow decline in coal demand, but other opportunities exist to use coal for exports to Asia and for non-traditional purposes, like as a feedstock for carbon fiber materials.

At the very least, the lawmaker said, the bill can start a conversation about what to do if the Abandoned Mine Land program is not reauthorized.

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Wyoming has technically completed its most serious coal mine cleanup obligations, freeing the state to use the Abandoned Mine Land to fund other projects. It’s been a tricky political issue in the past.

The state’s Department of Environmental Quality develops a priority list for how to use the money, and seeks the consent of the Legislature. Washington has questioned the spending choices many times and Wyoming’s choices were likely partly to blame in the temporary erasure of AML funds in 2012.

The state maintains its right to delegate funds to non-coal projects and it’s no small boon to the state’s environmental agency budget.

In the last two years, about 27 percent of the Department of Environmental Quality’s budget was federal dollars. If the federal money from Abandoned Mine Land fees is included in the tally — technically a restitution of fees from in-state coal mining — the agency received 68 percent of its funding via the federal government.

A request for comment from the Wyoming Mining Association was not available at press time.


Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune 

A car heads down Casper Mountain Road on Monday afternoon. A morning snowfall caused poor visibility and slick roads, which soon cleared in the afternoon sun. Another round of unseasonably warm temperatures, with highs in the 40s, are in Casper's forecast through Friday. 


Crime-and-courts
Natrona County Emergency Management
Casper's emergency warning sirens mistakenly activated

Natrona County’s emergency warning sirens were accidentally activated Monday morning, but authorities said no there was no cause for alarm. By Monday afternoon, the reason for the malfunction was still not clear.

The sirens were activated just after 8:30 a.m. as part of a test of the system, according to a Natrona County Sheriff’s Office spokesman.

The system is tested on a weekly basis, Sgt. Aaron Shatto said. Monday morning’s test was intended to be silent, the sergeant said.

In a Facebook post published an hour after the alarm was sounded, the Natrona County Emergency Management office said that the test was inadvertent.

“The amount of time between the sirens sounding and sharing the information of a malfunction was entirely too long,” Emergency Management Coordinator John Harlin wrote in a later social media post. “I will be making the appropriate adjustments to our procedures to expedite the sharing of important information with you.”

Although the office had planned on running a silent test of the system at 2 p.m., Harlin said Monday afternoon his office had scrapped the plan as it continued to investigate why the morning’s alarm was audible. He said his office did not want to risk stressing the community with another inadvertent false alarm.

If the office needs to broadcast an audible alert, it should work as expected, Harlin said.

Natrona County’s 36 sirens were installed a decade ago at a cost of $500,000. Harlin said that although the system was designed to broadcast spoken messages, it does not do so effectively.

“You can’t discern the words,” he said.

Instead, if the sirens sounded off due to an emergency, a corresponding alert would likely be sent to cell phones, Harlin said. People who hear the alarm could also call the Emergency Manager’s office, the Natrona County Sheriff’s Office or 911 for more information, he said.

The sirens run on solar power and are triggered by radio waves, Harlin said. If cell service or the power grid fails, the system will still be functional.


Washington
AP
Declassify? House Dems vote to air their Russia-probe memo

WASHINGTON — The House intelligence committee's probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election spun further into charges and counter-charges among angry U.S. lawmakers and President Donald Trump on Monday as the panel voted to release a second classified memo about whether the FBI and Justice Department conspired against him.

This memo was written by Democrats on the panel who are pushing back against a GOP document, declassified by Trump last week, that criticizes the methods the FBI used to obtain a surveillance warrant on a onetime Trump campaign associate. The Democratic document attempts to counter some of the arguments and evidence put forward by the Republicans.

The battle of classified memos has further deepened the partisan divide on the committee, which is supposed to be jointly investigating the Russian meddling and possible connections between Russia and the Trump presidential campaign. It also takes attention from the separate investigations by special counsel Robert Mueller and the Senate intelligence committee.

Trump said over the weekend that the GOP memo "totally vindicates" him. Both Republicans and Democrats disputed that, and Democrats also bemoaned the release of formerly classified information and the possibility the precedent could compromise future investigations.

After the House committee's vote, which was unanimous, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the panel's top Democrat, said he believed the Democratic document would "help inform the public of the many distortions and inaccuracies in the majority memo." But he also said he was concerned about "political redactions" the White House might make before its release.

The president now has five days to decide whether to allow the material's publication.

Schiff said he would compare any deletions the FBI and the Department of Justice might request with any White House edits to try to identify any attempts to withhold information for political purposes.

Texas Republican Rep. Mike Conaway, a leader of the panel's Russia probe, said after the vote that parts of the document should not be released.

"There are things in the memo that I would be uncomfortable with if the White House did not redact," he said.

Tensions between Trump and the Democrats were high before the vote, as the president and Schiff traded insults on Twitter on Monday morning — less than a week after Trump called for more bipartisanship in his State of the Union address.

Trump tweeted that Schiff is "one of the biggest liars and leakers in Washington" and "must be stopped."

Schiff quickly shot back: "Instead of tweeting false smears, the American people would appreciate it if you turned off the TV and helped solve the funding crisis, protected Dreamers or ... really anything else."

White House spokesman Raj Shah said merely that consideration of a release would "allow for a legal review, national security review led by the White House counsel's office."

As a second week of memo-watching commenced, the committee also was prepared to interview Steve Bannon, Trump's former chief strategist, as part of the Russia probe. But that meeting was put off, according to two people familiar with the committee's schedule. They declined to be named because the schedule is private.

It was unclear if the House would hold Bannon in contempt. He has been subpoenaed and has now delayed answering the panel's questions three times as the committee negotiates with his lawyer and the White House over the terms of his interview.

At issue is whether the White House will allow him to answer questions about his time in the Trump administration.

As the committee continues to negotiate Bannon's interview, Democrats have been raising questions about whether the committee chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes of California, coordinated with the White House in drafting the GOP memo. After the document's release last week, the president quickly seized on it to vent his grievances against the nation's premier law enforcement agencies.

"The goal here is to undermine the FBI, discredit the FBI, discredit the Mueller investigation, do the president's bidding," Schiff said. "I think it's very possible his staff worked with the White House."

"I think it's very possible his staff worked with the White House," Schiff added, referring to Nunes.

Nunes was asked during a Jan. 29 committee meeting whether he had coordinated the memo with the White House. "As far as I know, no," he responded, then refused to answer when asked whether his congressional staff members had communicated with the White House. He had previously apologized for sharing with the White House secret intelligence intercepts related to an investigation of Russian election interference before talking to committee members.

Trump praised Nunes in a separate tweet Monday, calling him "a man of tremendous courage and grit, may someday be recognized as a Great American Hero for what he has exposed and what he has had to endure!"

The Republican memo released last Friday alleges misconduct on the part of the FBI and the Justice Department in obtaining a warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to monitor former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page and his ties to Russia. Specifically, it takes aim at the FBI's use of information from former British spy Christopher Steele, who compiled a dossier containing allegations of ties between Trump, his associates and Russia.

The underlying materials that served as the basis for the warrant application were not made public. Even as Democrats described that memo as inaccurate, some Republicans quickly cited it — released over the objections of the FBI and Justice Department — in their arguments that the FBI investigation that Mueller inherited is politically tainted. Still, some Republicans, including Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina and House Speaker Paul Ryan have said the memo should not be used to undermine Mueller's probe.

The GOP memo's central allegation is that agents and prosecutors, in applying in October 2016 to monitor Page's communications, failed to tell a judge that the opposition research that provided grounds for the FBI's suspicion received funding from Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee. Page had stopped advising the campaign sometime around the end of that summer.

Steele's research, according to the memo, "formed an essential part" of the warrant application. But it's unclear how much or what information Steele collected made it into the application, or how much has been corroborated.


Education
In letter to state superintendent, Natrona County school board calls for more local control

The Natrona County School District’s board sent a letter in September to the state’s top educator calling for more local control of student assessments.

Board members received their response in January. State Superintendent Jillian Balow said her office was waiting for fall assessments to finish and was doing research to ensure their response was correct. But as the months wore on, the board in Casper grew increasingly frustrated.

“We shouldn’t have to remind her that it’s polite to respond to correspondence,” trustee Debbie McCullar said in November as the board debated whether to send another letter to Balow.

In its original letter, the board requested “more dialogue around early childhood assessments.”

“We firmly believe that school districts should be able to determine the assessment that is best suited to measure and monitor reading levels,” the board wrote.

The trustees said they were concerned by a required reading assessment for kindergarteners through second-graders. Board members had thought that they could use their own tool to check on students’ early literacy, which is a strong indicator of future academic success. The district had planned on assessing it earlier in the year, so teachers could have time to adjust their instruction.

The district had already started training teachers on an assessment, called FastBridge. Trustees Rita Walsh and Toni Billings said the district had received approval from the state Department of Education to use the universal screen, which looks for reading and behavioral difficulties, among other things.

FastBridge would satisfy both students’ learning needs and the statutory requirement that districts assess early student literacy.

Billings said the district’s decision was supported by the findings of a statewide committee that looked at early childhood testing. She said that task force, of which she was a part, concluded that “standardized, summative assessments are not developmentally appropriate.”

In other words: FastBridge was appropriate in the district’s eyes because it wasn’t meant to determine a student’s ability. It was a check in.

A test given to younger students near the end of the year as an outcome-based test — called a summative assessment — was not appropriate, Billings said of the task force’s conclusion.

But the education department informed districts that the reading K-2 test, under the new WY-TOPP statewide assessment, would be required, and that students would have to take it between mid-April and mid-May.

Balow, in her Jan. 2 reply to the district, said using the assessment statewide would give her department “statewide comparable and longitudinal data on early literacy.” Essentially, every district using the same assessment would create a uniform set of data, she said.

Natrona County’s board took issue with the requirement. Board members alleged that it was taking away local control and undercutting the recommendations of the state’s own assessment task force.

“It’s not appropriate for K-2,” Walsh said in an interview.

In her reply to Natrona County’s letter, Balow said she remained “resolute in the decision to require” the assessment.

Billings and Walsh said that the requirements stripped the assessment task force of any of its validity. During an interview, Billings read quotes from Balow from when the superintendent was a candidate.

“’From day one, I have talked about collaboration and working with people,’” Billings quoted Balow, citing a 2014 Star-Tribune report. “’That’s been a hallmark of my campaign, but that will be a hallmark of my administration as well.’”

“Well, that was a very big group of stakeholders, a very specific group,” Billings said of the task force. “A highly educated group of people, and their recommendations were disregarded.”

“On the question of campaign promises, I guess I haven’t had any of those personal conversations of the board members yet,” Balow told the Star-Tribune last month. “I’d invite those conversations. I again have always talked about having a variety of assessments.”

Balow said in an interview that the test “isn’t summative, it’s an interim assessment.”

Interim assessments are typically mid-year check ups to ensure students are on track. Walsh, Billings and the board argued that because the K-2 test was being given in April and May, it was basically an end-of-the-year, standardized assessment.

“This is an interim, but it’s being used as a summative,” Billings said. “They’re only giving it once, and they’re going to look at it at the end of each of those years. It’s a set of data that’s going to be little to no use to the teachers.”

That touches upon one of the early childhood assessment task force’s other points: If an assessment is given to young students at all, it should generally be able to “guide instruction.”

The district argued that if this K-2 test was being given at the end of the year, then it couldn’t be used to help teachers check on their students in a meaningful way before the academic year ended.

But Balow said a test given in mid-April would give ample opportunity for instructors to have an “intervention” with students who may need it. Plus, she said, one of the reasons the state chose its new assessment system was because of how quickly results could be given to teachers.

“That’s then over a month,” she said of the time between the assessment being given and the year ending, “or like six weeks that they can continue to make meaningful interventions and meaningful instructions.”

She added that only Natrona County has raised concerns about the assessment with her office.

With the board’s frustrations about the assessment come other criticisms. At several meetings between September and Balow’s response in January, members of the board grew increasingly exasperated about the silence from Cheyenne. Eventually, they directed associate superintendent Walt Wilcox to send Balow another letter requesting a written response.

“The (first) letter was drafted, and we all signed it, and sadly that was on Sept. 11 and we waited, ever so patiently, for four months for a reply,” Billings said.

Balow said the education department was working through its first assessment window in the fall and that officials were talking with WY-TOPP’s vendor.

“The delay was from reaching out to people,” she said.