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Essential Air Service program
Air service subsidies expected to continue in Cody and Laramie. But larger questions loom.

Despite President Donald Trump’s budget request last spring to eliminate subsidized air service to Cody and Laramie, it appears that both airports will continue to have the cost of commercial flights covered in part by the federal government.

U.S. Department of Transportation announced last week that United Airlines had won a bid to provide winter flights to Cody under the Essential Air Service program, and Laramie airport manager Jack Skinner said he expects Laramie to continuing receiving subsidized service when its contract comes up for renewal, likely in the spring.

“We’re always leery and trying to stay on top of what’s happening back there in Washington,” Skinner said. “But we believe they’re going to continue it because it’s been a good program for rural communities like Laramie.”

Trump’s budget request to Congress last March sought to eliminate the Essential Air Service program, which subsidizes commercial flights to rural communities across the United States. But Congress has final say over federal spending and did not choose to eliminate the program.

That’s good news for Laramie, which has all of its flights subsidized, as well as Cody, which requires a subsidy only for commercial flights during winter months when the tourism industry slows.

“There’s always proposed reductions or cuts to the Essential Air Service but Cody has performed exceptionally well,” said Bob Hooper, manager of the Yellowstone Regional Airport.

He cited the airport’s relatively low per-passenger subsidy, saying that it hovered in the $20 to $40 range, whereas some Wyoming airports, like Worland, are theoretically eligible for subsidies of up to $1,000 per passenger.

Only Cody and Laramie are currently served by the EAS program.

United’s new contract to provide service to Cody guarantees the airline an annual payment of $850,000 to provide 14 nonstop trips each week from Cody to Denver between October and May.

Hooper said the federal transportation department handles EAS contract renewals so he did not know when Laramie’s contract would be put out to bid or what the terms would be. SkyWest currently serves the university town for $2.18 million per year.

Economic benefit

While year-round commercial air services is an obvious boon to Cody and Laramie — Hooper said an official estimate pegged the benefit to Cody at $40 million per year — it also ties into Wyoming’s larger efforts to diversify its economy.

Gov. Matt Mead’s Endow economic diversification initiative has identified reliable air service throughout the state to be an important foundation for moving Wyoming away from a natural resource-focused economy.

“Commercial air service is a significantly limiting factor,” Endow’s Jerimiah Reiman said earlier this year. “There’s a lack of air service particularly to global destinations.”

The Wyoming Department of Transportation presented an ambitious fix to the state’s reliance on commercial air carriers, who can currently decide whether and when to provide service — allowing the fortune’s of Cowboy State communities to rise and fall based on the whims of national corporations.

WYDOT proposed effectively creating its own airline, determining which communities would receive service as well as schedules, ensuring, for example, that it was possible for business people to catch an early morning flight into Casper or Rock Springs.

The state would contract with the same regional providers, like SkyWest or GoJet, that United and Delta Air Lines use on branded flights to connect relatively small communities, like those in Wyoming, with major hubs in Denver and Salt Lake City. These arrangements are known as capacity purchase agreements.

“This idea of capacity purchase agreements, for decades, has worked very well for airlines,” WYDOT director Bill Panos told lawmakers last summer.

Air service obstacles

Commercial air service in Wyoming has been battered over the last decade as federal safety regulations have starved regional carriers of pilots and shattered historic business models. More, as airlines phase out older and generally smaller jets, they are replacing them with larger planes that are harder to fill on flights to and from small communities.

Lawmakers decided in October not to move forward with WYDOT’s air service proposal, choosing to maintain the current system under which all air service in Wyoming outside of Casper is subsidized either by the federal government or by the state.

Wyoming offers revenue guarantees to several airlines flying in and out of some smaller cities such as Riverton.

WYDOT had requested $29.5 million to $37.2 million over 10 years to implement the new air service program, according to the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

Transportation committee co-chair Rep. Mike Greear, R-Worland, said at the time that while the proposal was not ready for approval he remained interested in the issue.

“The issue is not dead, and I think it’s going to keep coming up,” Greear said.

Josh Galemore, Casper Star-Tribune 

A team of mallards swims up the Platte River and rests on the icy shoreline near Mills Wednesday afternoon.

Lookback: Wyoming lawmakers continue to grapple with deterioration of state prison

Doors at the state’s largest prison don’t always lock. Sometimes they hang off kilter, or stop functioning altogether if their electrical parts are compromised as the buildings shift. Windows crack slowly, shattering in slow motion as the walls move. Walls separate along their seams, leaving behind inches of space and chips of sharp concrete.

The Wyoming State Penitentiary needs tens of millions in repairs, or nearly $180 million to be rebuilt, but money is short in Wyoming’s coffers. Throughout 2017, Wyoming lawmakers continued to weigh their options in fixing the structural issues facing the prison due to unstable soils.

In July, members of the legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee recommended that the governor immediately fund repairs to the facility’s drainage issues and replace cracked windows. Engineers from two separate firms recommended that the drainage issues be fixed as moisture was causing the soils beneath the facility to shift, damaging the foundation.

The decision was a partial solution. During that meeting in July, lawmakers weighed whether to complete a more thorough (and expensive) repair to the 682-bed facility or to build a new building altogether. The partial fix was more than $70 million cheaper than the full repair and lawmakers hoped it would fix most of the issues plaguing the buildings.

Officials first started monitoring damage to the state’s high security prison in 2011. During a tour of the Rawlins facility in July, Department of Corrections officials showed reporters the issues that require daily maintenance to keep the buildings operational. Some of the electric doors have been temporarily disabled due to the issues. Offices sat unused because they were deemed unsafe. In December 2016, prison staff restricted 525 inmates to their cells for nearly 42 hours while workers repaired doors.

Photos: Inside the problem-plagued Wyoming State Penitentiary

The state built the penitentiary in 2001, less than a mile from the previous facility after the U.S. Department of Justice ordered that the older building be abandoned due to structural issues. State officials expected the current buildings to last at least 50 years.

It remains unclear who is responsible for the structural problems with the facility. The Wyoming Attorney General’s Office continues to investigate the question but has not made any findings public. One of the engineering firms hired to evaluate the prison’s issues found that not all recommendations were followed during construction.

Workers completing the limited repairs authorized by the appropriations committee in July discovered further construction issues. They found leaking pipes and other faulty plumbing where construction plans were not followed. They also found that the roof was leaking and some insulation was soaked with water.

Lawmakers will reevaluate the status of the prison after the limited repairs are complete. If the work effectively solves the drainage issues and stop or slows the shifting of the soils, lawmakers may be finished with extensive fixes. If not, they will have to consider more expansive and costly repairs during the 2018 legislative session.

Proposed legislation would make it easier to ask for convictions to be reversed

A bill introduced for the upcoming legislative session would make it easier for wrongfully convicted people to present evidence in hopes of exoneration. A similar bill that would have relaxed restrictions on how wrongly convicted people could seek to have their convictions overturned failed in the face of opposition from the Wyoming Attorney General’s office last spring.

This time, however, the attorney general is on board.

The legislation proposed by the Joint Judiciary Committee will be heard in a House committee when the Legislature convenes in 2018 for its budget session.

In Wyoming, people convicted of crimes have a two-year window in which they can present non-DNA evidence in an effort to have their conviction overturned.

After that time period, the only evidence they can introduce to fight their conviction is DNA evidence.

If the new bill passes into law, that two-year window will be abolished.

The time limit is problematic, said Michelle Feldman of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit that provides legal help to wrongfully convicted people and seeks to reform laws nationwide to make the path to exoneration easier for innocent people.

Wrongful conviction cases usually take far more than two years to assemble, said Feldman, who worked on the bill. She cited the case of DeMarlo Berry, a Las Vegas man who was exonerated by non-DNA evidence two decades after being convicted for murder.

To overturn a wrongful conviction, lawyers have to assemble a puzzle of newly discovered evidence, Feldman said.

“It’s rarely that there’s a smoking gun,” she said.

The bill was written by a coalition of interested parties — including representatives of the Attorney General — in the office of Rep. Charles Pelkey, D-Laramie, who wrote last session’s iteration of the bill.

The 2017 bill passed the House unanimously. But it failed in a Senate committee under opposition from a representative from the attorney general’s office who said the bill could be abused by guilty people and waste judges’ time.

After the discussion, Pelkey was approached by a representative of the Attorney General’s office, he said. The representative told Pelkey the attorney general wasn’t opposed to the concept but didn’t like the way the bill was structured.

The judiciary committee, which met in Thermopolis in April, began resurrecting the bill shortly after it failed in the Senate committee. The judiciary committee asked an attorney general’s representative to work with Pelkey and members of innocence groups to come to a compromise.

So over the course of a sweltering summer day, Pelkey packed representatives from the Wyoming Trial Lawyer’s Association, the attorney general’s staff and the Innocence Project into his office and worked out the bill’s language, Pelkey said.

The bill draws heavily upon 2008 Utah legislation, which Pelkey said has not been prone to abuse in the past nine years.

Although last year’s bill would have cleared the way for convicted people to ask for a new trial, the new bill would allow them to ask the court directly to declare them innocent.

At the committee’s November meeting in Wheatland, representatives from the offices of the attorney general, the state public defender and the Sheridan County prosecuting attorney as well as the Rocky Mountain Innocence Project spoke in favor of the legislation.

Chief Deputy Attorney General John Knepper spoke in favor of the legislation before the judiciary committee in November but was unavailable to comment on Wednesday. Tina Olson, who spoke in favor of the bill on behalf of State Public Defender’s office in November, also could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.