The two most powerful figures in the Wyoming Legislature said an education group’s poll that showed a majority of residents would pay more in taxes to fund education was interesting but didn’t believe it would change lawmakers’ thinking.
“I don’t think things like these sway anybody,” House Speaker Steve Harshman said. “I think it’s all part of this process. ... It’s just one more thing to get more engaged and work on this problem because it’s a problem.”
The poll — conducted by Public Opinion Strategies in mid-July at the behest of the Wyoming Education Association — showed that 78 percent of the 500 respondents said they would be willing to pay more in taxes if it went to fund education. Fifty-eight percent said they would accept an increase to the sales tax, while more than 60 percent said they’d accept a tax on various energy sources.
Public Opinion Strategies is one of the nation’s largest Republican polling firms. It contacted 500 registered voters across the state who were likely to cast ballots in 2018. Two-thirds were Republican.
Both Harshman and Sen. President Eli Bebout said their private conversations with friends and constituents suggested otherwise, that Wyomingites aren’t interested in tax hikes. Both said they personally didn’t want to see any increases.
Bebout said when he talks to constituents, he tells them that “we’re spending a third more than any other state and the outcomes we’re getting are marginally different.” In that case, he said, the people he speaks to are more interested in “responsible cuts” to education.
He added that he would have liked to see a poll from the taxpayers’ perspective, rather than one conducted by a group of educators. Buck McVeigh, the executive director of the Wyoming Taxpayers Association, said last week that he didn’t believe most Wyomingites want a tax increase.
In the past, Harshman and Bebout have backed opposing solutions to tackle the estimated $530 million shortfall facing schools in the coming years. While Bebout has repeatedly said he opposes raising taxes, Harshman supported a bill that included conditional increases on the state sales tax. That measure was heavily amended by Bebout’s Senate; it eventually passed without tax increases but with a provision to tap state savings to help pay for schools.
The poll results didn’t seem to change either man’s way of thinking. Harshman said he still supported having all options on the table, including the potential of raising some tax. He said Wyoming is “really the lowest in everything” in terms of tax rates and that lawmakers should “talk about that.”
Bebout said the survey “had an impact” on him, but that he still had the same attitude of cuts first, tax increases as a last result.
Neither was surprised by the results.
The poll was a piece of information that lawmakers should use and consider as they move forward with a broad examination of the state’s funding system, Bebout and Harshman said.
“Sometimes, with the legislative process, you can’t solve all the problems,” Harshman said. “Sometimes it has to get a little worse or a little more of a crisis. ... I think it’ll be a process where you’ll have public input, a lot of people working at it, and eventually the best ideas will rise to the top and get approved. But I think it’s so important for people to be involved in this.”
“Before I make a decision, with all the issues we have, more information is better, absolutely,” Bebout said.
Quenten Fox spotted the rock an hour before the 11-year-old checked in for surgery to remove his tonsils and adenoids. The black stone painted with the symbol for nurses and the letters “RN” caught his eye among the other rocks beneath a tree outside of Casper Surgical Center.
He smiled as he held the stone toward his mother and read the words on the back: “Hug a Nurse.”
And that’s what he did, every time he saw one, his mother, Trish James-Fox recalled.
“It was like we were meant to find it,” she said. “He wanted it at his side at all times. It just affected him so much and helped him through it.”
It was pediatric psychiatric nurse Cynthia Leverich who’d painted the rock and hidden the stone. She started participating this summer in Casper Rocks — one of many groups across the country that’s taken up painting, hiding and re-hiding rocks to spread happiness.
Some are painted with words, others feature images — from kids’ stick figures to elaborate designs. The Casper Rocks Facebook page boasts more than 7,000 members, and is filled with photos of rocks and the stories of how they’ve connected to participants’ lives. Many people post their finds and even give hints about where they’re hiding rocks. Some use hashtags so people can keep track of the rocks, which have ended up in other states.
Leverich hoped her “hug a nurse” rock would brighten someone’s day, and give as much joy as being a nurse gives her, she said.
She never imagined that the rock would bring comfort to a boy, his mother and nurses.
“To have this kid that possibly could have been laying there scared not talking to anybody, but yet has this rock that says, ‘hug a nurse’ and now feels more comfortable hugging a nurse,” she said. “Isn’t that the point of Casper rocks, really, is to spread happiness?”
Quenten returned to his home in Riverton after the surgery, but was flown back to Casper after a complication caused severe bleeding from one of the incisions. Before his plane took off, he asked his mother to bring his rock as she drove to Casper.
He once again hugged all the nurses as he recovered at Wyoming Medical Center, James-Fox said. He’d also hold the stone and rub it in his fingers during his hospital stay.
She and her children decided to start hiding rocks.
“I’m going to make something that will help someone like it helped us,” she said.
Keri Owen and her daughter, Natalie, 8, trekked through the trails near Crossroads Park last week to hide some of the 125 rocks they’ve painted this summer.
Natalie hoisted a bag full of rocks over her shoulder and headed for the trail. She placed rocks on benches, tree stumps, near picnic tables and one in the crook of two tree branches.
They, too, hope their messages will make a difference to someone. “Eat with friends,” says one rock painted like a cheeseburger. One says “go fishing,” and another reads: “you’re a firecracker.”
Owen is part of the Natrona County Suicide Prevention Task Force, and is painting her rocks with messages of encouragement as part of its “Instead” campaign promoting self-care, she said.
A Facebook comment let her know at least one of the rocks has made a difference. The poster had lost a family member to suicide and planned to start painting rocks, too.
Owen and her daughter plan to hide more rocks along the path at Crossroads Park for others to find during the “Breaking the Silence” suicide prevention walk Sept. 23, she said.
“We wanted to start painting them, but I wanted it to be intentional,” Owen said. “It’s a great platform, because that’s what it’s for, is to make people smile and pass on some positivity.”
Sunnie Baker started painting rocks a few weeks ago in memory of a granddaughter, Lillie, who died in March of sudden infant death syndrome.
She paints them with pictures including animals or cartoon characters and signs them with “Lillie’s Love.”
She’s painted more than 200 rocks, and enjoys painting, hiding and hunting with her other seven grandchildren, she added. She’s also made many friends through Casper Rocks.
“It’s just been great therapy,” she said.
Leverich often paints in the evening to unwind from the day as a nurse and mom, she said. Leverich started participating in Casper Rocks this summer with her husband and three children, and even her 18-year-old daughter enjoys it.
“I know a lot of people think it’s dumb,” she said. “But for me, it’s been relaxing; it’s been fun; it’s gotten us out as a family more. And in all reality, it’s an amazing coping skill. It’s really a nice way to get your mind off stuff.”
Being a nurse for children going through difficult times can be tough, though it’s rewarding, she said. It’s especially fitting that one of her rocks inspired by her work brought comfort to a child and those around him. She’d hidden the “hug a nurse” rock downtown. It was someone else who hid it again near the surgical center, where Quenten found it.
“I wasn’t even there,” Leverich said, “and this rock was helping some kiddo out.”
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has cleared Cameco Resources, which operates uranium facilities north of Glenrock, to resume transporting toxic sludge from Wyoming to Utah after mishandling during transport led to two incidents of leaking containers last year.
The Canadian company was ordered to end shipments in September of 2016 pending investigation, after employees at the disposal site in Utah noticed the leaks.
Cameco was not fined for its various violations, which included lack of appropriate testing on site in Wyoming, improper documentation of the hazardous contents to be shipped and unsuitable storage containers for holding barium sulfate sludge.
In a letter to Cameco’s president Brent Berg on Aug. 25, the NRC said the company had identified the root causes of the issues and addressed them. The company revised its methods for calculating radioactive content in the sludge and changed its transportation program, including proper handling and training, to avoid a reoccurrence of the various violations Cameco had made, the NRC wrote.
The company’s spokesman could not be reached for comment.
One issue that was also raised last year was the mistaken claim that an employee had falsified health surveys required after two other workers were potentially exposed to radioactive material. The falsified documents were uncovered more than three years ago, company officials told the Casper Star-Tribune in October. Federal regulators did a routine inspection in 2013, and then asked the company to do an internal review that unearthed the documents.
The NRC found the incident had not happened as officials initially supposed. An employee had failed to fill out the health surveys, rather than purposely faking the records, according to the NRC.
Cameco runs six uranium mines in Wyoming. Between its operations in the Cowboy State and Nebraska, Cameco mines about one quarter of U.S. uranium.
The industry has had a rocky few years as international prices slid. Cheap means of uranium mining in other parts of the world have strained U.S. producers. Decreased demand for enriched uranium used in nuclear plants has also hurt the industry in the years since the Fukushima disaster that hit Japan in 2011.
Companies in Wyoming say they are only producing enough uranium to fill their current contracts but have ceased expansion and cut workers in response to the downturn in the market. Some are hopeful of a turnabout in five-plus years as new power plants come online, increasing demand.