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Wyoming Legislature
Candidates ready to face off over competitive, open Wyoming House seat in Cheyenne

A competitive State House seat is up for grabs in Cheyenne, and Republicans are hoping to pick up a rare Democratic district this November. House District 44 is being vacated by Rep. Jim Byrd, a Democrat who is running for secretary of state.

While Byrd has held the seat, which covers central Cheyenne, since 2009, there have been several relatively close elections. Byrd won his last election in 2016 with just 50.3 percent of the vote.

Now Cheyenne physician and Republican Paul Johnson is hoping to strip Democrats of one of their just nine House seats. Seeking to defend the district will be Democrat Sara Burlingame, executive director of LGBT rights organization Wyoming Equality.

While more candidates are free to enter the primary before June, so far Johnson and Burlingame are the only two candidates running.

Laramie County GOP chairman Darin Smith said House District 44 was the most exciting race in the state and noted that it was the only seat in the county that Republicans had lost in 2016.

“It’s a Democratic stronghold,” Smith said. But he believed Byrd’s incumbency helped him win elections and is hoping that with an open seat, Johnson will be able to score a victory.

Smith acknowledged that Republicans did not necessarily need to add to their House majority, but said that Johnson was best suited to serve in the Legislature.

“He’s solid, well-rounded, he’s a well-respected member of the community,” Smith said. “I just think that’s what we want — it’s not a matter of: ‘We have to win another seat.”

Johnson said that the seat being open is simply a bonus, and that he’s been planning a run for some time.

“I’ve always been interested in public service,” he said. “It was fortuitous that Byrd was stepping down — honestly I would have run against him anyway.”

The ear, nose and throat doctor said that improving healthcare in Wyoming is one of his top campaign priorities. Johnson said that in addition to seeking additional insurance providers to join Wyoming’s marketplace, he is open to expanding the federal Medicaid program in Cheyenne.

The Legislature has repeatedly rejected such an expansion despite support by Gov. Matt Mead, a Republican.

“It’s something I would really like to put back on the table,” Johnson said. “We have an opportunity to receive $135 million in federal money.”

He said that would be a boon to hospitals across the state, which are often major parts of local economies. Johnson also said that the Trump administration’s recent decision to allow state officials to set their own rules about who is allowed to qualify for Medicaid could make an expansion more palatable for Wyoming.

Burlingame said she supported Medicaid expansion “without qualification, as do the overwhelmingly majority of Wyomingites.”

Education funding is Burlingame’s top priority. With two children in public school, she said she wants to ensure that their teachers are not worried about the state’s budget woes.

“I want them worrying about my kid’s book report,” she said. “I don’t want them worrying about whether the budget is going to recognize their hard work.”

Johnson said that he was a fiscal conservative and opposed the creation of an income tax or increasing the sales tax, though is open to spending some of Wyoming’s savings if needed to cover budget deficits.

“We need to make responsible cuts,” Johnson said. “But at the end of the day, if we have savings available, my preference would be to use our savings rather than increase taxes.”

He also supports efforts to diversify Wyoming’s economy and cited Cheyenne LEADS, a local economic development group. Johnson said he supports Mead’s economic diversification effort Endow.

Burlingame said economic development is also a priority of hers and that while she supported Endow as a first step, she said the state needs to go further.

“I can see a future where Wyoming is prosperous and understood to be a great state to raise your family, a great state to bring your business,” she said. “But we don’t get there without changing some fundamental things.”

Burlingame specifically cited the need for a statewide anti-discrimination law and more funding for Hispanic arts and culture.

On the social front, Johnson said he is a practicing Catholic and opposed to abortion. He said he is also opposed to “discrimination of any form.”

“It’s hard to divide my religious self from my political self,” Johnson said. “That being said, I think I try to keep religious views out of government if possible.”

Wyoming Democratic Party chairman Joe Barbuto said that holding House District 44 was a priority and that the party would make resources available to Burlingame or whoever ends up as the nominee after the August primary.

“Every race is important to us and in particular we want to make sure that in addition to electing new Democrats, we want to hold the seats we have,” he said.

Barbuto is confident the seat will remain in Democratic hands.

Byrd did not respond to a request for comment. He has not spoken to the Star-Tribune since an article was published last fall about an opioid control bill that he was backing.

New baby bathing methods at Wyoming Medical Center help ease transition for newborns

Ashleigh Tieszen smiled at her newborn daughter in the small tub at the foot of her hospital bed. Her 3-year-old, Aubrey, helped rinse her baby sister.

Nursing assistant Kylee Gladson bundled the 1-day old Adaline in a light blanket before placing her in the special bathtub designed for newborns. She washed her arm, then a leg, rewrapping each limb before moving on to the next.

Aubrey dipped her hands in the warm water and gently rubbed the infant’s skin. The father, Johnathan Tieszen, grinned as he videoed Adaline’s first bath April 10 at Wyoming Medical Center with his phone.

The baby opened her eyes and looked around.

“She likes it,” Johnathan said.

Wyoming Medical Center in January started offering new swaddle bathing and delayed bathing routines for newborns in the Ruth R. Ellbogen Family, Mother and Baby Center, RN and clinical nursery educator Monica Money said. The hospital is among medical centers across the country adopting new bathing practices based on newborn care research.

When newborns are born, they emerge from the warm, dark, quiet environment of the womb into one of bright lights, cold and loud noises, RN and education coordinator for obstetrics Jennifer Gallagher said. Delaying bathing for eight to 24 hours and swaddle bathing helps keep them warm and comfortable to reduce stress, she said.

“Research has shown (delayed bathing) it’s better for the baby to have a good transition. It’s just better for their temperature stability. It allows more time with their family,” Gallagher said. “Babies do way better wrapped up than they do exposed to the elements. It helps regulate their breathing and their blood sugars, so it’s less of a physiologic transition.”

Healthy bathing

Wyoming Medical Center’s new tubs for swaddle bathing newborns cradle them for easy bathing and monitor the water temperature, Money said.

Delayed bathing for newborns who are sick or medically vulnerable is necessary, Money said. But now parents of healthy infants can choose delayed bathing at their convenience.

“At our hospital, it’s basically mom’s choice,” Money said. “Whenever she wants to do it is when we’ll do it.”

Delayed bathing for the recommended six to 24 hours has been available by request and now is being offered up front, according to information from the hospital. The practice is becoming more popular because of the benefits for babies and chance for families to participate.

Delayed bathing benefits even healthy newborns by helping them maintain body temperature and leaving on a coating called the vernix, which protects and moisturizes their skin, she said.

Leaving the vernix on longer allows it to absorb naturally in the skin rather than washing it away just after birth. It’s especially good for babies in Wyoming’s dry climate, Gallagher said. The vernix also contains good bacteria from the mother’s skin that helps establish the baby’s bacteria colony, Money said.

“There’s a lot of good things inside the amniotic fluid that get absorbed into the skin,” Money added.

Swaddling babies keeps them more comfortable, Money said. Newborns are still adjusting to life outside the womb, where they felt constant pressure against their bodies when they moved. They cry less often when swaddled for baths, which also helps parents feel less stressed and better able to learn how to bathe and care for their babies, she added.

Swaddle bathing can happen any time at any bath, Gallagher said. Along with delayed bathing, swaddle bathing helps prevent physiological stress.

Newborns bodies don’t yet have the ability to control temperature, so the environment around them must be regulated, Gallagher said. Both delayed bathing and swaddle bathing help keep newborns’ body temperatures stable, she said.

Money recently gave birth at Wyoming Medical Center and chose delayed bathing and a swaddle bath. Her family was there while she bathed the baby with a little help from the nurses, she said. She led the adoption of the new baby bathing practices at Wyoming Medical Center.

“It was important to me because I feel like it’s the best thing for babies,” Money said.

Bathtime bonding

Gladson showed the family traces of the white vernix under Adaline’s arm. Then the CNA gently lathered and rinsed the spot. Aubrey continued patting her sister with small handfuls of the warm water and occasionally chiming in with a singsong chant about bath-time in the bathtub.

“She smells good,” the girl said as they finished their task.

“Good job, you’re an awesome big sister,” Gladson said.

Adaline was born at 9:50 p.m. April 9, and the parents waited until the next afternoon for her first bath. Her mom, dad, sister and grandmother were all there to learn and bond with the newborn.

“We might have to adopt the swaddle bath for the house,” Johnathan said.

Swaddle bathing is Gladson’s favorite part of her job, she said.

“It’s a lot of patient care, and you just get to see all of the families coming together and it’s just a super happy time in everybody’s life,” she said.

There are always necessary tasks like tests and blood draws that make the babies cry, but the new bathing method adds a pleasant experience, said Ashleigh, Adaline’s mom. Adaline fussed as she woke to Gladson carrying her to the bassinet to wrap her for the bath. She cried afterward as the CNA dressed her a new pink onesie and swaddled her again in a dry, fresh blanket.

But the newborn didn’t cry during her first bath like Aubrey and her 6-year-old brother had.

“It’s definitely a lot more calming and lot more relaxing and enjoyable for everybody,” Ashleigh said.

The parents requested delayed bathing for their two older children. Then, only Johnathan could be there while they were washed in the nursery, he said.

“It’s a lot more family-oriented too,” Johnathan said about the new practices. “They’re always taking the babies out of the room or somewhere else to do the bath. So dad can go with, but mom is in the room when they do the bath. So mom doesn’t usually get to participate in the first bath like this. This is much more special.”

A clean, warm Adaline soon lay nestled in her mother’s arms again and drifted back to sleep.

Wyoming regulators approve Pacificorp's $2 billion wind power and transmission project

Rocky Mountain Power’s plan to invest $2 billion in Wyoming wind took a step forward Thursday in a deal reached with state regulators.

Wyoming’s largest utility dropped a 161-megawatt wind farm in Uinta County from its plans after a week-long hearing before the Wyoming Public Service Commission, but the company will nonetheless increase its parent company PacifiCorp’s wind footprint by about 60 percent as a result of its proposals in Wyoming, the company said in statement.

Rocky Mountain Power still gets most of its power from coal, but it went public with its plan to build new wind and transmission in Wyoming last year, part of strategy to take advantage of federal tax subsidies for wind before they sunset in 2020.

Because of that tax boon, the company argues that the increase in wind power will benefit customers’ pockets over time.

“Rocky Mountain Power customers continue to have some of the lowest electricity rates in the country,” said Cindy Crane, president and CEO of the company in a statement Friday. “This proposed settlement will reduce those rates even more.”

The proposed wind build-out agreed upon Thursday is comprised of three new wind farms totaling 1,150 megawatts of potential power and a 140-mile high-voltage transmission line across central Wyoming. The company’s plan to upgrade its existing wind farms is being considered separate from Thursday’s approval.

The three new wind farms will be Ekola Flats, a 250-megawatt proposal in Carbon County; TB Flats I and II, a 500-megwatt farm in Carbon County and potentially Albany County; and Cedar Springs, a 400-megawatt farm proposed in Converse County.

A number of groups had reservations about RMP’s plan and asked state regulators to verify that the new wind was necessary to meet customer demand and wouldn’t add up to an additional cost on the consumer. Those intervenors included the Wyoming Office of Consumer Advocate and the Wyoming Industrial Energy Consumers. A private ranch, the Rocky Mountain Sheep Company had protested part of the proposal. All parties either withdrew from the case or reached agreement during the hearing except the sheep ranch.

Any potential impact that the new build-out will have on customer power cost would be decided later. Utility requests to increase rates have to be approved by the Wyoming Public Service Commission, said the commissions’ lawyer Christopher Petrie.

Rocky Mountain Power will still have a number of hurdles to clear in order to get to work. Right-of-way permission must be gained in the impacted areas and additional permits are required in Wyoming. Other states where the utility operates also have to approve the new power and transmission, including Utah, Oregon and Idaho.

Wyoming economy expanding despite losses, experts say

Wyoming energy continues to drive improvements for an economy that was greatly weakened by the two-year downturn in the coal, oil and gas industries, according to a monthly economic snapshot.

A number of positive signs, like energy spending and added jobs, show an expanding economy, said Jim Robinson, principal economist at the state’s Economic Analysis Division and author of the March MACRO report released Tuesday.

Expansion is needed. Wyoming’s state and local coffers continue to suffer from sharp decline in energy dollars in recent years. As far as people go, Wyoming has counted the losses. Recent data revealed that the downturn caused Wyoming’s steepest population drop since 1989. The number of unemployed people searching for positions declined and the total number of able-bodied Wyomingites available to work contracted.

The labor force is expected to continue shrinking into 2018, some say, despite the moderate increase each month of rig workers in the oil and gas fields.

“The labor force? That’s still contracting. That’s getting smaller,” Robinson said. “We’ve been steadily improving ... But it’s only been one hundred or two hundred a month (for oil and gas jobs).”

The numbers

Total employment in the state was up 4,700 jobs in February compared to the same time last year, according to the report. Much of that increase was in the mining sector, where 2,100 jobs were picked up. Oil and gas specifically gained 1,400, a result of the steady price for crude oil over the latter half of 2017. Construction was the only private sector to lose numbers, down 300 year-over-year.

As skies clear over the energy industries, state revenues are up as well compared to 2017.

In the last nine months, sales and use tax collections have grown by nearly 19 percent. Those taxes mean people and companies are spending money again.

Converse County, a hub for oil and gas activity in recent months, saw the greatest sales and use tax increase, up by $15.2 million compared to the previous year. Severance tax collection on the extractive industries was also up between mid-2017 and the present by nearly 10 percent.

These improvements have had a positive impact on both housing and personal income in places like Casper and Cheyenne, according to the report. However, those hubs have had disparate experiences when it comes to jobs: Casper gained 500 and Cheyenne lost 100.

A note of caution

As an industry state, Wyoming should be cautious when counting its chickens when it comes to recently added jobs, some argue.

Tom Gallagher, former lead economist of the Research and Planning division of Wyoming’s Department of Workforce Services, said Wyoming’s industry job numbers can hide a large number of commuters from other states — people who may be improving the overall count of miners or oil and gas workers, but who live and spend their income in the economies of neighboring states like Colorado or South Dakota.

“Wyoming’s labor market is very dynamic when it comes to short-term (daily) commuting and commuting with longer stays, and it’s complicated,” he said in a recent email. “The front range is evolving, expanding, and becoming more integrated across the Colorado—Wyoming border. Development is neither steady nor linear.”

The commuter effect impacts both sides of the border, said Robinson of the Economic Analysis Division. When the Bakken oil field in North Dakota boomed a few years back, state economists were aware of a number of central Wyoming residents commuting north to work in the oil patch, said Robinson.

How big of an impact commuters have on the total job picture is less clear. Wyoming’s Research and Planning Department has been investigating that segment of the population for a number of years.

However, for Robinson, Wyoming’s current picture is better understood by looking at the direction of numbers over time.

“I think you get a better idea of what’s going on in Wyoming when you look at the trends,” he said. “That’s the bigger picture.”

The number of oil rigs drilling has hit a three-year high. Drilling activity is pulling in new employees. From the mining sector’s employment to the economic picture of hubs like Casper and Cheyenne, Wyoming is gaining distance from the bottom of the downturn, he said.

“I think what we have at this point is a measured recovery,” he said.