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Casper City Manager proposes middle ground on consensus funds

Casper and Natrona County officials clashed for more than a month about how to disperse $1.8 million of county-wide consensus funds, but City Manager Carter Napier proposed a potential new plan this week that he hopes will appease both parties.

Casper City Council initially asked for $600,000 for new seats and metal detectors at the Casper Events Center and $185,646 to replace the Casper Ice Arena ice plant, but the new plan nixes the request for the latter, Napier told council members Tuesday night. Funding for new park equipment in Mills would also be eliminated, while $200,000 would be added for Natrona County to renovate stalls and stables at the Central Wyoming Fairgrounds.

The seats had been a point of contention between the city and the county because the Natrona County Commissioners initially thought the money should only be used for critical infrastructure emergencies.

Council members expressed some concerns with the new plan, but overall concluded that the compromise was acceptable. Natrona County Commission Chairman John Lawson said Wednesday that the county also approves.

“We believe that, barring any other surprises, we should all be able to go forward and get this thing processed and resolved,” he said.

Mills Mayor Seth Coleman said Wednesday that he was unaware of the potential change and declined to comment at this time.

Like Casper’s initial proposal, the updated plan would grant $500,000 to Evansville to work on metro road connections and roughly $300,000 to Midwest and Edgerton to fix a leaking waterline, according to Napier. About $200,000 would also still be allotted to repair a public safety radio tower that serves multiple municipalities.

Consensus money comes from the state and is intended to help communities with various infrastructure issues. The State Loan and Investment Board approved the use of Countywide Consensus Grants for multiple projects submitted by Natrona County for the 2015-2016 fiscal years, but one of those plans — the Amoco Reuse Convention Center — never panned out. As a result, about $2.2 million of the allotted money was leftover for municipalities in Natrona County.

About $1.8 million remains after all involved parties agreed to use roughly $400,000 early last year to repair emergency vehicles and a generator and roof at Natrona County’s Hall of Justice and Detention Center, Napier explained Wednesday. But since the county and city have disagreed about how to divvy up the remaining funds, no other projects have been able to move forward.

Explaining that its unlikely the county will receive more consensus funding anytime soon, Lawson previously told the Star-Tribune that he thought the city and county agreed the money should be used for urgent projects, such as the public safety tower or leaking waterline, and otherwise saved for future emergencies. But after learning that other municipalities did not want to save the funds, the chairman said the commission needed more time to consider the county’s needs.

But Casper City Councilman Charlie Powell said last month that the Council believes the commission is overstepping its bounds.

“It’s our stance that the county and commissioners are essentially trying to control decisions that are properly made by the Casper City Council,” he said.

Council members continued to express frustrations with the county Tuesday night, but ultimately concluded that a compromise is in everyone’s best interest.

Newly appointed Mayor Ray Pacheco said he was furious by the county’s “out-of-the-blue” request for funding to fix the fairgrounds, but wanted to move forward.

“A compromise is probably where we’re going to have to come because otherwise it’s going to be a stalemate,” he said.

Councilman Chris Walsh pointed out that improving the fairgrounds would likely bring more people to the area, which would also benefit Casper.

Although he considered the new plan acceptable, newly appointed Vice Mayor Charlie Powell said it was apparent the county never really wanted to save money for future emergencies.

“They had plans for it,” he said. “It wasn’t for an emergency we were going to have.”

Councilwoman Kenyne Humphrey concurred and called the county’s actions “dirty and underhanded.”

Lawson said Wednesday the county did not discuss the issues at the fairgrounds until recent negations with Napier because the commissioners believed it would be best to save the funding.

“We were willing to find another way to fix it and hold on to the other money for the county in case a real emergency came up but that was not what was agreed to,” he explained.

The fairgrounds’ stables and stalls have drainage issues that may deter people from participating in rodeos, fairs and races, said Lawson.

“That would be bad for the entire community,” he remarked.

City staff is now drafting the formal new proposal, which will require official approval from council, Napier said Wednesday. The city manager said he’s hoping the matter will be resolved by early February.

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

Jerry Finch wipes dirt out of his eye Wednesday while replacing the radiator hose and thermostat in his 1989 GMC Jimmy in the parking lot of the Royal Inn. Finch uses the truck as a plow vehicle for the parking lot of the hotel, where he works as a handyman. "I'm just glad it got warm," Finch said, "it isn't fun working on these things in the cold."

Bill would limit scope of veterans' tuition program to save money

A bill sponsored by a legislative committee would make money-saving changes to a program that pays for college degrees for veterans and their relatives.

The changes would result in new limits on the scope of the program. But one lawmaker said those changes are needed to preserve the program’s future amid the state’s ongoing fiscal problems.

The measure, titled Senate File 36 and sponsored by the Joint Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Committee, is similar to a bill that failed last session. It would change the program to fund only tuition and not fees, would require veterans be pursuing a degree or certificate “at the same or lower educational level than the student has previously earned,” and would provide money only for the University of Wyoming or one of the state’s community colleges. It would also only pay the undergraduate tuition rate for eight semesters instead of 10.

The free tuition program is available to “any person who is a Vietnam veteran ... an overseas combat veteran, a combat veteran surviving spouse or a combat veteran dependent.” Vietnam vets receiving education benefits from a federal program are not eligible.

Wyoming’s community college commission reimburses UW and the community colleges for the tuition costs, according to the bill and statute.

Rep. Landon Brown, a Cheyenne Republican who supported the bill, said it “was the right thing to do” to protect the future of the program, given the state’s tight fiscal situation. The program costs more than $1 million over each two-year budget period. The bill was projected to save as much as $344,000 over that time, according to committee minutes.

“It’s a tough program to continue to sell when the state is strapped for cash,” he said.

The change allowing only free tuition — and not covering fees, which are assessed at both UW and the community colleges — would mean veterans had “skin in the game,” Brown said.

He added that the program’s intended purpose had been stretched in the past, hence the change allowing it to only pay UW’s undergraduate rate.

“Participants in the past were using these for pharmaceutical degrees, law degrees,” he said. “That’s not what this program was intended for. (The bill) is saying, we’d pay for that, but you’re only going to get the undergraduate rate.”

Brown said the bill was supported by the Veterans of Foreign Wars and by the American Legion. He said some individual veterans had felt the program was something promised to them. That concern is why lawmakers included a provision in the bill essentially grandfathering in veterans who were already in the program or were about to enroll.

Any veteran already participating or who signs up before July 1 would remain eligible for current benefits, like payments for fees and coverage for 10 semesters.

Given that provision, Brown said officials expect an influx of participants over the coming months as veterans enroll in the program while it offers its current benefits. He said in a few years, the savings will be felt.

Trump blasts Bannon over book, says ex-aide 'lost his mind'

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump launched a scathing attack on former top adviser Steve Bannon on Wednesday, responding to a new book that portrays Trump as an undisciplined man-child who didn't actually want to win the White House and quotes Bannon as calling his son's contact with a Russian lawyer "treasonous."

Hitting back via a formal White House statement rather than a more-typical Twitter volley, Trump insisted Bannon had little to do with his victorious campaign and "has nothing to do with me or my Presidency."

"When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind," Trump said.

It was a blistering attack against the man who helped deliver the presidency to Trump. It was spurred by an unflattering new book by writer Michael Wolff that paints Trump as a leader who doesn't understand the weight of the presidency and spends his evenings eating cheeseburgers in bed, watching television and talking on the phone to old friends.

Later Wednesday, Trump attorney Charles Harder threatened legal action against Bannon over "disparaging statements and in some cases outright defamatory statements."

Harder sent a letter to Bannon saying the former Trump aide violated confidentiality agreements by speaking with Wolff. The letter demanded Bannon "cease and desist" any further disclosure of confidential information. Bannon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

White House aides were blindsided when early excerpts from "Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House" were published online by New York magazine and other media outlets ahead of the Jan. 9 publication date.

The release left Trump "furious" and "disgusted," said White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who complained that the book contained "outrageous" and "completely false claims against the president, his administration and his family."

Asked what specifically had prompted the president's fury with Bannon, she said: "I would certainly think that going after the president's son in an absolutely outrageous and unprecedented way is probably not the best way to curry favor with anybody."

In the book, an advance copy of which was provided to The Associated Press, Bannon is quoted as describing a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between Donald Trump Jr., Trump campaign aides and a Russian lawyer as "treasonous" and "unpatriotic." The meeting has become a focus of federal and congressional investigators.

Bannon also told Wolff the investigations into potential collusion between Russia and Trump campaign officials would likely focus on money laundering.

"They're going to crack Don Junior like an egg on national TV," Bannon was quoted as saying in one section that was first reported by The Guardian.

A spokeswoman for Bannon did not immediately respond to a request for a comment. Trump Jr. lashed out in a series of tweets, including one that said Andrew Breitbart, the founder of the Breitbart News site that Bannon now runs, "would be ashamed of the division and lies Steve Bannon is spreading!"

Bannon, who was forced out of his White House job last summer, was not surprised or particularly bothered by the blowback, according to a person familiar with his thinking but not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. That person said Bannon vowed on Wednesday to continue his war on the Republican establishment and also predicted that, after a cooling-off period, he'd continue to speak with Trump, who likes to maintain contact with former advisers even after he fires and sometimes disparages them.

Sanders said Bannon and Trump last spoke in the first part of last month.

The former-and-current Breitbart News head has told associates that he believes Trump has been ill-served by some his closest allies, including eldest son Don Jr. and Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law. Bannon believes they have exposed Trump to the Russia probe that could topple his presidency and that Trump would be able to accomplish more without them.

So far, there is no indication that Bannon is being investigated by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. But the House intelligence committee has invited him, along with former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, for a closed-door interview as a part of the panel's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, according to a person familiar with the invitation.

Trump, up until Wednesday, had been complimentary of Bannon, saying in October that the two "have a very good relationship" and had been friends for "a long time."

In the book, Bannon also speaks critically of Trump's daughter and White House adviser, Ivanka, calling her "dumb as a brick."

"A little marketing savvy and has a look but as far as understanding actually how the world works and what politics is and what it means — nothing," he is quoted saying.

New York magazine also published a lengthy adaptation of the book on Wednesday, in which Wolff writes that Trump believed his presidential nomination would boost his brand and deliver "untold opportunities" — but that he never expected to win.

It says Trump Jr. told a friend that his father looked as if he'd seen a ghost when it became clear he might win. The younger Trump described Melania Trump as "in tears — and not of joy."

The first lady's spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, disputed that, saying Mrs. Trump supported her husband's decision to run, encouraged him to do so and was happy when he won.

"The book is clearly going to be sold in the bargain fiction section," Grisham said in a statement.

Elysia Conner, Star-Tribune  

Kindergarten teacher Jonna Grube helps Mia Knapp with a Christmas ornament she created in December at Cottonwood Elementary School. Open enrollment for placement in Natrona County schools is open through Jan. 17. 

'I'm Wyoming's Donald Trump': Rex Rammell enters governor's race on libertarian right

Ardent state rights supporter and perennial Republican candidate for office Rex Rammell entered the Wyoming governor’s race Wednesday, pledging that if elected he will take control of the state’s federal lands — by force if necessary.

“I would sign an executive order requiring the state police to arrest anybody that didn’t vacate their federal offices,” Rammell said. “We’re talking about the BLM, the Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the Park Service.”

But in an interview Rammell said he thought it was unlikely to come to that. He believes that Wyoming can work with Idaho and Utah to convince President Donald Trump to peacefully turn over federal land to the states.

Rammell believes that assuming control of all public land in Wyoming would solve the state’s budget deficit and secure its economic future by allowing state agencies to bypass federal regulations.

“A lot of our problems in the West will be solved if this one thing can be accomplished,” he said.

Rammell added that with coal and other natural resource commodities unlikely to increase significantly in price during the coming years, it was important Wyoming start to produce its own electricity to sell to its neighbors.

The Star-Tribune first reported that Rammell was considering entering the race on Monday. The Rock Springs veterinarian has previously run for Wyoming’s lone U.S. House seat as well as for governor and U.S. Senate in Idaho.

He said state control of public lands will be his keystone issue in the race to replace Gov. Matt Mead, who is barred from running for reelection next year by term limits.

Overlap with Hageman

Rammell is likely to share supporters with Cheyenne attorney Harriet Hageman, who plans to formally announce her candidacy Jan. 16.

Hageman, who specializes in water rights, has been highly critical of the federal government but has not explicitly called for the state to take control of all public land in Wyoming.

“I believe there has become a really extreme imbalance of power between the federal government and the state government,” Hageman said in an interview last fall.

Rammell said that he decided to run because despite overlapping with Hageman on most policy issues, she has not been forceful enough on the issue of state control of federal land.

He acknowledged that several people had encouraged him to back Hageman instead of entering the race himself, but Rammell said she lacked the “courage” to take his stance on public lands. He allowed that she would make a great attorney general if he was elected.

Hageman declined to comment.

Republican political consultant Bill Cubin said that Hageman and Rammell will likely split a block of conservative voters.

“They’ll definitely be competing for that Constitution Party-registered-Republican-type voter,” Cubin said.

Cubin said Hageman likely had a slight leg up over Rammell because of her family’s deep roots in Wyoming and past involvement in Republican politics, including advising Liz Cheney during Cheney’s campaigns for Senate and House.

Other candidates

Rammell and Hageman join Democrat Mary Throne and Republican Bill Dahlin, a political novice and businessman from Sheridan, as the only candidates to have formally entered the governor’s race.

Secretary of State Ed Murray and State Treasurer Mark Gordon are perceived as the likely front runners if they choose to run.

Murray said last fall that he expected to announce a decision by the end of 2017, though a woman alleged in December that Murray sexually assaulted her in the 1980s, perhaps delaying any announcement. Murray has denied the allegation.

Gordon initially said that he would make a decision in March, following the Legislative session. He later said he might make an announcement sooner, though he did not specify a time.

House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper, has been approached about entering the race and said he is considering it. Cheyenne businessman Sam Galeotos, a Republican, is also considering a run.

Cubin said he was surprised that the race had not heated up yet. He added that running for governor in a large, sparsely-populated state like Wyoming is a lengthy process.

“It takes a long time out there on the road,” Cubin said. “I can tell you I’d be campaigning.”

Rammell first ran for public office in 2002, placing fourth in the Republican primary for an Idaho legislative seat. He lost two more races for the Idaho Legislature in 2004 and 2012. Rammell also ran unsuccessfully for an Idaho U.S. Senate seat in 2008 and for governor there in 2010 before running in 2016 for the Wyoming U.S. House seat eventually won by Cheney.

In debate, Wyoming newcomer questions Cheney's ties to state

CHEYENNE — The first statewide debate in Wyoming’s U.S. House race took a testy turn Monday, with a candidate who has lived in Wyoming only a few years criticizing Liz Cheney’s frequent proclamations about how her family has deep, multi-generation ties to the state.

Rammell has generated controversy in the past, including for saying that he would buy a license to hunt President Barack Obama. He also rode in parades around Wyoming two years ago, leading horses draped with fake corpses representing the Bureau of Land Management and Environmental Protection Agency.

“In a way, I am Wyoming’s Donald Trump,” Rammell said. “I speak my mind.”