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Barrasso says he's ignoring deficit report as Senate moves to pass tax bill

Wyoming U.S. Sen. John Barrasso said he does not believe an official analysis of the GOP tax plan that found it would fail to stimulate the economic growth anticipated by Republican leaders.

An analysis Wednesday by Congress’ nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation found that the bill would add $1 trillion to the deficit.

That pushed at least one Republican senator, Bob Corker of Tennessee, to oppose the legislation. But Barrasso dismissed the JCT’s analysis.

“Oh, that’s the one that doesn’t believe that there’s going to be economic growth?” Barrasso asked a reporter from Vox News. “Yeah, I ignore that.”

Barrasso spokesman Bronwyn Lance Chester said that Barrasso believed the analysis was “wildly pessimistic.”

Chester pointed to the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers, who have projected 3 to 5 percent economic growth as a result of the tax plan and to an analysis by the right-leaning Tax Foundation, which argued the JCT’s projects were too conservative.

Wyoming’s senior Sen. Mike Enzi, meanwhile, said the JCT projections likely underestimated the benefits of the tax plan.

Bill expected to pass

Republicans used a burst of eleventh-hour horse-trading Friday to edge a $1.4 trillion tax bill to the brink of Senate passage. The party, starved all year for a major legislative triumph, took a giant step toward giving President Donald Trump one of his top priorities by Christmas.

The bill was expected to pass late Friday with the support of Barrasso and Enzi. Rep. Liz Cheney, the third member of Wyoming’s all-Republican Congressional delegation, supported the House version of the bill.

The bill hit rough waters Thursday after the Joint Taxation panel concluded it would worsen federal shortfalls by $1 trillion over a decade, even when factoring in economic growth that lower taxes would stimulate.

Trump administration officials and many Republicans have insisted the bill would pay for itself by stimulating the economy. But the sour projections stiffened resistance from some deficit-averse Republicans.

After bargaining that stretched into Friday morning, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and other leaders said victory was assured in a chamber they control 52-48. Facing unyielding Democratic opposition, Republicans could lose no more than two GOP senators and prevail with a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence.

Under the changes leaders agreed to, millions of companies whose owners pay individual, not corporate, taxes on their profits would be allowed deductions of 23 percent, up from 17.4 percent. That helped win over GOP Sens. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Steve Daines of Montana.

People would be allowed to deduct up to $10,000 in property taxes, a demand of Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. That matched a House provision that chamber’s leaders included to keep some GOP votes from high-tax states like New York, New Jersey and California.

Collins, a moderate and frequent maverick who opposed her party’s Obamacare repeal drive, said she’d back the tax bill.

The changes added more than $300 billion to the tax bill’s costs. To pay for that, leaders agreed to reduce the number of high-earners who must pay the alternative minimum tax, rather than completely erasing it.

Deficit concerns

Corker appeared to be the lone Republican holdout, continuing to cite the increase to the federal deficit, which has long been a concern of GOP lawmakers.

“Obviously I’m kind of a dinosaur on the fiscal issues,” said Corker, who battled to keep the measure from worsening the government’s accumulated $20 trillion in IOUs.

Both Barrasso and Enzi have long raised alarms about the deficit and faulted former President Barack Obama and Democratic politicians.

“Washington’s deficit is going to be 35 percent higher this year than it was last year,” Barrasso said, while railing against Democratic policies in a speech last year.

Enzi, too, has frequently attacked Democrats for failing to rein in the federal deficit created during the administration of President George W. Bush during the early aughts and increased during Obama’s two terms.

“Most people in this country realize that the best medicine for a nation with an extreme debt problem is to cut spending, limit how much we spend in the future and balance the budget,” Enzi said in a 2011 statement.

Spokesman Max D’Onofrio said that Enzi believed the JCT estimate “likely underestimates the economic benefit the tax form plan would provide.” D’Onofrio said that the federal budget Enzi helped draft earlier this year led to a balanced budget by 2027 even taking into account lost revenue from tax cuts.

Overall, the Senate bill would drop the highest personal income tax rate from 39.6 percent to 38.5 percent. The estate tax levied on a few thousand of the nation’s largest inheritances would be narrowed to affect even fewer.

In addition to raising the deficit, the JCT found that the bill’s reductions for many families would be modest and said by 2027, families earning under $75,000 would on average face higher, not lower, taxes.

The non-partisan Institute on Taxation and Economic policy found that 66,800 taxpayers in Wyoming would pay more taxes in 2027. The group also estimated that 70.7 percent of the tax cuts received by residents would go to the richest 1 percent of Wyomingites, who would see their tax bill drop by $180,000 while the bottom 80 percent would receive reductions of between $100 and $1,100.

Tax bill backed by Barrasso, Cheney, Enzi; could have major impact on Wyoming

Wyoming’s Congressional delegation is strongly backing a Republican tax plan that would slash corporate tax rates nearly in half while providing more modest and temporary relief to individuals. The House passed its version of the plan earlier this month and the Senate’s version is expected to be voted on Thursday or Friday.

Deductions for state and local income taxes, moving expenses and other items would vanish, the standard deduction — used by most Americans — would nearly double to $12,000 for individuals and $24,000 for couples, and the per-child tax credit would grow.

The bill would abolish the “Obamacare” requirement that most people buy health coverage or face tax penalties. Industry experts say that would weaken the law by easing pressure on healthier people to buy coverage, and the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has said the move would push premiums higher and leave 13 million additional people uninsured.

It would also explicitly let parents buy tax-advantaged 529 college savings accounts for fetuses, a step they can already take but which anti-abortion forces hailed as a victory by inscribing that right into law.

Well into Friday afternoon, changes were still being made to the bill, which represents the largest change to the American tax code in decades, including handwritten notes scrawled into the margins of the legislation being circulated among lawmakers and distributed on social media by Democratic lawmakers frustrated with the lack of transparency.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Hogadon's new snowsports school director works to improve experience for novice skiers

Slouched slightly in his chair and an easy confidence, Jeff Brier described the new snowsports school tactics that Hogadon Basin will implement under his leadership.

He plans to add a new mini half-pipe and banked turns to help novice riders, said the new executive director. The changes are some of many additions to Hogadon this year, which include a new lodge and Brier himself.

“... In terms of guest experience, those are huge,” Brier said. “The programs are there, maybe they’re not branded, but the path to follow is there. We’re kind of focusing on building on that community from the ground up.”

Brier turned down a job in Breckenridge, Colorado, in favor of his new position in Casper. Hogadon was open to improvement, he said, and he could use his experience to make a difference.

Brier started teaching in 1996, has been skiing for 35 years and snowboarding for nearly as many. He has been coaching and teaching snowsports for 21 years and has moved across the country to various resorts from his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

“I’ve done everything job-wise in the industry. Instructor, supervisor, training, attaining all the highest levels of certification available,” he said seated inside the new Hogadon Basin lodge. “Whatever aspect of the industry there is, I’ve kind of seen and been in all those dark corners.”

Hogadon Basin Ski Lodge manager Chris Smith summarized the feeling for a lot of skiers and riders this winter about the resort.

“This is an exciting year for us,” Smith said. “New lodge. New ski school director. We expect big things and we’re excited Jeff’s on board.”

The new lodge has massive windows on nearly every wall offering views of Casper and the mountain. It also has a much larger commons area, complete with big screen television and larger fireplace. It is also two stories, opening up room for the Mountain Sports rental shop and snowsports school on the bottom floor while the lounge, bar and conference room with offices sits upstairs.

In addition to the new terrain that Brier pushed for Hogadon to implement, the resort will also host a Rail Jam on Feb. 10.

The Rail Jam will be open to skiers and snowboarders alike.

“It’s going to be something that is very cool for people to stand out on the balconies and watch people throw themselves over metal features for a couple hours,” Brier said, “and it will be fun opportunity for people who like that activity.”

There are also plans for a class for women who are new to skiing or riding, ending with a happy hour in the lodge’s new bar and a fashion show with advice on how to layer clothes for warmth.

Still seated in one of the new chairs, occasionally staring back at the Christmas tree in the corner, Brier’s vision is starting to come to fruition in just his short time as executive director.

“Every day here is a big ski and snowboard party,” Brier said. “We throw a party for people every day with the aspect of becoming better skiers. We want try to create that learning community and fun atmosphere for everyone.”

Consolidating districts
Lawmakers discuss, show little interest in consolidating school districts

The state’s education consultant presented information Thursday about consolidating some of Wyoming’s 48 school districts, a cost-cutting measure that most lawmakers expressed little interest in.

“I’m opposed to consolidation,” Sen. Hank Coe, the chairman of the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration, told the audience of educators on Thursday morning. A Republican from Cody, Coe comes from a county with three school districts. “We’re only receiving this report on consolidation — just receiving it — because we’re turning over all the stones.”

Sen. Dave Kinskey, a Sheridan Republican who also comes from a county with three school districts, lamented that lawmakers had wasted a large chunk of their day on a solution that, in the grand scheme of things, doesn’t solve much.

“We have a half-billion dollar problem,” he said, referring to the state’s overall education funding deficit. “We’ve now spent 20 percent of our time on an $8 million solution. You see the angst and anxiety people have about consolidation.”

Consolidating the state’s school districts has been a frequent topic of discussion by some lawmakers as they work to bridge a gaping education funding deficit. On paper, there appears to be good reason for looking into it: Of the state’s 23 districts, only eight have one school district. Forty-two of the 48 districts have less than 3,000 students. Lawmakers directed the state’s education consultants — Augenblick, Palaich and Associates — to conduct a study of possible consolidations in the state, and on Thursday, the experts presented their findings.

“Potential savings are possible through reduction of one-of-a-kind positions such as superintendents, business managers, curriculum directors, federal program directors, and others,” the consultants wrote.

Essentially, the state could save money by having one superintendent in a county like Sheridan, instead of three. Fremont County has eight districts; could one business manager serve them all? In the past, when the topic has come up, it’s generally presented that way: as administration consolidation. Lawmakers have said they don’t want to close buildings and deprive small towns of their schools.

Even though it seemed like lawmakers were merely doing their due diligence by looking at consolidation (though Rep. Cathy Connolly expressed some interest in it), educators still stood to testify against it.

“When you start to think about what are the real cost savings when you talk about consolidation, it isn’t superintendents’ salaries,” Marty Kobza, the superintendent of Sheridan County. No. 1, testified. “Politically, it’s popular, I understand, but at the same time, the only way you save real dollars — and Natrona County can probably attest to this — is you close buildings.”

Natrona County School District voted to close four schools in October. Officials here said it would save more than $2 million a year. Superintendent Steve Hopkins, in comparison, makes roughly $190,000 annually.

Unsurprising, a survey of superintendents and business managers showed none currently shared those duties with another district, and 80 percent of each said they would not do so.

They were open to sharing some responsibilities: Seventy-two percent said they would share a fundraising administrator, 77 percent said they’d do the same with a grant manager, and 72 percent said they’d share a public relations position, among a number of other roles.

On top of sharing administrative duties, there are some benefits to sharing, if not outright consolidating. For instance, Natrona County has a number of specialized teachers — like those that teach art or advanced placement classes — that students in one of the Converse County districts may not have access to.

If there’s to be any consolidation, that sharing of services would likely be the conduit. The consultants recommended sharing foreign language teachers, for instance, or combining payroll services. Indeed, the survey showed that a majority of districts would share several kinds of teachers, from foreign language to computer programming to special education.

Kinskey asked the consultants what was in it for a district like Natrona — which has nearly 13,000 students, more than 2,000 employees and is the only district in the county — to consolidate with others. Would it just be out of the goodness of their heart?

The consultant replied that larger districts would “welcome the opportunity to provide these instructional opportunities for all of the students in their region.”

Essentially, the consultant said, it would be out of the goodness of their heart.

Casper names new police and interim fire chiefs

The city of Casper has named Keith McPheeters its new police chief.

McPheeters formerly served as Farmington, New Mexico, deputy police chief.

City Manager Carter Napier made the announcement in a Friday afternoon news conference. Napier said he expects the new police chief to be sworn in Dec. 11.

Napier set a goal of bringing in a new police chief in time for the December holidays when he began as city manager over the summer.

McPheeters was well prepared for the position, Napier said, citing similarities between Farmington and Casper, which he referred to as “energy towns.”

Farmington’s population is more diverse than Casper’s, and the city of roughly 45,000 has a larger police force than Casper, which should help McPheeters navigate through anticipated population growth and diversification in Casper, Napier said.

McPheeters said he expects the department to function as a “family” under his command.

“I’m a firm believer in team work,” McPheeters said.

In the same news conference, Napier named Jason Speiser interim fire chief. Speiser will not be a candidate for the permanent position.

Speiser has been with the department for 16 years and previously served as a battalion chief. He will take the new role effectively immediately.

The longtime Casper resident said Friday that he does not anticipate making changes to the department while he serves in his interim position, saying he would continue to follow the department’s mission statement.

Former Fire Chief Kenneth King’s retirement became effective Friday, a month earlier than anticipated.

King initially announced his retirement last year on the heels of an apology for an email controversy.

Police hiring process

McPheeters spent nearly 25 years with the Farmington department before retiring in mid-2016.

McPheeters holds a bachelor’s degree from Excelsior College. He is also a graduate of the FBI National Academy and Northwestern University School of Police Staff and Command.

In addition to McPheeters, the finalists for the police chief position were: Boise, Idaho police lieutenant Brett Quilter; former West Jordan, Utah police chief Drew Sanders; and interim Casper police chief Steve Schulz.

Schulz will remain with the force as a captain, Napier said Friday.

After culling the field and consulting with the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police, Napier named the finalists on the last Monday of October. His office spent the next three weeks seeking out more information on the candidates and coming to a final decision, he said in late November.

The new chief will be paid between $105,000 and $126,000 annually, according to a job posting issued by the city.

The position was staffed in an interim capacity since May by Schulz, who was tapped after former Chief Jim Wetzel was dismissed from his position. The dismissal occurred after problems in the police department became public, but the city has never offered a reason for Wetzel’s departure.

A survey released in early April by the local branch of the Fraternal Order of Police described a toxic environment in the department.

Fire hiring process

The city will continue to look for a permanent fire chief while Speiser staffs the role in an interim capacity.

Napier told a Star-Tribune reporter he had consulted with the division chiefs in making the appointment.

Speaking last month, Napier said that 28 applicants had submitted their names for the position. A job posting for the position was open for three weeks. Even before King announced his new retirement date, Napier said he expected he would name an interim fire chief, as he did not expect to make the Jan. 2 deadline.

Napier said at the time that he thought “we have some good candidates.”

Speiser will not be a candidate for the permanent position, the interim chief said.

The permanent fire position will pay within the same range as the police position, according to the job posting.

King announced plans to retire in October 2016, just hours after apologizing for an email regarding the 2015 Cole Creek Fire.

In an email to a subordinate who was collecting video evidence of the fire that destroyed 14 homes, King wrote: “Could you cut out the bad parts, and make sure that no copies are made and only DCI views?”

The email was sent while the fire still blazed, but did not become public until the Star-Tribune published it a year later.

King characterized the email as a “bad joke,” in an interview with the Star-Tribune.