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Did lawmakers accidentally open the flood gates for political dark money in Wyoming?

An attempt to update and reform Wyoming’s campaign finance laws may have accidentally repealed all regulations covering groups that do not normally participate in political campaigns — even if they sometimes do spend large sums to support political causes.

The Equality State Policy Center, a left-leaning advocacy group, wanted the Legislature to update the state’s transparency requirements for all types of political advertising. Currently the campaign finance regulations only govern advertisements that explicitly ask people to vote a certain way on a candidate or ballot measure. Other ads are exempt, even if they directly address a political issue in a way that might influence voters.

“If I send out a flyer that says: ‘Vote for Sen. Scott,’ that’s obviously an independent expenditure,” said Steve Klein, an election law attorney with the libertarian Wyoming Liberty Group. “If I send out a flyer that says: ‘Sen. Scott really likes puppies’ ... that can be a little more questionable.”

Klein acknowledged that was a silly example, but the issue came up in more serious ways during 2016 races for the Legislature in mailings that, for example, alleged that a Republican candidate wanted to “seize your public lands.”

A big roll back

The Legislature’s Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions committee voted at its November meeting in Sundance to require groups to report spending related to political advertising even when it doesn’t include a clear call to action.

But — and it’s a big but — the committee simultaneously appears to have removed the requirement for groups whose main goal is not political advocacy to report any political spending, even traditional independent expenditures that ask voters to elect a particular politician or pass a ballot measure, which they are currently required to disclose.

“We’re improving these definitions but then we’re weakening the reporting requirements,” Equality State’s executive director Phoebe Stoner said. “What’s the point?”

Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, said that while it does appear that all reporting requirements for non-political action committees, or PACs, were eliminated in the bill draft approved by the committee, he’s not quite sure that’s what lawmakers were attempting to do.

“I think several members of the committee were confused,” Zwonitzer said.

The motion to remove the reporting requirement from independent groups came up during the discussion about whether to require transparency for electioneering communications, the advertisements that don’t include a call to action.

Zwonitzer thinks the committee simply voted to exempt independent groups from reporting electioneering communications.

Intent unclear?

Moving away from specific calls to vote for or against a candidate or ballot measure, the line between free speech and campaigning, which requires certain reporting, becomes muddy. Is it free speech or campaigning for a think tank to release a study showing a tax bill would hurt businesses? What if the think tank then takes out an angry billboard with a list of lawmakers who support the tax bill?

Because it can be difficult to draw the line, Zwonitzer said he believes the idea was to exempt the independent groups that don’t primarily engage in political activity from needing to disclose spending on these advertisements, which sometimes fall into a gray area. Only formal political action committees would then need to report those type of advertisements.

What happened was that the committee voted to exempt non-PACs from current requirements to report even explicit political advertising, such as a billboard calling on voters to reelect a given politician.

Klein, with the Liberty Group, said that was the point. For a group that is not a political action committee and doesn’t spend most of its time campaigning, filing paperwork with the Secretary of State’s office and carefully recording donors would be onerous and unfair, he said.

Klein said that while the Liberty Group doesn’t campaign for candidates it does sometimes weigh-in on ballot measures. He believes that courts have rejected laws in other states that require entities like the Liberty Group to file similar paperwork as a political action committee if they occasionally engage in campaigning, as Wyoming law currently requires them to do. Enforcement of campaign laws in Wyoming is currently disorganized, Klein said. But because the committee is also seeking to streamline the enforcement, he anticipates that this issue could soon come to a head.

“The idea that somebody writes a blog post and Wyoming Liberty Group has to report as a PAC? Yeah that’s not happening,” Klein said. “I can tell you we will not be disclosing our donors.”

That is why Klein said he was, in fact, asking the committee to remove that requirement from current state law, which Sen. Wyatt Agar, R-Thermopolis, did with a motion to amend the bill introducing new requirements for electioneering communications.

But Zwonitzer said he doesn’t think that is what the committee’s members thought they were voting on. He said many were under the impression that Agar’s motion was meant only to exempt the independent groups from reporting requirements on electioneering communications — the new part of the law — rather than removing existing reporting rules.

Anonymous money spent to influence policy, elections in Wyoming

In February, shortly before the Wyoming Senate killed a proposal to expand Medicaid to an estimated 20,000 low-income people, a lobbyist named Dave Owen walked the halls of the Legislature in Cheyenne, talking to lawmakers about the harms of the Obamacare program.

Instead of just freeing groups like the Liberty Group to occasionally put a note on its website calling on voters to reject a certain ballot measure, Zwonitzer is worried that Agar’s amendment would effectively enable explicitly political organizations to configure themselves in such a way that they would not need to report any of their spending — including full-fledged campaigns for or against politicians.

“There’s a whole lot of room for some nefarious actions and what we call dark money entering into political races that can’t be tracked,” Zwonitzer said.

Changes coming

Because of ambiguity in the amendment, Zwonitzer and the other co-chair of the committee, Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, will meet with the Legislative Service Office sometime in the next week to clarify the committee’s intent.

Zwonitzer said the amendment will likely be changed. Independent groups will still be exempt from reporting on political advertisements that don’t explicitly support or oppose a candidate or ballot measure. But the existing requirements on other political spending by those groups will be put back into the bill. He said he will seek to create a new amendment allowing the committee or full Legislature to remove those existing requirements as well, if it turns out that was the original intent.

Agar did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

Regardless of the committee’s recommendations, the full Legislature must still approve any changes to Wyoming’s campaign finance laws when it meets in February.

Stoner said that she had spoken with the Secretary of State’s Office, which oversees elections in Wyoming, and was told that even with Agar’s amendment independent groups may still be required to report explicit political spending due to language elsewhere in state law.

AG will not consider Wyoming GOP complaint against liberal groups

The Wyoming Attorney General’s office has declined to consider the state Republican Party’s complaints against a progressive organization that sent voters mail praising Democratic legislative candidates and criticizing their GOP opponents, according to recent letters sent to people involved in the grievances.

Klein said that while some reporting requirements currently apply to independent groups in the state, they are likely to be overturned if the state ever seeks to enforce them. His suggestion, he said, will help save the state legal fees and avoid creating a confusing mess of case law on top of Wyoming’s campaign finance statutes.

“It really never ends, and I think the simplest way (to avoid lawsuits) is to keep the law stable and predictable and focus on whether your neighbor can follow them without hiring an attorney and lawyer,” Klein said.

But Zwonitzer and Stoner both dispute the premise of that, arguing that the existing regulations are far from burdensome. Stoner said other changes that Equality State recommended were rejected altogether and that starting to roll back Wyoming’s relatively loose reporting requirements even more was a move in the wrong direction.

“Our campaign finance disclosure laws are consistently ranked as some of the worst in the country,” she said.


Rodeo
editor's pick
NATIONAL FINALS RODEO
Southeast Wyoming saddle bronc rider Brody Cress wins world championship

LAS VEGAS – Saddle bronc rider Brody Cress came into this year’s National Finals Rodeo, his first, sitting sixth in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association world standings.

Saturday, after 10 rounds at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, the Hillsdale cowboy finished his year as a world champion.

The 2014 Cheyenne East graduate, who won three Class 4A state wrestling titles (2012-14) for the Thunderbirds, is the first Wyoming cowboy to win a saddle bronc world championship since Enoch Walker from Cody in 1960.

“That’s too long for the amount of great cowboys that we have coming out of Wyoming,” Cress said. “It’s awesome to finally get one again.”

Cress scored 86 points aboard Frontier Rodeo’s Delta Force to finish with 841.5 points on 10 head and win the NFR average title. The only one of the 15 saddle bronc riders here with 10 qualified rides, Cress finished 77.5 points clear of No. 2 Hardy Braden.

“I came in here and did my job,” Cress said. “I took it one horse at a time and rode ‘em the best I could. It’s awesome to be able to walk away with an (NFR) average buckle.”

Cress, who wears a “Team Wyoming” patch on his saddle bronc vest, added that he couldn’t wait to share his moment with his family and friends, as well as everybody else in the state.

“Wyoming’s special,” he said. “I have such a great support system and that’s what got me here. So to be able to represent them and the state of Wyoming, I feel honored.”

Cress almost added another title Saturday, finishing just behind 19-year-old Ryder Wright in the final world standings. Wright pocketed $284,938 in total earnings for the year while Cress won $282,287. Cress won more than $176,000 at the 10-day NFR.

“I’m extremely happy,” Cress said, “but I expected to come here and do that. I’ve been riding good all year and I had a game plan coming in here and I stuck to it.”

While Cress was obviously pleased with his performance, he displayed little emotion throughout the rodeo. Even after making it to the 8-second buzzer Saturday, Cress did little more than acknowledge the crowd.

“I’ve kept my head level all week,” he said, “so it really hasn’t set in yet. But it’s an honor to be able to come here and do this well and hopefully it carries right over into the 2018 season. I’m definitely ready to keep rodeoing.

“I feel great. I wish I could go another 10 (rounds). I’m definitely excited to turn right back around and get back on some horses.”

First, though, Cress will head home to spend the holidays with his family. Saturday’s results capped an impressive week for the 21-year-old, who finished his finals at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas, and can now add college graduate to his list of accomplishments.

“It’s been a great week,” he said. “Being able to ride in this arena and compete against the top 14 guys in the world, I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Well, maybe one thing. This past June at the College National Finals Rodeo in Casper he finished third after getting bucked off in the second round.

“I’m coming back to Casper,” he said. “And this time I’m going to win it.”


Courtesy, Dan Hubbell 

Hillsdale saddle bronc rider Brody Cress rides Stace Smith Pro Rodeo's Hickok for 80 points during the seventh round of the National Finals Rodeo on Wednesday at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.


Education
St. Stephens Indian School
Education department requests money for St. Stephens Indian School amid enrollment rise

The state Department of Education requested $1.37 million for St. Stephens, a federal Native American school on the Wind River Reservation that’s experiencing growing enrollment.

The request was the second-largest made by the department, which presented its 2019-2020 budget to the Joint Appropriations Committee on Thursday. The agency also sought $2.25 million for the education of students in residential facilities, along with much smaller amounts for anti-bullying efforts, teacher of the year incentives and instructor certification.

The department officials made their requests as they walked lawmakers through the two budgets that they oversee. First is the department’s, which is paid for out of the state’s general fund, and second is the vast K-12 education budget that fills the vast majority of school districts’ coffers.

The St. Stephens request was a late addition to the department’s budget: Dicky Shanor, the chief of staff for WDE, said lawmakers were informed Wednesday night, after officials discovered that enrollment at the school had jumped. The department had already submitted its budget but needed to acquire funding to adjust for the increase of students.

The school’s unique circumstances — a Bureau of Indian Education institution located within a Wyoming school district that receives state funds — created confusion among the lawmakers of the Joint Appropriations Committee.

“So St. Stephens is in a different school district” than Arapahoe, appropriations chairman and Sheridan Republican Bruce Burns asked.

“It’s not in a school district, per se,” replied Jed Cicarelli of the education department.

“Arapahoe is in (Fremont County School District No.) 38,” Burns said. “What school district is St. Stephens?”

“It operates within the boundaries of Fremont 38 but is not affiliated with Fremont School District 38,” Cicarelli said.

“That just clears it right up,” Burns replied sarcastically, drawing laughter from the room.

Eventually, after more back-and-forth, department officials and Fremont Republican Rep. Lloyd Larsen explained that St. Stephens is a federal school overseen by the Bureau of Indian Education, which receives about $2.9 million from that agency. On top of that amount, Wyoming sends it more money so it’s on par with how much is given to the three Fremont school districts that are nearby.

That’s where the budget request comes in. Enrollment at St. Stephens had jumped from 188 students to 240 in the past two years, and because school funding in Wyoming is driven by attendance, that required a bump in funding.

Of course, it’s somewhat more complicated. While public schools in Wyoming are funded out of a big pot of money known as the School Foundation Program, St. Stephens isn’t technically a Wyoming public school — it’s a BIE school.

That means the money would have to come from the state’s general fund, rather than from within the separate pot of money set aside to fund public schools.

Some lawmakers wondered in broad terms if the school could be eliminated and its students sent to the nearby districts. Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper, pointed out that if the students were attending St. Stephens, then they weren’t attending other Fremont County schools — meaning they weren’t bringing the state funding that follows students to those schools.

Cicarelli noted that technically, these funds wouldn’t have gone to other schools because they’re not coming the from education funding accounts. Still, generally speaking, when a student attends a public school, that district receives state funding for the student; it simply comes from the school account, not the general fund.

“I guess it would be politically problematic, but can we tell the school to go away and take care of (the students) ourselves?” Rep. Sue Wilson, a Cheyenne Republican asked.

“I guess we could talk to BIE about the situation,” Shanor, the education department’s chief of staff, replied cautiously, “but they’ve made the decision to have that school there and fund them.”

With that, lawmakers prepared to move on, apparently satisfied that they understood St. Stephens. That is, until Rep. Bob Nicholas noted he actually attended the school, when it was a Catholic institution.

“Wait, it was a Catholic school?” Burns asked.


Energy
URANIUM MINING
Barrasso pushes EPA to retract proposed groundwater rules for uranium mining

While the Environmental Protection Agency and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission both oversee uranium mining, when it comes to an Obama-era rule to protect groundwater, EPA needs to take a step back, according to Sen. John Barrasso.

In a letter to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt on Thursday, the Wyoming senator notes a disagreement between the two agencies in regard to the proposed rule that, among other constraints, would require uranium companies to do 30 years of groundwater monitoring after in situ mining.

The EPA put the rule out for public comment one day before Barack Obama left office.

Barrasso says the rule should be retracted as it oversteps EPA’s authority. The NRC has made similar comments.

Barrasso has not been shy about his feelings about the EPA, which he argues took on too much power during the Obama presidency. Overlapping authorities has been a key argument from various industries in Wyoming when it comes to federal law. From permitting oil and gas wells, to complying with air quality regulations, a common complaint from industry groups is duplicity of federal rules and the associated cost.

Environmental groups tend to disagree, preferring strong federal rules that set a baseline for state standards.

Barrasso quotes the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in stressing that this rule doesn’t address any proven health or safety concerns with in situ mining. According to the NRC, in situ mining hasn’t resulted in contamination of an aquifer in its 40-year history under the NRC.

Noting the current low price environment for uranium, Barrasso suggested urgency from the EPA in withdrawing its rule, echoing the directive from President Donald Trump earlier this year that regulations that are unduly costly to industry should be reconsidered.

“It is incumbent upon EPA to refrain from imposing regulations that are not technically feasible or are unreasonably burdensome on licensees,” Barrasso wrote.

The uranium industry has long pushed back on the rule for much the same reasons stated in Barrasso’s letters.

“Most of it was impossible to comply with from a practical or even a scientific basis,” said Paul Goranson, executive vice president of operations for Energy Fuels. The firm owns the Nichols Ranch in situ uranium mine in the Powder River Basin.

Industry tried to negotiate with the EPA in 2016, Goranson said.

“They laughed in our face,” he said. “There was no compromise.”

Environmental groups say it’s about time that in situ mining’s impact on groundwater was regulated. Current standards only apply to conventional uranium mining, while in situ is directly interfering in the aquifer, they say.

The EPA is well within its right to regulate groundwater and uranium, they argue.

The EPA sets up the standards, the NRC implements them, according to federal law, said Shannon Anderson, lawyer for the Powder River Basin Resource Council.

“That’s how that law has always worked,” she said.

The group supports the EPA rule, though it’s unclear what will happen under the new administration.

“It’s definitely time to get some good standards out there protecting groundwater from uranium,” she added.