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GOP tax plan backed by Cheney could imperil Wyoming first-time homebuyer program

A provision in one version of the federal Republican tax plan could imperil a major affordable housing program in the Cowboy State.

Wyoming Community Development Authority Executive Director Scott Hoversland is worried that the House bill’s elimination of a special type of tax-exempt bond will mean his agency can no longer offer affordable mortgages to first-time homebuyers in the state.

The first-time homebuyer program has operated since the 1970s and issued nearly 1,000 loans over the last two years worth over $158 million.

But if the House’s version of the tax plan passes?

“We wouldn’t be able to offer that program any more,” Hoversland said.

The housing authority offers state residents who have not owned a house in three years discounted mortgages that usually have an interest rate about one-quarter percent lower than what banks offer. The discount is funded by what are called tax-exempt private activity bonds, which municipalities and other local government agencies use to fund a variety of projects related especially to affordable housing.

Because the bonds are tax-empty, investors are willing to accept a slightly lower interest rate than is standard and the development authority uses the difference to offer more affordable mortgages to qualified homebuyers, Hoversland said.

That discount can make a big difference for Wyomingites on the verge of being able to afford a home.

“It puts those people that are trying to get into their first home into it at a cost that they probably wouldn’t be able to do through one of those market rate programs,” Hoversland said.

But as part of an effort to raise money, largely to fund major cuts to the corporate tax rate and pass tax cuts along to wealthy individuals, Republicans in Congress have sought to eliminate various little-noticed deductions in the tax code.

The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy estimated in September that in Wyoming, 70.7 percent of the tax cuts in the GOP plan would go toward the richest 1 percent of residents, who would see their tax bill drop by $180,000.

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.

Hoversland was in Washington, D.C., last week in part to meet with the offices of Wyoming’s congressional delegation to discuss the bond issue. The Senate and House are currently working to sort out the differences between their two measures.

Wyoming’s U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, who voted for the House bill eliminating the bonds, would not say whether or not she supported keeping the financial tools or not.

“Congressman Cheney has discussed tax-exempt private activity bonds and many other issues related to tax reform with constituents across Wyoming,” spokeswoman Maddy Weast said in an email.

Mike Enzi, Wyoming’s senior U.S. senator and a fellow Republican, is on the committee that will reconcile the two bills. He said he was aware of the concerns about eliminating the tax-exempt bonds, which the Senate bill did not do, but Enzi also declined to say whether or not he supported eliminating the bonds.

“He is not going to negotiate the different provisions of the tax bill through the media,” spokesman Max D’Onofrio said in an email. “That is what the conference committee is for, but he is intently listening to the different perspectives people have in Wyoming.”

Hoversland said he was especially alarmed by the wording of the House bill. Instead of saying that the bonds would be eliminated once the bill is signed into law, it states that the bonds will be eliminated on Dec. 31. The WCDA’s lawyers have said they won’t allow the agency to issue any more of those bonds in 2018 unless the provision is removed or the bill fails prior to that.

The housing authority’s board has given permission to rush two to three years worth of the bonds to market before the end of the month in order to sustain the first-time homebuyer program for at least a few more years, but its long term-future will be in jeopardy if the House’s version of the tax plan is approved, Hoversland said.

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune  

Workers continue assembling the Integrated Testing Center at the Dry Fork coal-fired power plant Sept. 21 outside Gillette. The ITC consists of a series of research bays connected to the power plant for researchers to test carbon capture technology. Wyoming recently signed a memorandum of understanding with three states and a Canadian province to share information on carbon capture research projects.

Wyoming signs partnership with neighboring states and Canadian province for coal research

When the Department of Energy announced grants for carbon capture research this summer, Jason Begger’s phone started ringing.

The executive director of the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority has argued before that federal support would be crucial to furthering research into catching the greenhouse gas emitted from coal-burning power plants and putting it to other uses, something Wyoming is eager to see take place.

The state, home to the largest open-pit coal mines in the country, has spent the last few years pushing carbon capture research to keep its coal sector viable against climate change regulations and market pressure. The legislature dropped $15 million in a cost share with private industry to build the Integrated Test Center in Gillette, which will host research tenants studying capture and utilization strategies. It’s almost finished and it has a first tenant, but long term, the carbon capture sector likely needs more input from the government to foster industry investment, Begger said.

Furthering that aim, Wyoming signed a memorandum of understanding with three neighboring coal states and a Canadian province last week to share information and potentially combine forces on research projects that could put federal dollars to work.

Montana, North Dakota, Saskatchewan and Wyoming each have a history and a commitment to carbon capture, Begger said.

Wyoming has the test center and ongoing study from the University of Wyoming’s Carbon Engineering Initiative and its School of Energy Resources. Saskatchewan is home to the first large scale carbon capture and storage facility attached to a commercial coal plant, the Boundary Dam 3 project. North Dakota’s Energy and Environmental Research Center and Montana’s Big Sky Carbon Sequestration Partnership have each looked at ways to store carbon dioxide.

Critics of ongoing carbon capture investment have been nearly as prevalent in recent years as its champions. Some argue it’s time to focus public funds on renewables and other opportunities given coal’s projected declines and its high carbon dioxide emissions contribution.

The Obama Administration laid down many millions fostering the carbon capture industry and had a hand in the largest commercial ventures in carbon capture in the U.S., the Kemper Plant in Mississippi and the Petra Nova project in Texas. The latter is viable, but Kemper has not had much success, coming in far over budget, threatening to increase customer rates in the region.

Begger argues that carbon capture has a future role to play in addressing climate change, and coal is going to be around even with the market pressures of cheap natural gas competition or increasing renewable use.

“If you look at any credible energy analysis or projection over the next few decades … They all flat out say that coal will be a smaller, but large part of the energy mix for the foreseeable future,” Begger said. “If you care about carbon mitigation, coal technology needs to be a part of that.”

Wyoming man wrongfully imprisoned for 24 years files federal court appeal

A Wyoming man who spent 24 years in prison for a crime he did not commit is appealing a federal judge’s decision to throw out his lawsuit seeking compensation for alleged civil rights violations.

A lawyer for Andrew Johnson filed a notice of appeal this week with the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, the attorney announced Friday.

“We fight on,” attorney Robert Schuster said in a written statement. “Andrew Johnson’s case is the single greatest miscarriage of justice in Wyoming’s judicial history. We will ask the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals to finally reverse and correct this tragedy.”

A jury in Cheyenne convicted Johnson in 1989 of breaking into an acquaintance’s home and raping her. Johnson spent more than two decades in prison before a DNA test showed that semen collected from the alleged victim belonged to her then-fiance, not Johnson.

Johnson was granted a new trial in 2013, but prosecutors later dropped the charges and a judge signed an order declaring him innocent.

Despite this, Johnson has never received compensation from the state for his wrongful conviction and time in prison. Wyoming does not pay restitution to people who are wrongfully imprisoned, and attempts to change that have failed in the state Legislature.

“Mr. Johnson was wrongfully convicted and spent 24 years in prison, missing 24 years of freedom, missing the life of his daughter who was only 1 year old when convicted, missing the death of his mother,” Schuster said. “It is an unspeakable travesty, and an unspeakable tragedy.”

Johnson sued the city of Cheyenne in April, alleging that police officers there withheld information that led to his conviction. Specifically, his attorney alleges police officers either intentionally withheld or recklessly lost about 20 crime scene photos that could have been used in his client’s defense.

A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit in July on procedural grounds, including that many of the lawsuit’s claims had been raised in previous legal actions filed by Johnson.

However, his attorney said the earlier lawsuit was filed while Johnson was still a prisoner.

“It is ultimately unfair that Mr. Johnson should be denied his civil rights now — after he has been declared actually innocent and after the court acknowledged that he did not commit the crimes — because he filed cases decades ago without the benefit of a lawyer, without the benefit of scientific evidence, and without the support of Judge Campbell’s Order (of innocence),” Schuster said.

Since leaving prison, Johnson has had a difficult time making ends meet. Recently, friends began an online fundraiser to help him. That account has already brought in more than $10,000.

Wyoming lawmakers consider strengthening stalking laws

Wyoming lawmakers will again consider a bill that would broaden the definition of stalking and increase incarceration time for those convicted of the crime.

The Joint Judiciary Interim Committee sponsored a bill for the 2018 legislative session that would revise the state’s stalking statutes. If passed, the bill would increase the maximum punishment for misdemeanor stalking from six months to one year and increase the maximum penalty for felony stalking from five years to 10. The bill also gives judges the ability to sentence a person convicted of misdemeanor stalking to up to three years of probation.

The proposed bill also broadens the definition of harassment. Currently, Wyoming statutes define the term as “a course of conduct” that would make a reasonable person “suffer substantial emotional distress, and which does in fact seriously alarm the person toward whom it is directed.” The bill expands that definition to include actions that would make a reasonable person fear for their safety, that of another person or for the safety of their property.

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence defines stalking as acts by an abuser that intentionally create a fear for the victim by threatening harm or death to themselves, a relative, property or any third party. A 2011 study found that one in every six women and one in every 19 men have been stalked in their lifetime.

Stalkers also often assault their victims — 81 percent of women who were stalked by an intimate partner were also physically attacked by them, according to the coalition.

A group of lawmakers introduced a similar bill during the 2017 legislative session, but it failed to pass out of the Senate Judiciary committee. The members of the committee wanted more time to study the issue and make sure the legal language was more clear before proceeding, according to a story from the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

“The bill in front of the committee now is a bit more of a comprehensive overview,” Rep. Charles Pelkey, D-Laramie, said Thursday.

Pelkey was one of the lawmakers who sponsored the bill during the previous session and is a member of the interim committee sponsoring the 2018 version. One of the committee’s goals during the interim was to study statutes related to domestic violence, stalking, sexual assault and protective orders. During that review, a number of people who work in law enforcement and advocacy expressed their support for a draft of the bill, including a representative from the Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault and an investigator with the Natrona County Sheriff’s Office.

The bill also expands what constitutes felony stalking. Currently, a person can be convicted of the felony offense if they stalked someone in violation of certain types of protection orders or within five years of a previous stalking conviction. The bill would lengthen that time limit to 10 years and expand the types of protection orders included.

Finally, the bill would define the jurisdiction for stalking, which can be committed from afar via social media or the phone. If the bill is passed, a person could be charged with stalking in Wyoming if he or she stalked their victim from elsewhere but the victim was in the state at the time.

Pelkey said the bill could face challenges from people who do not want to lengthen sentences or think the changes are too broad, but he remained optimistic.

“I’m hopeful that there will be more support,” he said. “Overall, at least we’ll discuss the issue.”