You are the owner of this page.
A1 A1
Wyoming lawmakers reach tentative budget deal but questions remain

CHEYENNE — The Wyoming Legislature reached a deal Thursday on a budget for the next two years, but it did so by stripping out the most controversial provisions.

The agreement ends roughly a week of deadlock between the House and Senate over education funding and comes just days before the Legislature is scheduled to adjourn.

“What we finally decided to do was basically split the baby,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Bruce Burns, R-Sheridan, told his Senate colleagues.

The split means that the two-year budget will use the House’s funding model for education in year one and the Senate’s model in year two.

Burns said the actual amount of money being put toward public education, which faces a $660 million deficit, will not be decided in the budget bill. The House and Senate have clashed over how much money to put toward schools and each chamber has rejected the other’s legislation setting spending levels. By stripping all school funding language from the budget, the bill can move forward while negotiations over education continue.

“People above my paygrade are going to negotiate that,” Burns said.

Deal remains fluid

But the state’s funding for the coming two-year budget cycle remained in flux even with the outline of a budget deal agreed upon.

Rep. David Northrup, a Powell Republican and the chairman of the House Education Committee, said he was “in the dark” about the budget negotiations as of mid-afternoon Thursday. He said he asked Cheyenne Republican Rep. Bob Nicholas, the House appropriations chair, what was happening. But Nicholas was interrupted while explaining, and Northrup, who is sponsoring the main education funding bill, remained unaware that a deal had been reached until he was informed by a reporter.

While Burns explained the agreement to his fellow Senators in the morning, by Star-Tribune press time the House had yet to receive a similar explanation.

The negotiations — which center around Northrup’s education bill — include an apparent deal to fund education for the next two years. In the 2019 fiscal year, schools will be paid for by moving existing revenues into education funding accounts, a strategy favored by Northrup and the House. In the next year, schools will be funded by tapping the Legislature’s primary savings account, which, coupled with cuts, is the Senate’s preferred strategy.

The Senate’s original and primary proposal cut as much as $150 million from schools over the next three years, officials said. The House, meanwhile, pushed a measure that would cut $30 million over that period and would institute a number of revenue diversions to pay for schools. Northrup said those revenue moves would have been enough to cover the $240 million annual deficit that school operations is facing.

Senate strips House plan for funding Wyoming schools, deepening impasse as Legislature begins last week

CHEYENNE — The Legislature appears further away than ever on the question of how to solve Wyoming’s $660 million education deficit after a Senate committee killed the House’s school finance proposal Monday, shortly after the House killed the Senate’s version. Later in the day, a committee created to bridge the differing budget proposals from each chamber appeared to be at a stalemate on where the dollars to pay for education should come from.

In his explanation to the Senate, Burns said the deal was a way to give both chambers a shot at solving the education funding deficit.

When Northrup heard about that compromise, he closed his eyes, leaned back and slowly banged his head against the wall.

“The wisdom of it remains to be tested, I guess,” he said. “And if the idea is to burn the (rainy day account) up so we don’t have to make a decision, then so be it.”

Agreement reached abruptly

The deal itself was reached Wednesday night and approved by leaders of the House and Senate in a meeting Thursday morning, according to Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander, who sits on the budget committee.

Larsen said the committee met early Thursday to present its compromise to House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper, and Senate President Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, who both approved it.

“They went into the other room and said ‘Well, I think we’ve got a deal,’” Larsen said.

But Larsen said that because the Legislative Service Office has not had time to craft the agreement into bill language that can be formally voted on, it remains unclear whether a final deal has been reached.

“You step outside, the wind is coming from the north right now — three o’clock it might be coming from the south,” Larsen said. “I don’t know what will happen in the next 24 hours. The wind could shift.”

Even with a budget agreement, education and capital construction — money for state buildings — remain unresolved and it is not clear when the Legislature will solve those disagreements. Larsen said it was likely that additional committees would be appointed to work through the differences in education and construction in the House and Senate versions.

Alternately, the chambers could use “concurrence” to reach deals on education or construction, meaning that either the House or Senate amends the legislation such that the other chamber votes to accept with changed bill without a committee being required.

The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn Saturday but can extend its session for three additional days.

Differences ironed out

With school finance and capital construction up in the air, the remaining spending differences in the main budget were relatively minor.

One notable area where agreement was reached was on school construction. While funding for school operations was removed from the budget, the Legislature has agreed to fund all school construction costs including Carey Junior High School in Cheyenne, a major project that the House had voted to fund while the Senate had removed from its spending plan.

The deal to use the House’s funding model for one year and the Senate’s funding model for one year means that Harshman’s proposal to increase revenue from state trust funds and put those dollars toward education will receive a brief trial run during the fiscal year that starts in July before the Senate’s preference to leave funding models alone takes over in 2019.

Larsen predicted that negotiations and votes on the main budget bill, as well as the construction and school finance legislation, would continue through at least late Saturday.

“You’re not seeing me saying ‘we’ve got it guys, we are there and we’re going to move forward,’” he said. “I’m cautiously optimistic and think we’re heading in the right direction.”

Agreement on funding Wyoming schools appears closer

CHEYENNE — Lawmakers grew closer to an agreement Thursday on how to fund education in the near future, striking a deal for modest cuts and some revenue diversions.

“We’ve really spent over a week trying to bring the two sides together,” said Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper. “It’s been a long and arduous process. There are just some fundamental differences in approaches, and that was the main thing.”

As legislators arrived at the Jonah Business Center on Thursday morning, the two chambers appeared to be at an impasse on how to solve the state’s $240 million school operations deficit. In the House, lawmakers favored an approach with modest cuts and revenue diversions. Down the hall, senators supported a path forward that focused on cuts and savings; at one time, the Senate bill cut as much as $150 million over the coming three years.

But by mid-afternoon, the Senate had agreed to strip the cuts it had proposed in its budget and moved the House bill after adding a cap on special education funding. Left inside the budget, lawmakers said, were revenue diversions for which the House had previously advocated — and the Senate opposed — in its original education funding bill.

Educators suspect a deal was struck between the two chambers to solve their disagreements on the budget and education funding.

“How they’re going to fund education is in the budget,” explained Kathy Vetter, the president of the Wyoming Education Association. “Where they’re going to find the money, what the money’s going to be, is in (House Bill) 140.”

Landen said the budget deal essentially hinged on education funding.

“The biggest issue though, quite frankly, was just the philosophical difference,” he said, referring to the House’s plan to use revenue diversions and the Senate’s plan to use cuts and the main savings account.

Senate appropriations chair Bruce Burns told his colleagues Thursday morning that the budget deal “split the baby.” The budget no longer had cuts in it, and it gave both the House and the Senate a chance to test their plans. In 2019, education will be funded through the House’s revenue diversions. In 2020, it’ll be paid for through the Legislature’s rainy day account.

Not everyone seemed to think that was a wise strategy. Rep. David Northrup, a Powell Republican and the chairman of the House Education Committee, was unaware of the deal as of 1:30 Thursday afternoon.

“I don’t know what they’ve done in the budget,” he said.

He said he didn’t understand the wisdom of doing it one way in 2019 and another way in 2020.

“We can’t keep doing that,” Northrup said of funding education from the legislative savings account.

He said he wasn’t aware of any deal struck between the House and Senate because he wasn’t “in that loop.”

“Yeah, that’s frustrating,” he said.

Setting the stage

Earlier in the session, each chamber took the other’s primary education bill and looked at it with distaste. The House killed the Senate bill, and the Senate stripped the House bill of its revenue provisions.

But both sides had a backup plan: their budget. The House left its revenue diversions in its bill. The Senate, meanwhile, approved a budget amendment that would institute deep cuts to schools in the coming years.

In other words, each chamber could kill the other’s education bill. But because the language existed in the budget bills, lawmakers would have to meet and negotiate.

On Thursday, Burns told his colleagues that the amendment to cut schools had been removed from the budget.

“That’s in House Bill 140,” he told the Senate, referring to the House’s education bill. “People above my pay grade are going to negotiate that.”

Educators, who for weeks have been bracing for more cuts, suspected a deal was cut between the two chambers to solve the differences in education and move a budget — and the House’s bill — forward.

Teresa Chaulk, the superintendent of Lincoln County School District No. 1, said that was the rumor going around the building Thursday.

Late action in the Senate seemed to support that theory. As the Senate took a final look at the House measure, Sen. Dave Kinskey proposed an amendment that would’ve significantly increased the bill’s reductions. Though some lawmakers questioned it, the proposal seemed to have broad support: Sen. President Eli Bebout and Majority Leader Drew Perkins both spoke in favor of it.

But when it came time to vote on his proposal, Kinskey suddenly withdrew the amendment. Chaulk said afterward that because the amendment would’ve brought more cuts, it would’ve jeopardized the deal apparently made between the House and the Senate.

Landen, who worked to resolve the budget debate, said a deal to move House Bill 140 without more cuts was not discussed in those negotiations.

“That’s what we heard was going to happen, was 140 was going to be the vehicle to determine how much education gets,” Vetter said, “and the budget would be where the money comes from.”

Trump says he'll meet with North Korea's Kim

WASHINGTON — After months of trading insults and threats of nuclear annihilation, President Donald Trump agreed to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jung Un by the end of May to negotiate an end to Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program, South Korean and U.S. officials said Thursday. No sitting American president has ever met with a North Korea leader.

The meeting would be unprecedented during seven decades of animosity between the U.S. and North Korea. The countries remain in a state of war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice and not a peace treaty.

"Great progress being made," Trump tweeted after the South Korean national security director, Chung Eui-yong, announced the plans to reporters in a hastily called appearance on a White House driveway.

Trump added that sanctions will remain in place until there's a deal.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said the summit will be a "historical milestone" that will put the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula "really on track."

In a statement read early today by his spokesman, Moon also complimented Trump for accepting Kim's invitation for a summit, saying Trump's leadership will be praised "not only by the residents of South and North Korea but every peace-loving person around the world."

Trump took office vowing to stop North Korea from attaining a nuclear-tipped missile that could reach the U.S. mainland, a goal that Pyongyang is on the cusp of reaching. He's oscillated between threats and insults directed at Kim that have fueled fears of war, and more conciliatory rhetoric.

The historic announcement comes during a period of unparalleled tumult in the West Wing, with the president's policy agenda stalled and morale sinking as staff departures proliferate and disrupt efforts to instill more discipline and order.

Trump clearly relished the news of the planned summit. He had made a surprise visit to the White House press briefing room on Thursday afternoon to alert reporters of a "major statement" on North Korea by South Korea. When asked by an ABC reporter if it was about talks with North Korea, he replied: "It's almost beyond that. Hopefully, you will give me credit."

Earlier Thursday, Chung had briefed Trump and other top U.S. officials about a rare meeting with Kim in the North Korean capital. During that meeting, the rival Koreas agreed to hold a leadership summit in late April, the first in a decade.

Kim "expressed his eagerness to meet President Trump as soon as possible," Chung told reporters. "President Trump appreciated the briefing and said he would meet Kim Jong Un by May to achieve permanent denuclearization."

The White House said Trump's meeting with Kim would take place "at a place and time to be determined."

"Kim Jong Un talked about denuclearization with the South Korean Representatives, not just a freeze," Trump said in a tweet. "Also, no missile testing by North Korea during this period of time."

It marks a dramatic shift in Trump's stance toward North Korea. He has threatened the pariah nation with "fire and fury" if its threats against the U.S. and its allies continued. He has derided Kim by referring to him as "Little Rocket Man." Kim has pilloried Trump as "senile" and a "dotard."

After Kim repeated threats against the U.S. in a New Year's address and mentioned the "nuclear button" on his office desk, Trump responded by tweeting that he has a nuclear button, too, "but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!"

North Korea appeared to confirm the summit plans. A senior North Korean diplomat at the United Nations in New York, Pak Song Il, told The Washington Post in an e-mail that the invitation was the result of Kim's "broad minded and resolute decision" to contribute to the peace and security of the Korean Peninsula.

By the "great courageous decision of our Supreme Leader, we can take the new aspect to secure the peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula and the East Asia region," Pak wrote.

On Tuesday after leaving Pyongyang, Chung had publicized that North Korea was offering talks with the United States on denuclearization and normalizing ties. But the proposal for a summit still came as a surprise, and will raise questions about whether the two sides are ready for such a high-level meeting.

Just a few hours earlier, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who is traveling in Africa, had said the adversaries were still a long way from holding negotiations.

Chung, who credited Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign for the diplomatic opening on the nuclear issue, said Kim understands that routine U.S.-South Korea military drills "must continue."

The drills were suspended during the Winter Olympics recently hosted by South Korea, which provided impetus for the inter-Korea rapprochement. The drills are expected to resume next month and had widely been seen as an obstacle to talks. North Korea has long protested the military maneuvers south of the divided Korean Peninsula as a rehearsal for invading the North.

When the South Korean delegation briefed Trump in the Oval Office, he was joined by a number of top advisers, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, chief of staff John Kelly and the director of national intelligence, among others, according to a senior Trump administration official who briefed reporters after the announcement. The official, who was not authorized to discuss the sensitive diplomatic issue by name and spoke on condition of anonymity, said there was no letter from Kim to Trump, just an oral briefing from the South Korean officials.

Casper leader proposes city-wide resolution for school safety

A Casper city councilman who has been outspoken about school safety issues proposed a resolution Thursday that states the city needs to do its part to make schools safe for all students and adults.

The resolution, which was drafted by Councilman Dallas Laird, states the Casper City Council should be a national leader in crafting “innovative and meaningful policy to confront gun violence.”

“Gun violence presents a clear and present danger to the students, parents, educators, para-educators, administrators and support staff of Casper, Wyoming, schools...” it states. “The City of Casper will continue to work with a broad spectrum of local community stakeholders, local law enforcement, mental health professionals, parents, students, teachers and staff to develop, implement and monitor policies and programs that foster and support a positive school climate, free from harassment and violence.”

Laird sent the proposed resolution to the City Council and City Manager Carter Napier on Thursday and requested it be passed “as soon as humanly possible.”

He hopes a resolution will raise awareness about school shootings and encourage all community members to focus on securing educational facilities.

“I think that’s the only thing that we can start doing immediately — the gun control debate is going to go on for years,” he said.

The councilman added that he supports the rights of law-abiding citizens to own firearms but wants to work to keep these weapons out of schools.

Metal detectors and an increased police presence might help, said Laird, adding that he would vote to authorize funding to the police department to pay for the changes.

Vice Mayor Charlie Powell said before the Council approves a resolution he wants the city to look into what is already being done.

Student safety and gun control have been widely discussed throughout the country since a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, left 17 students and staff members dead on Feb. 14.

Laird also brought up school shootings during the City Council’s Tuesday meeting.

“I think that our children, who are basically defenseless, think that we’re doing something [to prevent school shootings] and I don’t know what we’re doing,” he said.

Powell said at the meeting that community leaders are already working to address this problem.

“I think I can say with a fair amount of certainty ...That our police department has in fact been preparing for mass shootings for many, many years and working to increase our capabilities and ensure that our kids are safe,” he remarked.

The massacre in Florida has sparked discussion and action among others in the community.

About 100 students at Natrona County High School walked out Wednesday to show solidarity with victims of school shootings. The group’s leaders said the walkout lasted for 1,606 seconds to symbolize the 1,606 mass shootings that have taken place since a 2012 massacre in Newton, Connecticut.

Natrona County School District officials are currently considering a broad range of changes to better protect students and staff, including arming teachers, installing metal detectors and increasing training for school resource officers.

“You never think it’s going to happen to your school, but you have to be ready,” school board member Dave Applegate said at a meeting last month.

Whether teachers should be armed is a controversial debate that is currently being weighed by many leaders throughout the nation.

After the meeting, Superintendent Steve Hopkins told the Star-Tribune and his staff was already working to better understand school safety. Each of the school board’s subcommittees — policy, academic steering and construction — will all have oversight of different staff work. For instance, the policy committee will oversee a review of “federal and state law, policies, regulations, standard operating procedures” and more.

“Are we going to choose to be immobilized by (school safety) or are we going to choose to go proactive about it?” Hopkins asked. “You can obviously tell which direction I want to go.”

School district spokeswoman Tanya Southerland said Thursday that the school district plans to continue working with local law enforcement and city officials to address student and staff safety.

Prosecutor will retry Tony Cercy for sexual assault

Prosecutors will retry Tony Cercy on a single count of third-degree sexual assault.

The decision came in court filings submitted Wednesday, 13 days after jurors found the prominent Casper businessman not guilty of first- and second-degree sexual assault. Judge Daniel Forgey declared a mistrial on a third count when jurors could not come to a unanimous decision after a day and a half of deliberations.

District Attorney Mike Blonigen said Thursday afternoon that he had been in contact with jurors, both directly and through third parties, in an attempt to learn what had occurred during deliberations. He declined to specify what he had learned from those conversations or what the final vote count was.

The prosecutor cited the “compelling nature of the victim’s testimony” and his perception of the case as strong as reasons for seeking a second trial.

“It’s an important case that deserves a complete resolution,” Blonigen said.

Cercy’s Colorado attorney Pamela Mackey declined to comment Thursday afternoon.

If convicted, Cercy could face up to 15 years in prison.

The third-degree sexual assault charge will be simplified, Blonigen indicated in the court documents.

The charge originally asked jurors to determine which of two possible acts Cercy may have performed on the victim. During deliberations, jurors asked for clarification on the charge.

During the trial, the alleged victim told jurors that she woke to Cercy performing oral sex on her on a couch in his Alcova Lake house. She said that she immediately pushed him away, but Cercy said he had been trying to wake her by performing sexual acts on her.

She testified that she fell asleep fully clothed but woke with only a bra on. She said Cercy was naked from the waist down. The woman told authorities that Cercy threatened to kill her if she told anybody about the incident.

Cercy also testified during the trial. He denied having any sexual contact with the woman, who was 20 at the time. He told jurors that he was asleep at the time the woman alleged he’d sexually assaulted her.

Defense attorneys presented evidence suggesting the assault could not have happened because Cercy’s dogs would have woken and barked. The woman’s testimony did not include any mention of barking dogs.

Friends told investigators that the woman contacted them in the early hours of June 25 to report allegations of assault and to ask for help. One friend said they received a text message from the woman at about 3:21 a.m. asking for help. Another said that the woman called them the next morning and said that Cercy had raped her.

Cercy willingly went to the Natrona County Sheriff’s Office on June 28 so that investigators could collect a sample of his DNA. He was arrested July 28.

Three days later, Cercy was charged with one count each of first-, second- and third-degree sexual assault.