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Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

Jamia Johnson, Kristy Dick, Madison Vinich, Marquel Gibson, Hallie Jimenez and Bre Kelly pose for a portrait in Dean Morgan Junior High School Tuesday evening, Mar. 6, 2018.

Mead optimistic about education funding as House and Senate remain at loggerheads

CHEYENNE — As the Wyoming Legislature wraps up what is scheduled to be its final week, Gov. Matt Mead says, based on conversations with legislative leadership, that education funding levels will be largely preserved.

House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper, and Senate President Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, remain divided on school spending, with Bebout seeking deeper cuts. A committee created to bridge the divide has not met since Monday.

One of Mead’s top priorities is his economic diversification initiative, known as Endow, and he said in an interview with the Star-Tribune that well-funded schools are a necessary aspect of that effort.

“You can’t have Endow without a strong education system,” Mead said.

Mead said he had met with Bebout and Harshman on Wednesday morning and was confident that a compromise would be reached.

“I don’t think anyone is going to be perfectly happy with it, but I think we’ll come out of here with education still in a pretty good place,” Mead said.

While the Legislature cut roughly $70 million from education last year for a two-year period, the governor did not propose any further cuts in his budget recommendation to lawmakers made in December. That proposal served as the starting point for the Legislature, with the House proposing about $30 million in spending cuts and the Senate proposing roughly double that.

But both chambers then rejected the other’s education spending plan and the conference committee deadlocked on how to bridge those differences in the main budget bill. Time has now become a serious consideration as the clock ticks down until the four-week budget session is scheduled to end Saturday.

In order to override potential line item vetoes by Mead, the Legislature must deliver its budget to his office four days before adjourning. With no budget agreed upon by the House and Senate by press time Wednesday, it appeared that four-day window had already closed.

The Legislature can continue to meet through next Wednesday if leadership decides to do so, which would allow lawmakers to consider any vetoes made by Mead or to complete the budget if that is not done this week. However, all other legislative business is scheduled to be finished by Saturday, making any extension a last resort.

(Going beyond Wednesday would require a two-thirds vote of lawmakers or a directive from Mead.)

Alternately, Mead could agree to shorten his allotted time for budget review. However, he appears reluctant to do so.

“What I need to see is what the budget looks like and that takes some time,” he said. “If they run out of time on the three-day window, that’s the side effect of the calendar that they’ve been on.”

While the governor has three days to review the budget, that is calculated as 72 hours, meaning the Legislature would need to meet one additional day in order to vote on veto overrides.

In his wide-ranging interview with the Star-Tribune, which was streamed live on Facebook, Mead also discussed the importance of increasing funding to the Department of Health — a move the Legislature has largely gone along with — and noted his concern to some parts of the “stand your ground” self-defense bills being considered by the House and Senate. Those parts were eventually stripped out.

Mead also discussed his belief in Endow, the economic diversification plan, which is a 20-year plan that began in earnest last year. With Mead leaving office next January, he said it would be essential that the project be continued by whoever replaces him as governor.

“For it to work it does have to be sustained through multiple administrations,” Mead said. “We can’t have a mindset that our entire future is based on the price of a barrel of oil or the price of coal.”

He said that success would include more young people choosing to stay in Wyoming, as well as a move away from the state’s reliance on the mineral industry for 70 percent of public revenue. In part, Mead said, that would mean reforming the state’s tax code — an effort he noted had failed to move ahead during this legislative session, as all major tax proposals died in the first week.

As for when the Legislature will finish its work this year, Mead said he was not sure.

“Some days we seem like we get a little closer and some days it seems like we get a little further apart,” Mead said.

Natrona County High students gather to show solidarity with shooting victims

More than 100 Natrona County High students walked out of class and gathered on the school’s football field Wednesday morning to show solidarity with the victims of mass shootings in the wake of a deadly attack at a Florida high school.

The demonstration lasted for 1,606 seconds, representing the number of mass shootings in the United States since the December 2012 attack at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. Student leaders, organized under the banner of the Casper Youth for Change, spoke for the first half of the walkout and then told the crowd to spend the rest of the time reflecting on the attacks.

The organizers, led by senior Hunter Bullard, have stressed that the walkout is not meant to signal a political stance for or against gun control. She and other speakers spoke more about the political moment in which high school students, led by the survivors in Florida, have been thrust into.

“Today, as we take one of the challenges of security and remembrance, let us always remember that nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood,” senior Kevin Milburn told the crowd, which sat on the corner of the school’s field. “Now is the time to understand more, so we may fear less.”

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear,” he continued.

After him came Bullard, who thanked her fellow organizers, as well as the school’s administration and law enforcement.

As she would several times in her speech, she pulled a quote from history.

“It was Thomas Paine who said, ‘If there is trouble, let it be in my day, that my children may have peace,’” she said. “I imagine all of you out here today know just what the trouble is.”

She reminded the crowd of Wednesday’s significance: It was three weeks to the day that a gunman walked into a Florida high school and murdered 17 people. The massacre has set off a political debate about guns and their role in American society. Nationally and in Natrona County, educators have discussed whether to arm willing staff members as a means of protecting schools.

Bullard noted that Wyoming schools — or the state in general — had not “lived through” a mass shooting.

“The truth is I pray we never have to,” she said. “ ... Because of that, we don’t understand tragedy, such as the ones that are sweeping the nation and we are much less likely to act.”

Bullard asked for a moment of silence 14 minutes into the walkout, or after 840 seconds that represented 840 mass shootings.

The Casper Youth for Change’s leaders have shied away from taking political positions, particularly on gun control. But they’ve suggested some changes within the district: Bullard called on students to engage with their classmates, especially those who are struggling. She outline the group’s calls for action, which include more emphasis on bullying prevention and mental health intervention.

As Bullard spoke, Milburn leaned a small American flag on his shoulder. Other students carried signs.

Senior Catherine O’Connor held a cardboard sign that read “never again,” a slogan adopted by student activists. She capitalized the N, R and A in her sign, an apparent reference to the National Rifle Association. The pro-gun organization has received intense criticism in the wake of the Parkland massacre.

“I feel like this is one opportunity we have to make a difference,” she said.

“I want to see a change in the control of guns,” added senior Michael Gehred, who stood next to O’Connor and carried his own cardboard sign. He said gun restrictions should be tighter for people with mental health problems.

Sophomore Tanner Ewalt said the Casper Youth for Change were planning other actions, including a potential walkout on April 20, which is the 19th anniversary of the Columbine shootings.

Bullard finished her remarks by quoting Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” a song released in 1988. At that time, the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history was the 1984 attack at a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, California, which left 21 dead. That mark has since been surpassed six times. Five of those attacks have occurred during the lifetime of Bullard and her classmates.

She asked her classmates to reflect on the victims of gun violence and to consider what they can do to protect their school.

“If you want to make the world a better place,” Bullard recited, “take a look at yourself and make a change.”

Medicaid work requirement bill dies in Wyoming House

A bill that would have instituted a work requirement for some Wyoming Medicaid recipients died Tuesday in the House.

The bill sailed through the Senate before arriving in the House last week. An identical measure previously proposed in the House swiftly died in mid-February. On Tuesday, the House’s labor committee failed to move the Senate version forward, with four representatives voting for and against the amendment. A ninth lawmaker, Rep. Scott Clem, was absent.

The measure would’ve required up to 3,500 Wyoming Medicaid recipients to participate weekly in work, schooling or volunteer programs. Its Senate sponsor, Sen. Larry Hicks, said it was aimed at able-bodied adults who were capable of working.

But critics of the bill, including the Wyoming Hospital Association, said it was targeting impoverished single mothers. Dr. Andy Dunn, who runs Wyoming Medical Center’s primary care clinics, called work requirements “disgusting” and said they stereotyped Medicaid recipients.

The debate over the work requirements tended to lead to Medicaid expansion, a move that the Wyoming Legislature has repeatedly and overwhelmingly rejected. Eric Boley, the president of the hospital association, said work requirements made more sense in states that had expanded the program and thus had more able-bodied adults enrolled.

But in Wyoming, the bar to qualify for Medicaid is higher. Sen. Chris Rothfuss, a Laramie Democrat who voted against the bill as it moved through the Senate, told his fellow lawmakers that the people who would be affected by the work requirements earn less than 56 percent of the federal poverty line.

He said those people would likely already be looking for jobs while also raising children. He also tried to steer the debate back toward Medicaid expansion but, as his time wound down, was shut down by Senate President Eli Bebout.

Sen. Charles Scott, a Casper Republican and supporter of the bill, said the bill would have targeted and helped the very people Rothfuss mentioned.

Wyoming Republican Party
Police investigating alleged assault between two Wyoming GOP officials

CHEYENNE — The Cheyenne Police Department is investigating an alleged assault that took place Feb. 23 between the Wyoming Republican Party executive director and party secretary.

Details of the incident that occurred at the Wyoming Republican Party’s Lincoln Day Legislator Appreciation Dinner could not be released pending further investigation, said Public Information Officer Kevin Malatesta.

Malatesta said that police did not respond to the incident but that within the last week an individual filed a report with the police.

The Wyoming Republican Party released more information Wednesday about the alleged altercation between party secretary Charles Curley and party executive director Kristi Wallin that took place in late February.

“Immediately after receiving a complaint by WYGOP Executive Director Kristi Wallin, several executive members of the party were notified,” according to a party press release. “Eyewitnesses were identified and interviewed.”

Party Chairman W. Frank Eathorne said in a statement: “State party executive members took immediate action upon receiving the complaint of a dispute. Then, steps were taken to effectively eliminate further contact between the involved parties.”

While Eathorne confirmed Tuesday that an incident had occurred between Wallin and Curley, he said he could not release more information due to libel laws. Both Wallin and Curley declined to comment earlier this week.

Man arrested after allegedly breaking into Wyoming governor's residence

A man faces charges after police say he broke into the Wyoming governor’s residence and set off a fire alarm.

Antoine Lewis entered the Cheyenne home of Gov. Matt Mead around 1:30 a.m. Tuesday and activated the fire alarm before hiding inside the house, according to a press release from the Wyoming Highway Patrol.

Responding officers found Lewis inside the building and took him into custody.

Mead was in the house at the time but neither he nor his family were harmed, he said.

“When something like this happens, I am reminded how thankful I am Wyoming has great first responders,” the governor wrote in an emailed statement.

Lewis was booked into the Laramie County Detention Facility. The Highway Patrol said he will be charged with aggravated burglary and criminal entry.

The Highway Patrol is responsible for Mead’s personal security detail. Cheyenne police and firefighters also responded to the incident, and the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation is assisting in the investigation.

A highway patrol spokesman on Wednesday declined to comment on whether Lewis was armed during the incident, citing the ongoing nature of the criminal investigation. In Wyoming, aggravated burglary is reserved for cases in which the suspect is armed with a weapon, “knowingly or recklessly inflicts bodily injury” on anyone or attempts to injure someone.