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Federal
Wyoming delegation touts new tax plan amid widespread doubts

WASHINGTON — It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity to fix a tax code that stifles business investment, keeps trillions in corporate profits languishing overseas and slows the American economy.

So argue Republicans in Congress, who hail their tax overhaul as an economic tonic that will deliver benefits to ordinary Americans well into the future.

“This legislation includes meaningful changes that will help individuals and families struggling to move up the economic ladder,” Wyoming U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, a Republican, said in a statement after the bill passed Tuesday night.

The Cowboy State’s all-Republican Congressional delegation cheered the tax plan’s approval this week.

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.

“Allowing Wyoming families and businesses to keep more of their hard-earned money will encourage additional investment in our economy and help our local businesses expand, generating economic growth and creating new jobs for Wyoming,” Rep. Liz Cheney said in a statement.

Cheney specifically touted an increased standard deduction and child tax credit as well as the plan’s doubling of the estate tax exemptions.

“This bill will encourage businesses to invest in the United States, creating jobs and economic growth,” Cheney said.

Critics skeptical

Democrats and most nonpartisan analysts view things rather differently — and they point to history to argue their case. They see the tax plan as an ill-conceived bill that will further enrich the wealthy and swell the government’s debts by at least $1 trillion in the next decade. Previous tax cuts, they note, have done little to boost hiring, raise wages or accelerate economic growth.

Either way, President Donald Trump is prepared this week to sign the measure into law, to take effect in 2018, after the House and Senate each passed it Wednesday. The bill — approved without a single Democratic vote in Congress — will mark the most far-reaching rewrite of tax law since 1986.

Over the weekend, Trump spoke expansively about the economic bounty he said the bill would unleash. Noting that the American economy grew at an annual rate of at least 3 percent in each of the past two quarters, Trump predicted that “we could go to 4, 5, or even 6 percent, ultimately.... We are really going to start to rock.”

The administration’s official forecasts are more restrained. The Treasury Department and the White House budget office predict that the tax bill and other policy steps will support average annual growth of 2.9 percent from 2018-2027. That estimate adds about 1 percentage point to the average annual growth the Congressional Budget Office had forecast before any policy changes.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, has helped shepherd the bill through the Senate as the fourth-ranking member of that chamber.

“I have always believed the best way for Washington to give Americans the most value for their money is to let them keep it at home,” Barrasso said in a statement. “This bill does that, while making American businesses more competitive and unleashing the full potential of our economy.”

Nonpartisan observers expect the bill to deliver far less. The University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Wharton Budget Model says it will increase growth by no more than 0.12 percentage point a year from 2018 to 2027— and swell the federal debt by at least $1.9 trillion in that time.

Broad plan

The plan is nothing if not ambitious.

It permanently slashes the corporate tax rate to 21 percent from 35 percent. It imposes a low one-time tax on companies’ overseas earnings, nudging them to return money they’ve stashed abroad. It provides a windfall to people who pay the personal tax on business earnings. It will narrow and eventually end the tax on wealthy estates. And it will slash individual tax rates — but allow those cuts to expire in 2026.

If Congress allows the cuts to expire as scheduled, 95 percent of Wyoming taxpayers will pay more in 2027 than they do today, according to an analysis by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

The plan reflects the economic philosophy that has dominated the Republican Party since the presidency of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s: That cutting taxes and regulations and shrinking government will spur businesses to invest — in factories, equipment, software, people — and thereby energize the American economy. The benefits of a tax windfall to corporations and the wealthy will trickle down, in time, to ordinary Americans.

Kevin Hassett, chairman of Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers, has asserted that the corporate tax cuts alone will end up swelling the average household’s income by at least $4,000 a year.

And Republicans say the economy could use a lift. Its growth from 2010 to 2016 has clocked in at annual average pace of 2.1 percent a year, unimpressive compared with the 3.2 percent average growth from 1948 through 2016.

Like European countries and Japan, the U.S. economy has been slowed by a slump in worker productivity. Productivity — worker output per hour — slogged ahead at an average annual rate of just 0.6 percent from 2011 to 2016, a fraction of the post-World War II average of 2.1 percent.

The more productive workers are, the more employers can afford to pay them. So productivity gains are vital to rising wages and living standards.

One way companies can make workers more productive is to invest in technology to make them more efficient. But in the 8.5 years since the Great Recession officially ended, businesses have been slower to invest than they were during previous long expansions.

‘Short term’ good

The Republican tax plan, its architects say, could accelerate such investment. Besides slashing corporate tax rates, the bill lets companies immediately write off the full cost of new equipment.

“It would be good in the short term,” said Sung Won Sohn, economics professor at California State University-Channel Islands. “Corporate cash flow would improve, helping investments. Businesses would be spending money and then hiring people.”

But economists caution that the gains will likely be modest in the long run. Companies already hold nearly $2.4 trillion in cash. And they can still borrow at historically low rates. So if they want to invest more, they can already do so.

“It’s not like they’re dying for extra cash,” says Joseph Song, senior economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

Some smaller companies might invest some portion of their tax windfall. But large companies make their capital spending plans years in advance and aren’t likely to make major changes, Song says.

What’s more, most previous tax cuts have produced minimal economic gains. Wages actually fell, for example, after corporate rates were cut in the 1986 tax reform plan. And a one-time cut in the tax on overseas corporate profits in 2004 did little to boost investment or hiring.

Then there’s the timing of the 2017 tax plan. The economy is nearly nine years into its recovery. Significant gains at this point would be unusual. The unemployment rate has reached a 17-year low of 4.1 percent.

“Adding additional stimulus at this point, you run the risk of running the economy a little too hot,” Song said.


Football
UW Football
Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen to start in Potato Bowl after two-game absence

BOISE, Idaho — Josh Allen will play another game as a Wyoming Cowboy.

The junior quarterback will start in Friday’s Famous Idaho Potato Bowl between the Cowboys and Central Michigan, Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl announced Wednesday at the teams’ Potato Bowl news conference.

“Josh and I had a long talk, and Josh is ready to play and start in this football game,” Bohl said. “He’s had several great practices, and so he’s in position to be 100 percent.”

Allen suffered a shoulder injury Nov. 11 at Air Force and missed Wyoming’s final two games of the regular season, which the Cowboys lost. Wyoming is 7-3 in Allen’s starts this season.

Bohl has said he does not expect Allen, a projected first-round NFL Draft pick, to return in 2018, though Allen has yet to declare he is leaving.

Allen jokingly said he knew that his shoulder would be ready for the game when he competed in the team’s bowling outing Monday.

“No, it’s feeling good,” Allen said. “It’s been progressively getting better, and it’s now to a point where I feel like I’m making all the throws I normally would without any pain. So, talking to Coach Bohl, I think it’s best-suited for this team if I were to go ahead and start this game.

“I said it from day one from this injury, I want to be back on the field as soon as possible. It took a little longer than expected, but I’m just glad to be able to go back out there for one more time at least.”

Allen has thrown for 1,658 yards this season on 141-of-251 passing (56.2 percent) with 13 touchdown passes and six interceptions. In two starts, backup Nick Smith completed 37-of-69 passes (53.6 percent) for 402 yards, two passing touchdowns and two interceptions. Wyoming lost its two games without Allen, 13-7 to Fresno State and 20-17 at San Jose State.

Allen dressed for both those games but only warmed up before the San Jose State game. Bohl said Allen would have only been available in that game in an emergency capacity.

“I’m not rusty at all,” Allen said. “It’s like riding a bike, I guess. I might be a little out of shape. There’s a couple times I’ve taken off on a few runs in practice and getting back to the huddle, I’ve got to tell the guys I’ve got to wait a few seconds before I can say the next play. But that’s about it.”

Allen has said since the San Jose State game that he would like to play in the bowl game if his injury, which his mother said on Facebook was an AC sprain, was 100 percent healed. At Wyoming’s media day last week, he said he was in the 90th percentile.

Allen was voted the Mountain West’s 2017 preseason offensive player of the year, following a breakout redshirt sophomore season in which he led Wyoming to a Mountain Division championship and an appearance in the Poinsettia Bowl. The Cowboys had won two games the season before, when Allen played just three drives.

“As far as his contribution, Josh is uniquely gifted,” Bohl said. “He can do a lot of special things. For me, I’ve coached 35 years, and very few times have I seen quarterbacks be able to do some of the things he does.

“But the X-factor that maybe some of the people in the media have seen, but I’ve certainly lived it, is just his competitive nature. And that spills out to our entire football team.”

Allen reaffirmed that he never gave consideration to skipping the bowl game solely to protect his NFL Draft status, something that has become more common in recent years among players in lesser bowls projected to be drafted early.

“I know every young man makes decisions for where they’re at in their life,” Bohl said. “I think Josh’s decision to play his final game coming off an injury is what college football’s about. And some of these guys that make their decisions on choosing not to finish off their career — I’m sure maybe my paths will cross a guy like that — it would be pretty hard for me to understand that.

“And I can tell you this, I’ve had extended conversations with a lot of general managers, and they’ve all wanted to know about Josh’s will to win, his competitive nature, and he’s a 10 out of a 10.

“So we’re excited about having him back, and he will make a profound difference on our football team. Obviously, he’s a playmaker, and a quarterback can have a lot of impact on that. But his competitive nature is going to be a great, great addition.”

The Cowboys (7-5 overall, 5-3 Mountain West) and Chippewas (8-4 overall, 6-2 Mid-American Conference) kick off at 2 p.m. Friday at Albertsons Stadium.


Govt-and-politics
top story
Wyoming loses over 6,500 residents since start of energy bust -- largest drop since 1989

Wyoming’s population has dropped for the second consecutive year, according to data released by the state’s Economic Analysis Division on Wednesday. In total, the state has lost 6,649 residents since the energy bust began in 2015.

The Cowboy State lost 5,595 residents between July 2016 and July 2017, a 1 percent drop. That is the largest decline in Wyoming since 1989 and well below neighboring states like Idaho, which experienced the largest population increase in the nation last year at 2.2 percent.

The fortunes of neighboring states like Idaho and Colorado, which has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, have a strong impact on whether people stay in or leave, according to Wenlin Liu, chief economist at the Economic Analysis Division. A worker in Wyoming is more likely to pack up and move to those two states, for example, than across the country.

In all, 8,300 more people left Wyoming than moved to the state over the last year, but new births meant that the total loss of population was less than that.

Wyoming’s roughly 4 percent unemployment rate is currently in line with the national average, and the mining industry has improved somewhat over the last 12 months.

But Liu said that with the national economy experiencing its eighth straight year of growth — and Wyoming’s economy yet to recover from the recent bust — it is unclear if the out migration will end soon.

The loss of residents has one benefit for workers examining the state: average weekly hours and wages are up as employers work to retain and attract labor. The labor pool has contracted at an even faster rate that the population has dropped, Liu said.

Wyoming had about 8,000 fewer workers in October of this year than in 2016, a decline of about 3 percent.

“Many people left and also many older workers left the labor force and retired and that created some opportunities for workers,” Liu said.

The population declines of the last two years still pale in comparison to the last major energy bust in the 1980s when Wyoming lost nearly 57,000 residents over seven years.

Liu said that population decline halted in the early 1990s due in large part to a national recession that hit states like California especially hard and sent migrants to Wyoming in search of work.

Now it’s not economic woes, but success, that might halt the population bleeding in the Cowboy State. As Colorado’s economy booms along the Front Range, many residents are tiring of the traffic and rising housing costs.

A Denver Post report earlier this month noted that the number of Coloradans leaving the state hit a seven-year high, with 30,000 departing.

“Since Colorado always has the most population exchange with Wyoming, the fact above will probably benefit Wyoming’s migration trend,” Liu wrote in an email.


Casper
Conference center group plans to keep working after Casper leaders sell buildings to local entrepreneurs

After a contentious, three-hour public hearing last Tuesday night, the Casper City Council approved selling two city-owned buildings to local entrepreneurs hoping to bring new apartments and an apparel store to downtown.

City Council was split on the decision, with five members voting to sell the buildings and three voting against.

Shortly after the city received the bids in October, a conference center consortium urged Council to reject the bids because a study revealed the land in question was the best spot to potentially develop a roughly $70 million hotel and conference center.

The buildings, which are located on Ash Street north of Midwest Avenue, include the former Ka-Lark’s gymnastics studio and the former Milo’s Toyota body shop.

After struggling with the decision for a few weeks, Council decided to hold a hearing to let local residents voice their views. City Council chambers were full Tuesday night, with 18 people speaking in favor of accepting the bids, and 3 speaking against selling the properties.

***

The Downtown Development Authority’s CEO, Kevin Hawley, urged council to have faith in the consortium’s vision for Casper.

The group includes representatives from the Downtown Development Authority, Casper Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Amoco Reuse Agreement Joint Powers Board and the Economic Development Joint Powers Board/Forward Casper.

While developing a hotel and conference center may sound overly ambitious, Hawley said the David Street Station — a public downtown plaza — was also a controversial project prior to its construction.

“Everything we said we were going to do with the David Street Station, we’ve done,” he said.

Given that the plaza recently opened and is not yet complete, the CEO also explained that it’s difficult to currently determine the value of the Ash Street buildings, which are located nearby.

But the majority of those who spoke Tuesday night encouraged Council to accept the bids.

Doing so would send a message that the city supports the “energy and creativity” of local entrepreneurs, said William Conte, a professor at Casper College who attended the hearing with about a dozen of his students.

Others expressed concerns that the large facility would negatively alter the landscape, dramatically increase downtown’s traffic and take away needed business from other local hotels.

Multiple speakers said they supported the idea of developing a hotel and conference center, but felt the group should pick another location because they want the historic Ash Street buildings to be preserved.

The consortium also analyzed two other potential sites, including a Platte River Commons property and an area just west of the downtown core owned by Casper Redevelopment Corporation and the Natrona County Public Library Foundation. A study concluded that these locations were less desirable because they are further away from the city’s center and would therefore generate less foot traffic downtown.

***

After listening to residents, Councilman Bob Hopkins said he firmly supported accepting the bids. The consortium told Council at a Dec. 12 meeting that they could present a concrete financial plan in six months, but Hopkins wasn’t convinced.

“The idea of having numbers together in six months is a myth,” he said Tuesday.

Councilman Shawn Johnson, who pointed out at a meeting earlier this month that previous plans for a hotel and conference center never panned out, said Tuesday that he agreed with Hopkins.

Although he stated that the conference center sounded like a long shot, Councilman Charlie Powell said he was still voting to reject the bids because the facility could have a huge impact on Casper.

“I don’t want to take any action that reduces the likelihood of having that facility built,” he said.

Explaining that the request for proposal process was “flawed,” Vice Mayor Ray Pacheco said he was also rejecting the bids.

“There are many unknowns,” he said.

Ultimately, Mayor Kenyne Humphrey and council members Dallas Laird, Shawn Johnson, Bob Hopkins and Chris Walsh voted to approve the bids. Vice Mayor Ray Pacheco and councilmen Jesse Morgan and Charlie Powell voted against them. Council member Amanda Huckabay was absent.

“I didn’t feel we were going to get it, so yeah, it’s a surprise,” said David Kelley, who won the bid for the former body shop. The owner of Ashby Construction intends to use the building as office space for his own business and will then build three buildings next to it to rent out as apartments.

Scott Cotton, a co-owner of 1890 Inc., won the bid for the former gymnastic studio. Cotton previously explained that his custom apparel store needs a larger space to meet customer demands.

The buildings were part of the Plains Furniture property block, which also included a former livery stable that has not yet received a bid. City officials purchased the properties in early 2016 with no exact plans for their use.

Brandon Daigle, the chairman of the Downtown Development Authority, confirmed Wednesday that the consortium will continue on with their plans to bring a conference center to Casper using one of the other potential sites.


Josh Galemore, Casper Star-Tribune 

A pickup truck drives up North Robertson Road as winds reaching up to 40 mph blow snow across the road in early December.