Merry Christmas! Hope everyone is enjoying the day in Wyoming or perhaps somewhere warmer. We aren’t printing a newspaper today, resurrecting an old tradition to give our press operators and delivery drivers time with their families. But the news doesn’t sleep. If you missed it, the federal tax plan passed and we have a comprehensive timeline of our coverage here and an explanation of how Wyoming’s U.S. Sen. John Barrasso shouldn’t have been put on the list of “Corker kickback” beneficiaries here. Also, State House Speaker Steve Harshman may run for governor, Wyoming’s population keeps dropping and state officials are worried that money will run out to provide health care for poor children.
Oh, and perhaps relevant over the holidays, WYDOT would like you to please stop driving into their snowplows.
Now for the news...
Does the GOP tax plan embrace Wyoming’s history?
Two things are true about the GOP tax plan signed into law last week after being passed with the enthusiastic support of Wyoming’s Republican U.S. Sens. John Barrasso and Mike Enzi (Rep. Liz Cheney was a fan too):
- It will give most Americans a tax cut;
- It disproportionately benefits the phenomenally wealthy and large corporations and sends the nation further in debt to do so.
Whether this represents class warfare or simply the rollback of burdensome and unfair taxation is in the eye of the beholder. But there’s certainly a way of reading the plan as reflecting a uniquely Wyoming brand of what society ought to look like.
Barrasso was born in Pennsylvania. Cheney was born in Wisconsin. Enzi was born in Washington.
Since statehood, Wyoming’s population has never been more than 50 percent native born. People have come for money, mostly. Or maybe that isn’t generous enough. People come for a freedom of sorts. In any case, they come and they adopt a Wyoming mindset.
“We like to claim the West is a place where you can have a shot at being what you want to be. You can come to terms with yourself. Freedom, in a livable community, is supposed to be the point of things," is how western writer Bill Kittredge puts it. "It’s our prime mythology, and it sort of works out, more so if you’re white and have some money.”
In that conception of the American West, federal taxation has little place. Social services, too, are gratuitous. We’ll take care of ourselves. Whether you celebrate this attitude as a point of pride or look at it askance, it's a mythology that runs deep. But despite nearly four decades of uninterrupted Republican control of Wyoming’s federal offices and longstanding opposition to progressive taxation, some historians push back on the idea that the Cowboy State has always embraced a laissez-faire attitude toward corporations and the rich.
Author Sam Western said Wyoming’s constitution, ratified in the late nineteenth century, was part of a series of so-called Gilded Age Constitutions across several western states that enshrined progressive ideals that stood in opposition to the era’s soaring inequality. He cited not only women’s suffrage but also a ban on debtor’s prison, state control of corporations meant to combat the influence of railroad interests and public control of water resources -- a radical move for the time.
Western said that through the 1970s the state was largely dependent on the whims of natural resource commodity prices but that when things were good they were pretty good for everyone.
“Poor and wealthy all benefited,” he said. “And then the world got more complex.”
University of Wyoming history professor Phil Roberts largely agrees.
“I think it’s a misnomer to say that we’re constantly anti-progressive,” Roberts said. “The changes came in the 1970s with the demise of the labor unions and ... then that big boom in population that brought in people from all over the country.”
Roberts notes that while it wouldn’t come to pass until the 1960s, a severance tax was considered as far back as the constitutional convention and that an income tax came close to passing in the 1920s. Even after Republicans took control of the state’s Congressional delegation, they didn’t necessarily promote the policies of Barrasso, Cheney and Enzi, which Roberts said seem largely influenced by national GOP politics.
“Malcolm Wallop and Al Simpson I don't think would fit in very well with the current crop of U.S. Senators in Washington in the Republican Party,” he said. “I just don't think they would be that extreme.”
Barrasso turns to immigration
After tax reform passed Wednesday, Barrasso pivoted to discussing immigration reform on Fox News. He was asked about whether the Senate would take action on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, also known as DACA, and said that Congress would address it before the program expires in March.
Renewing DACA is a priority for Democrats and is widely popular with Americans, though Barrasso as well as Enzi and Cheney both oppose the program on the basis that President Barack Obama overstepped his bounds in creating it. The program allows individuals who were brought to the United States illegally as children to work and live in the country legally.
“There are discussions,” Barrasso said. “But for me, I’m going to focus on border security, enforcement and ending chain migration.”
“He meant the process by which immigrants come to the United States and bring their family members, who in turn sponsor more family members, who then become eligible to sponsor even more family members,” spokeswoman Laura Mengelkamp clarified in an email.
This has become a recent talking point for the Trump White House, which has argued the United States should emphasize merit rather than random chance in its visa lottery.
The White House tweeted a graphic last week that purported to show how a single legal immigrant “has the potential to bring over” 120 relatives.
But Dalia Pedro of the Immigration Alliance of Casper said that concern over “chain migration” misunderstands the immigration process. While permanent residents can sponsor immediate family members, like a spouse or parents, it is primarily citizens who successfully bring over family members. It takes roughly 10 years from the time an immigrant secures a visa until he or she becomes a citizen and would take up to an additional 20 years for any sponsored relatives who secured visas to start sponsoring more relatives.
Using that math, it could take nearly a century for the White House graphic to become a reality and that’s assuming that each sponsored relative had three more eligible immediate family members to sponsor.
Mostly, Pedro was confused why Barrasso had pivoted to that aspect of immigration policy.
“His focus is completely off from what the current immigration conversation is,” Pedro said. “Right now it's not about whether we should change the way we sponsor individuals it's about how do we deal with the DACA issue and how do we deal with undocumented population that's in the country and in Wyoming?”
Cheney on net neutrality
Sorry for the federally-focused package this week, but we’re in a bit of a watch-and-wait with the Legislature right now. Meanwhile, Congress is handling lots of hot button issues including net neutrality. Earlier this month, the Federal Communications Commission repealed Obama-era rules barring internet service providers from discriminating against different websites, slowing down traffic for some and speeding it up for others.
This is an issue that technology companies are passionate about because they fear repealing the rules may limit the internet's dynamism while internet service providers have been lobbying to repeal the rules, sensing an opportunity to make more money.
As streaming websites like Netflix become more popular and bandwidth-intensive sites featuring video and photos become the norm, companies are worried that internet providers will force them to pay for the right to stream video or that they will slow down some websites and speed up others. This is especially concerning as some providers have started purchasing media companies, potentially creating a scenario in which an internet provider allows fast access to its own video website while slowing down access to a competitor’s site.
For small technology companies, there is a fear that they won’t be able to pay providers enough to transmit content to consumers at fast speeds.
Basically, net neutrality represented the FCC treating the internet as a utility like electricity. Advocates argued this was appropriate because the internet is an essential service and one that is often only accessible through a single, monopolistic provider.
(If electric companies were similarly unregulated, Black Hills Power could, for example, start selling its own line of refrigerators and then charge Casper consumers twice as power to power a non-BHP fridge.)
Cheney weighed in on the issue on her website, arguing that because the internet worked just fine before 2015 when the Obama-era FCC implemented the net neutrality rules it will work just fine now.
“The FCC decision will protect Internet consumers/users while also ensuring there is a framework to encourage the kind of innovation we need,” she wrote.
FOREIGN TOURISTS SHOULD PAY MORE -- C.J. Baker argues in the Powell Tribune that while the National Park Service plan to raise park entry fees is a bad idea, international tourists could pay a higher rate. A University of Montana study found that almost three-quarters of foreign countries charge non-citizens a higher rate at their national parks. Cheney is apparently open to the idea.
-- “The idea is not a panacea: Foreigners make up only a small percentage of the visits to Yellowstone National Park, so it’s silly to think that they can be called upon to pay all the bills. But, given the backlog of maintenance projects within our national parks, every dollar helps,” Baker wrote.
The Park Service is considering raising the cost of a seven-day pass for Yellowstone or Grand Teton from $30 to $70.
OPERATIONS BREAKS OFF -- The Wyoming Department of Construction wants to add a third division to its current two: school facilities and construction management, which are prescribed by state law. The Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s Joel Funk reports that the department wants an “operations” division.
-- “This will provide flexibility, and the effective and efficient use of our agency resources” director Del McOmie told lawmakers last week.
STUDENT’S-EYE VIEW -- The Torrington Telegram ran a two-part series by intern Kassidy McClun “looking at cuts to funding ... from a student’s perspective.” McClun snagged an interview with Gov. Matt Mead earlier this month
-- “It is likely that some electives will be cut as they are being challenged with the budget situation,” Mead told McClun, citing classes like fine arts, foreign language, and career-vocational courses.
CHENEY ON RUSSIA: ‘THIS IS A WAR’ -- Cheney told a group in Cody that Russia continued to pose a serious threat to American interests. “You know,” she told the audience, “this is a war.” But she hedged on how useful the ongoing Congressional and FBI investigations into Russian interference in last year’s presidential election are.
-- “There’s just this real political circus mentality around a lot of investigations — some of which are good and should be happening and some are just political and we ought to move on,” Cheney said.
SHE ALSO LASHES OUT AT SENATE -- U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, tweeted a video of a lunatic jumping around an interstate last week with the comment, “$5 says this guy is a member of the House.” Cheney clapped back with a slightly more pointed comment.
-- “This is funny @BenSasse, but this is definitely a member of the U.S. Senate protesting being asked to pass a bill...any bill,” Cheney tweeted.
CUTS BACKFIRE -- Cutting substance abuse treatment programs for prisoners saved the state $4.5 million last year, but now the Department of Corrections is telling lawmakers that the move has cost the state $4.6 million as recidivism rates go up, according to WyoFile’s Andrew Graham.